During a recent visit to the Seattle's Museum of Flight, I saw a replica of the first manmade object to punch beyond the Earth's atmosphere. One visitor, who was old enough to remember the shock of that first satellite called Sputnik, recalled how in the nights following October 4, 1957, he and his classmates peered into the sky and saw the first artificial moon in orbit
But according to most experts, he didn't see Sputnik at all. Instead, he was probably looking at the empty shell of an , the massive rocket that delivered Sputnik-1 into orbit. This 30-meter-tall, 280-ton rocket easily dwarfed its 185-pound cargo, making it visible to stargazing Americans below.
The truth is that the Sputnik-1, while a history-maker, was really an afterthought–a minuscule byproduct of the giant effort to build an . But while many museums display replicas of Sputnik, few pay tribute to its rocket. No, a rocket is not easy to fit into a display case, but it was Cold War secrecy that limited the R-7's legacy. After all, the USSR released photos of Sputnik just five days after the launch—it would take a decade before Moscow revealed the R-7 rocket to the world.
First Steps to Space
The work on the mighty R-7 rocket originated in the ashes of World War II, when the victorious allies rushed to Germany in search of the infamous "wonder weapons" that had terrorized England. The most impressive German rocket , a liquid-propellant ballistic missile that was orders of magnitude larger and more powerful than anything built previously by rocket pioneers in the U.S. or the USSR. It had the ability to bring the dreams of beloved Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to reality.
But the main drive for the American and Soviet efforts to obtain these German rockets was getting a strategic edge in the looming military standoff between the two newly minted superpowers. But in the minds of a few rocketeers on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the old idea of the Earth's artificial moon suddenly transformed from an abstract theoretical concept into a potentially practical task.
"Already in 1945, we were talking about satellites," Yuri Mozhorin, a veteran of the Soviet rocket development program, told Seniorhelpline. Mozhorin's older colleague in rocketry, , even thought up a plan to fashion a piloted rocket ship out of the V-2 and launch it to the edge of space. Recently declassified documents reveal that Tikhonravov's bosses within the Soviet aviation industry took his plan seriously enough to send it right to the desk of Joseph Stalin in June 1946.
But after a short flirtation with space flight, the Soviet military leadership focused on the V-2's more destructive capability. In fact, at the beginning of the 1950s, any talk of a satellite or space exploration inside the Soviet missile research centers could get you in serious trouble. All space dreams were considered subversive and distracting from the main overarching goal—the military missiles.
With the death of Stalin in March 1953, a yoke of suspicion and paranoia slowly lifted from all walks of Soviet life, even from the top-secret military research centers. In the summer of the same year, Tikhonravov began discussing how to put a ballistic missile into orbit.
In May 1954, , who led the Soviet ICBM program, sent a letter to the Soviet government advocating the launch of a satellite. To give the Kremlin a real incentive for endorsing the program, Korolev employed a standard trick – we need to do it soon, he argued, because Americans are already working on it.
For Military Glory
A year later, Korolev needed to go full speed ahead with the satellite development, so he stressed the potential military importance of the satellite.
"With the help of the satellite… [it] will be possible to receive important data necessary for future development of science and military technology… it will be possible to conduct photo-reconnaissance of the (Earth's) surface…" he wrote in the Aug. 5, 1955, letter to the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
In the same report, Korolev also informed Khrushchev that the U.S. scientist, , the father of V-2, was building a rocket weighing 7,000 tons—25 times bigger than his R-7.
When the top-secret official decree authorizing the first Soviet scientific satellite had finally came out on Jan. 30, 1956, it also gave go ahead for early work on a more sophisticated follow-on satellite, which would meet the requirements of the Ministry of Defense and the Academy of Sciences. The key mission for the new spacecraft would be "photography of the Earth's surface." In other words, it was a spy satellite.
In the meantime, after several years of efforts, Korolev's team was completing preparations for the launch of the mighty R-7 missile. If the V-2 was a giant leap from amateur rockets of the 1930s, the R-7 was even a more significant departure from the V-2 and all subsequent Soviet designs, which bore many birthmarks of their German predecessor.
Besides a monumental jump in size, the R-7 featured for the first time, multi-stage design and multi-engine propulsion system. Instead of a single combustion chamber on the V-2, the R-7 sported 20 main chambers and eight steering thrusters on its four boosters of the first stage and a single core booster of the second stage. The engines themselves represented a revolutionary departure from the V-2 technology. For the first time, they burned much more potent kerosene fuel instead of alcohol used on the V-2 and on the subsequent Soviet medium-range missiles.
Gone were V-2's steering rudders placed beneath the engine's nozzle, which guided the rocket by deflecting the exhaust flames in a certain direction at the expense of valuable thrust. Most importantly for the architecture of the missile, the R-7 featured load-bearing tanks, which served as a body of the vehicle, rather than internal vessels for the propellant wrapped inside the aircraft-like body of the V-2. That change alone afforded huge mass savings.
With all the scaling up and design improvements, the flight range of the R-7 increased to an intercontinental distance from 330 kilometers for the V-2.
The R-7 ended up looking oversized even next to its American contemporaries -- the Atlas and Titan ballistic missiles.
A Friday in October
Finally, October 4th, 1957, arrived—a date which, according to an anecdote told by a late Soviet cosmonaut Georgy Grechko, wasn't even supposed to be the launch date. Grechko says the decision to launch on October 4 was a result of a misunderstanding. Grechko and his colleagues saw a promo for an American paper entitled "The Satellite Over the Planet" which was scheduled for presentation on October 5 at the assembly of the International Astronautics Federation in Barcelona.
Fearing that the paper was timed to coincide with the American orbital launch (which it was not), Korolev took the situation seriously and ordered to advance the Soviet space shot to October 4 by canceling unessential ground tests. Several recently declassified Soviet documents, some dated as late as September 28, 1957, all quote the planned launch date for in the middle of October 1957.
According to recollections of another Soviet cosmonaut Aleksandr Aleksandrov, on October 2, Korolev sent an approval request to Moscow to fire the rocket on October 4. Before hearing a response, he ordered the rollout of the rocket to the launch pad the next day. The epochal mission lifted off at the very end of the day on Oct. 4, 1957, at 22:28 Moscow time.
Unknown to the eyewitnesses, of the Sputnik's launcher was late developing full thrust, almost leading to the termination of the flight. Fortunately, engineers learned about the issue, only when they were going through the telemetry data after the triumphant launch.
On the morning of October 5, the Pravda newspaper, the mouthpiece of the USSR, came out with a modest announcement printed on the front page about the launch of the first satellite. The next day, the Pravda had to follow the world's press by emblazoning the front page with a much bigger headline.
Never again would the Soviet propaganda underestimate the political importance of space.