Classic MT: Space Race Started With a Cosmic Blunder

In the lead-up to The Moscow Times’ 25th anniversary, we are republishing a number of exceptional articles from our extensive archive, selected by current or former staff.

This article was first published on Oct. 1, 2007, and has not been redacted in any way.


Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union woke up to the space age with a propaganda blunder.

On Oct. 5, 1957, the main headline on Pravda’s front page said the country should prepare for winter. The real news of the day, however, was somewhat clumsily placed at the right margin. Under the headline “Notice from Tass,” the state news agency explained in its trademark dull style that the Earth’s first artificial satellite, called Sputnik, or “travel companion,” had been launched a day earlier.

While the Politburo was unusually silent about the achievement, a steady beep-beep emitted from the orbiting Sputnik was widely picked up by amateur radio operators and sent shockwaves through the world. U.S. media were caught up in a Sputnik frenzy, with The New York Times plastering its Oct. 5 front page with the headline “Soviet Fires Earth Satellite Into Space.”

Dubbed the Sputnik Shock, the event heralded the beginning of the space race. The West feared that if Moscow could launch objects into space, it might soon be capable of sending nuclear bombs in their direction as well.

The Kremlin, however, missed a big propaganda opportunity. “We did not expect this reaction at all,” Sputnik rocket scientist Boris Chertok told reporters Friday. “Neither we, nor our media first grasped the historical significance of our feat.”

Chertok, still spry at 95, worked in a group of engineers headed by Sergei Korolyov, a former gulag prisoner who became Sputnik’s remarkable chief designer and is still revered as the visionary who started the space age.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered Korolyov to speed up the pace for launching a satellite in the summer of 1957, fearing the United States would launch one first.

The Soviet scientists decided to abandon work on a 1,000-kilogram satellite for the more humble Sputnik, a 58-centimeter-wide alloy sphere weighing just 83.6 kilograms.

“We regarded it as Korolyov’s little toy — a no-brainer,” Chertok said, speaking in the Korolyov Museum, located in the engineer’s former home near Moscow’s Monument to the Conquerors of Space. “We believed this would mainly interest us scientists and our students.”

Sputnik’s comparatively large dimensions baffled Western scientists at the time. “When we learned about its weight, we thought that a decimal had been mistakenly moved because the Americans were expected to launch an 8-kilogram satellite,” said Harro Zimmer, a German space expert who worked in Berlin’s Wilhelm-Foerster Observatory at the time.

Zimmer, who has written extensively about space flight, said the Soviet Union built bigger satellites because they also had constructed a much bigger rocket, the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. This was actually a consequence of a gap in weapons technology, he said. “They could not construct small warheads like the Americans.”