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How the first U.S. satellite launch became something of an international joke

U.S. astronauts have had to hitch a ride on Russian rockets for the last eight years, because the U.S. doesn’t currently have any human-rated rockets. In the early days of the Space Race, the Soviets dominated space as well.

How the first U.S. satellite launch became something of an international joke
[Images: NASA (Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik 1);Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay (globe); Eidy Bambang-Sunaryo/Unsplash (stars)]

This is the fourth in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day. 

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When the Space Age dawned in 1957, the Soviet Union dominated. They didn’t just dominate, they ruled the heavens, setting one space milestone after another, year after year.

It wasn’t just a triumph for the Russians: It was an ongoing global embarrassment for the United States.

The Soviets created the Space Age with the launch of Sputnik, the first spacecraft of any kind, on October 4, 1957–a satellite a little bigger than a beach ball, with four swept-back antennas, that weighed an improbable 184 pounds.

Sputnik 1 had been surprising, and while all it did was whirl overhead, beep-beep-beeping with a sense of Red Menace, it turned space exploration into a contest.

The Soviet Union’s streak of pioneering missions continued, though, and that shattered Americans’ complacent sense that the United States dominated science, technology, and engineering, an idea that had been firmly established during World War II.

Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. [Photo: U.S. Air Force]
Just 30 days after the shock of Sputnik 1, the Russians launched a spaceship, Sputnik 2, which contained a sealed, climate-controlled cabin in which flew Laika the dog, the first creature launched into space. Sputnik 2 weighed 1,121 pounds, half a ton to ferry a 13-pound mutt. Sputnik 2 had the ability to transmit data about Laika’s vital signs back to Russian scientists, and it also had a TV camera that sent back pictures of her in her cabin as she orbited Earth.

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The Russians launched the first probe that approached the Moon (Luna 1), the first probe to hit the Moon (Luna 2), and gave the world its first glimpse of the Moon’s far side, via Luna 3, which used sophisticated on-board equipment to take pictures, develop the film, digitize the negatives, and then transmit them back to the Soviets–all in 1959. Although the images were taken from 40,000 miles up and were of poor quality, they still caused a worldwide sensation.

First photo of the lunar far side [Image: NASA]
Three months before John F. Kennedy’s election, the Soviets sent two dogs into space, Strelka and Belka, and brought them safely home. Three months after Kennedy became president, the Soviet Union made Yuri Gagarin the world’s first human space traveler.

The feeling that the Russians were far ahead of the Americans was only exacerbated by the less ambitious–and less successful–nature of the U.S. missions that followed similar Russian ones. The first U.S. satellite launch came two months after Sputnik, on December 6, 1957. The U.S. considered it merely a test (the soccer ball-sized satellite weighed six pounds, not even half what Laika had weighed), but no one else did: The launch of Vanguard 1A attracted more than 100 reporters and live TV coverage. But the Vanguard rocket malfunctioned, rising just three feet off its pad before crashing back down, exploding in billows of flame and smoke.

[Photo: U.S. Navy/ NASA on The Commons]
The moment was a global humiliation for the United States; one day later, the New York Times ran nearly a full page of scathing and mocking criticism of the U.S. performance from newspapers around the world. Vanguard was variously labeled “flopnik” and “kaputnik.”

The first U.S. astronaut, Alan Shepard, was launched aboard his Mercury capsule on May 5, 1961. But Gagarin did a full orbit of the Earth, at 18,000 miles an hour, during a flight that lasted 108 minutes and included an hour of weightlessness. Shepard’s pop-fly style flight just barely arced into space, lasted 15 minutes, went only 303 miles into the Atlantic Ocean from Florida, and included five minutes of weightlessness–and came three weeks after Gagarin’s flight.

The global mockery of the U.S. was all in good fun, except that the Cold War wasn’t some kind of good-humored rivalry: It was a deadly geopolitical contest. For years, the Soviets’ performance in space had precisely the impact that it was designed to have–to establish the once-tattered Soviet Union as a formidable technical and engineering power in its own right.

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In 1960, Gallup did a poll in 10 countries, asking the question: “Looking ahead 10 years (to 1970), which country do you think will have the leading position in the field of science?”

Britain voted for the Russians over the Americans, 48% to 17%.

France voted for the Russians, 59% to 18%.

West Germany voted for the Russians, 36% to 29%,

India voted for the Russians, 46% to 8%.

Eight of 10 nations surveyed thought that, come 1970, the Soviet Union would be the world’s leading science nation–and that was before Gagarin’s flight. Americans were confident, voting for themselves 70% to 16%, but beyond that, only the Greeks voted for the United States, 29% to 27%.

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The Russians maintained their lead in the space race for years, launching the first missions with two spaceships simultaneously (1962), a female cosmonaut (1963), and a spacewalk (1965).

They not only enjoyed their dominance but also brought some mocking humor of their own to it. The day that the Vanguard satellite only managed to make it three feet off the launch pad in Florida, the Soviet delegation to the United Nations reminded members of the U.S. delegation that the Soviet Union had a program offering technical assistance to developing nations. Did the U.S. perhaps want to apply?

That story also made the New York Times.


Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the last four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, a book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can pre-order it here.)

For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman–one you’ve likely never heard before–about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).

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About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.

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