On October 4, 1957, a Soviet R-7 missile launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, into an orbit 150 miles from the Earth’s surface. For the next three months, the satellite circled the globe at a speed of 18,000 mph. It sent out a steady beep-beep-beep signal for 22 days, until its batteries ran out.
The launch electrified the world. Ham radio operators tuned in to hear its signal. On clear nights, people looked up from their back yards in hopes of seeing the highly-polished metal sphere as it streaked across the sky. Few realized that it was too small to be seen without a telescope.
With Sputnik, the Soviet Union took the lead in space exploration. The Soviet news agency, TASS, trumpeted the launch as a “brilliant victory of Soviet science” and proof of the superiority of the socialist system. Soviet scientists optimistically predicted that it was the first in a series of satellite launches for scientific purposes, perhaps carrying cameras or other equipment. The ambitious nature of the Soviet space program was confirmed on November 3, with the launch of Sputnik 2, which carried a live passenger: the dog Laika.
The Dark Side…
But, there was a dark side to the Soviet success. The Soviet Union’s space program was, in fact, an off-shoot of its efforts to develop a nuclear-tipped, intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM). The R-7 missile used to launch Sputnik was an ICBM. It was first tested on August 21, 1957, when it carried a dummy warhead 3,500 miles. Soviet statements hailed the R-7 as a “super long-distance intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket.” A second test was successfully carried out on September 7. Meanwhile, similar tests in the United States’ ICBM program were ending in spectacular failure.
Alarm bells rang out all over Washington. The satellite launch, coupled with the two successful Soviet ICBM tests, suggested that the Soviet Union was achieving nuclear superiority.
In March 1957—seven months before Sputnik—a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) had warned that the “Soviet guided missile program is extensive and enjoys a very high priority…the USSR has the…resources and capabilities to develop during this period advanced types of guided missile systems in all categories…”
Later that year, a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) predicted that the Soviet Union could have as many as 100 operational ICBMs in three years’ time—and the United States had yet to deploy a single missile. Special efforts were made to gather intelligence: U-2 high altitude reconnaissance flights looked for Soviet ICBM complexes, and on August 10, 1960, CORONA, the first photo-reconnaissance satellite was launched, specifically to monitor Soviet ICBM developments.
In the end, the Soviet lead in the exploration of space faded away. Mobilized and captivated by the success of Sputnik, the United States quickly overcame the Soviet lead. The Soviet Union had further successes and one more spectacular one, when Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human launched into space. But the United States caught up quickly. On July 20, 1969, the United States claimed the final prize, when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon.
The Soviet lead in the arms race likewise faded away. Although it continued to serve as a space launch vehicle, the R-7 proved to be impractical as an ICBM. The United States soon perfected its own ICBM, and from that point on, the nuclear forces of both sides remained roughly balanced until the end of the Cold War.
Find out more on Sputnik by visiting the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room collection:
- CIA, Information Report “Announcement of Earth Satellite Launching at Soviet Embassy Reception on 4 October 1957,” 28 November 1957.
- CIA, Information Report, “Announcement of the Soviet Satellite and Comments on the Satellite and the Soviet Space Program,” 28 November 1957.
- NIE 11-5-57 Soviet Capabilities and Probable Programs in the Guided Missile Field, 12 March 1957.
- SNIE 11-8-57 Evaluation of Evidence Concerning Soviet ICBM Flight Tests, 18 September 1957.
- SNIE 11-10-57 The Soviet ICBM Program 17 December 1957.
 CIA, Information Report “Announcement of Earth satellite Launching at Soviet Embassy Reception on 4 October 1957,” 28 November 1957.
 CIA, Information Report, “Announcement of the Soviet Satellite and Comments on the Satellite and the Soviet Space Program,” 28 November 1957.
 Special National Intelligence Estimate 11-8-57 “Evaluation of Evidence Concerning Soviet ICBM Flight Tests,” 18 September 1957; pp. 1-2.
 NIE 11-5-57 Soviet Capabilities and Probable Programs in the Guided Missile Field, 12 March 1957; p. 2.
 SNIE 11-10-57 The Soviet ICBM Program 17 December 1957; pp. 1-3.