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Fifty Years Ago, Sputnik Launched Space Age

Fifty years ago this week, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into space. On the anniversary of the turning point in space exploration, a NASA historian and a science reporter assess the impact and legacy of the world's first satellite.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    October 4, 1957, the beginning of the space age and the start of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The decade-long contest was sparked by a shiny aluminum satellite measuring just 23 inches in diameter and weighing 184 pounds. Its name, Sputnik, means "fellow traveler." For 92 days, it orbited the Earth once every 96 minutes, traveling 18,000 miles per hour.

    Its beeping signals were picked up back on Earth by amateur radios. And from the ground, it looked like a bright light crossing the night sky. Marine aviator, soon-to-be astronaut, John Glenn reacted to the news.

    JOHN GLENN, Astronaut and U.S. Senator: This is really quite an advancement for not only the Russians, but for international science. I think we all agree on that. It's the first time anybody has ever been able to get anything out that far in space and keep it there for any length of time.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Coming while the Cold War got even chillier, the launch unnerved many Americans.

  • AMERICAN CITIZEN:

    It's frightening. We should find out what they're doing that we're not doing, and we should do something about it very quickly.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. had been working independently to launch a satellite. Americans assumed theirs would be first. In a 1997 NewsHour interview, Sergei Khrushchev, son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, remembered his native country's triumph.

    SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV, Son of Former Soviet Premier: It was official and unofficial competition between our two countries. And the United States all the time were the technological and technical example for the Soviet Union.

    It was also very pleasant, not only to my father and to the political elite there, but the ordinary people, all this reaction of the West, and especially the shock in United States that they really accepted this. It was first time in history that United States openly accepted that we're ahead of them.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Sputnik was not only a show of Soviet scientific prowess; it was a military challenge. The fear: if the Soviets could send a satellite into space, they could also land ballistic missiles on U.S. soil.

    On November 3rd, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier load and a dog named Laika. The U.S. rushed to send up its own satellite. But in December 1957, in front of a national television audience, the launch of the satellite Vanguard failed.

    Success finally came in January 1958 with Explorer. Later that year, President Dwight Eisenhower called for the creation of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. And Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, providing more money for science programs so American children could compete with their Soviet counterparts.

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