Humanity’s Space Age Officially Turns 65

Sixty-five years ago, sputnik 1 launched into space

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

On October 4, 1957, Earth’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched into space by the USSR. Following this, it took just 12 years for the United States to put a man on the Moon. As the Space Age reaches its 65th year, Wondrium looks at its infancy.

Planet Earth. Spacecraft launch into space.
Of the thousands of satellites that have been launched into space, 75 countries have at least one satellite orbiting Earth. Photo by Paopano / Shutterstock

The USSR shocked the world when it announced that it had launched its first satellite into space: A 23″ silver sphere called Sputnik 1. On October 4, 1957, two related events occurred. First, the human race officially entered the Space Age. For the rest of our history, we would be a species that had reached the stars. Second, the “Space Race” began between the United States and Russia—a fierce competition between two global powers to reach landmark achievements during the Space Age.

The Space Race wasn’t just about scientific achievement, though. It quickly became a symbol of the rivalry between the capitalism of the West and the communism of the Soviet Union. Two nation blocs, two economic systems, two ideologies battled for shows of supremacy, all during the height of the Cold War.

In the October edition of Wondrium’s video series This Day in History, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, expands on the dawn of the Space Age on October 4, 1957.

A Satellite Is Not Always Just a Satellite

“As the Cold War intensified, it became clear that satellites in orbit around the globe could be a powerful tool of information gathering,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Satellites were able to fly above sovereign territory and peer down into it at distances that were far safer than those of spy planes.”

Knowing that the rockets that launched satellites could, in wartime, be used to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the military element of the Space Race was prominent from the beginning. The surprise launch of Sputnik 1 kicked the United States into high gear in hopes of surpassing the USSR.

“The next month, November, the Soviet Union followed by launching the first animal in outer space—the dog Laika, on Sputnik 2,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “After American failures with rockets to match the Soviet feat, Von Braun’s Army team of researchers were now clear to try, and in January 1958, they succeeded with Explorer I.”

The endeavors that resulted in the development of Explorer I were made possible by a sudden infusion of money into the sciences. This new investment of capital was spurred on by the news media’s coverage of Sputnik, the American military’s fervent hopes of capitalizing on the space technology, and the cultural zeitgeist pitting the United States and Soviet Union against each other.

Various Craters

“Incidentally, the drive in this Cold War competition in space led to what really has to be classed among the worst ideas of all time: This was the proposal to nuke the Moon,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “That is, some American planners suggested that a gesture that could show that the Soviets were not the only ones capable of achieving something dramatic might be to send a nuclear missile to the Moon, with its impact point plotted precisely so that there would be a spectacular explosion visible from the Earth.”

Proponents argued that although the scientific merits of nuking Luna would be slim to none, the visuals would truly be spectacular. Some Soviets had the same idea, but, thankfully, the idea was shelved by both competitors of the Space Race. The United States widely publicized the founding of NASA in 1958, hoping to excite the public about American achievements in space.

“Then, the Soviet Union stole the march again, seeming to widen its scientific lead,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “It put the first human being into space, with a launch on April 12, 1961, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was lifted into orbital flight on the Vostok 1, the new orbital spacecraft. After 108 minutes in space, he returned to Earth.”

Within a decade of Gagarin’s flight, humans were walking on the Moon. Since then, international cooperation and collaboration have led to humanity’s advancements in space, leading to new heights of achievement in the Space Age, such as the International Space Station.

This Day in History: October is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily