The 4th of October 1957 AD
Just as they later did with putting the first man in space , the Soviet Union beat America to the punch in the race to put a satellite in orbit: on October 4 1957 an adapted missile rocket carried Sputnik, an aluminium sphere about two feet in diameter, into space. As the object orbited the earth every 101 minutes its easily monitored beeping carried an unsaid but clear message to the USA: it had been surpassed in practical space technology. That was a blow to America’s self-image and reputation around the world, a major coup for the Soviets as Gagarin’s spaceflight would be on April 12 1961.
The concept of launching satellites had been under discussion for decades, science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke famously proposing geo-stationary communications satellites as early as 1945. But getting them into space took lengthy development work – indeed America embarrassingly failed publicly with its first two attempts after Sputnik had blazed its trail.
Politically the launch of Sputnik was a seminal moment, after a few weeks of near panic eventually clearing the way for far greater US expenditure in the space race. Harold Macmillan , Prime Minister since January 1957, seized the opportunity to press British wishes for scientific (and political) cooperation with the Americans, recognizing Sputnik as: “Something equivalent to Pearl Harbour.” Eisenhower quickly agreed with him.
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