October 4th, at Site No. 1, deep in the Russian Wilderness, operators waited to hear something over the radio. At 20:58 hours they heard it. A series of beeps came over the transmitter, they were from space. Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite set in motion, had orbited the planet once. The artificial satellite had been launched as Russia’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year. Korolyov called Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to confirm success. Then the world knew.
The news caused panic throughout the planet. It was seen as evidence that the Soviets were far ahead of the West in their technology. The Americans vowed to put their own satellite into orbit, while the Russians launched their second satellite, Sputnik 2, it was the first to carry a living thing, a dog named Lika. As an aside, at least one woman bought a life insurance policy, sure that the satellite would fall on her head. Another man was worried that its frequencies would open his automatic garage doors.
The Russians had gained world prestige, and, for the moment at least, had regained their seat at the table. Eisenhower formed NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Explorer 1 was launched the next year by the Americans.
The Space Race continued. In 1961 Vostok 1 went up. On it, was cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The Americans had once again lost at achieving a milestone in the race first, and were still far behind.
The same year President Kennedy ordered NASA geared up. Kennedy predicted that a man would walk on the moon by 1970. It was three weeks after Gagarin went up that American Alan Shepherd orbited the earth. Americans were called astronauts, the Greek word for Star Sailors.
In the race there would be the loss of several men in training. There would be experiments and inventions. Plans and counter plans. There were the Gemini missions, in which the men on board the ships wore air tanks and space suits while still in side, afraid of losing their oxygen.
The race continued with the Russians hoping to be the first ones to land a man on the moon. But meanwhile they were exhausting themselves. The arms race and the space race were too much for a communist central planning system short on resources. The premiers were beginning to notice. And they were going to change something, in fact, the changes began even before the Space Race did, and it started with a “Secret Speech.”
Andrew C. Abbott