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Space Age turns fifty

The world's space community marks half a century since the beginning of the Space Age. Fifty years ago, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Sputnik – the first-ever artificial satellite – blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the So

The very first man-made object to leave the Earth spent 90 days in orbit and started the era of space exploration.

Boris Chertok, a scientist behind the Soviet space programme, says it was rocket building that the Kremlin was most interested in. And while Sergey Korolev, a key figure in the Soviet space programme, and others, were also working on a Sputnik prototype, the Soviet military demanded hydrogen bomb carriers to restore the strategic balance.

“We got a directive from the top to stop playing with our toys. We were in the middle of the Cold War and the American nuclear arsenal was five-six times larger then ours, and we were surrounded by their missile bases. We received an order to develop an intercontinental missile to carry a nuclear warhead,” the space scientist says.

Certainly, the American reaction was great surprise. They could not imagine that the Soviet people, whom they did not know, could accomplish so much,

Louis Friedman,
Director of the U.S. Planetary Society

The Sputnik was supposed to have been launched in 1958, but the Soviet secret services reported the U.S. was planning to launch its own satellite. Moscow decided the Soviets had to be the first. 

Sputnik-1 took two-and-a-half months to be engineered and another month to be put together.

Yury Selaev was among the four mechanics selected to put the Sputnik-1 together. He remembers working under a pressing deadline and in absolute secrecy.

“We worked non-stop, around the clock, I could not even tell my family what I was working on, everyone understood:  the Americans were at our heels,” he recalls.

Sputnik made an astonishing debut on the world's front pages, but small print is all it got in the Soviet press. Only three days later, Pravda newspaper reported on the international attention the Soviet satellite had received. Soviet scientists were caught off guard.

“Only three or four days after the launch, we realised that what we had done was to split human civilization into two periods: before the Sputnik – and after,” Boris Chertok says.

Sputnik-1 opened the age of peaceful space exploration, but it was intended to send a different signal to the West.

“Certainly, the American reaction was great surprise. They could not imagine that the Soviet people, whom they did not know, could accomplish so much,” said Louis Friedman, Director of the U.S. Planetary Society.

“The Russian space programme survived through the hardships of the 1990s, Russia managed to maintain its status as one of the major and most important partners in the International Space Station programme. After the Columbia tragedy in 2003 it managed to become the sole provider of launch services to the ISS – these are certainly things to be proud of!” said Yury Karash, independent space expert in an interview to RT.

And Sergey Krikalyov, a cosmonaut and a record holder for time spent in space, says space exploration could help improve the quality of life on Earth.

We went from launching the first sputnik to numerous manned space flights. We are working on projects that will help us not only get energy from space and transfer it to earth, but use it right there, in space. This might help us get rid of waste and reduce the negative results of our activities. Hopefully, this will make our planet cleaner and a better and more beautiful place to live,” he explained.