It was 59 years ago today that the world entered the Space Age. On the desert steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, early in the morning of October 5th (local time October 4th here in the United States) 1957, deep within a missile test range, an R-7 missile took flight. This wouldn’t be a normal flight for the R-7 however. Instead of sending a test warhead to a target downrange, this missile would go up and stay up, at least until atmospheric drag took its toll on it.
This flight would send a metal sphere containing radio transmitters, into orbit around the Earth. This was Sputnik 1. It’s transmitters would only function for a few weeks, and by January of 1958, the satellite had burnt up in the atmosphere.
All it did during its relatively short life was orbit and beep, but the western world was terrified. While some of the fears were just outright paranoia, the fact remained that if you can put a payload into orbit, you can send an atomic weapon nearly anywhere on the Earth.
Sputnik 1 demonstrated that the R-7 could truly deliver a bomb to the United States from the Soviet Union, and spawned the Space Race: a surge in technological advancement that eventually resulted in man walking on the moon, among massive advancement in rocket tech, satellites, and related industries, advancements that you and I take advantage of every single day. It all, at its core, spawned from this moment, and one beeping metal sphere circling the planet.
I would say more about this, but I am holing out for the 60th anniversary to really go all out. For now, I’ll share the Wikipedia article on this simple satellite.