October 4, 1957
Sergey Korolev stood smoking a cigarette in the block house at the Baikonour Cosmodrome. The blockhouse was a beehive of activity, as the launch controllers went through their final checks before launch, which was just five minutes away. Sergey Korolev had traveled a long and winding road to come to this point in his life, including spending time in a Russian gulag. He had been released after he had promised to reform and join the Russian Communist Party. Since that time, his work in rocketry and his organizational skills had caught the attention of the senior Soviet leadership and he had been put in charge of the Soviet space program. Now, after three years of hard work, he was here, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, about to launch the first man made satellite into outer space.
Korolev’s thoughts were interrupted by Deputy Flight Director Colonel Anatoly Vassilov. “We are ready to proceed with final checks, Comrade Chief Designer.”
Korolev put out his cigarette. “Thank you, Comrade Colonel. Let’s go around the room one more time.” Korolev pushed a button on his console. “Attention, all flight controllers. Stand-by for clear/no clear to launch.”
“Booster is clear.”
“Electrical is clear.”
“Guidence is clear.”
“Flight dynamics is clear.”
“Flight Activities Officer.”
“Flight Activities Officer is clear”
“Telemetry is clear.”
“Retro is clear.”
“Range is clear.”
“Meteorological is clear.”
“All controllers, this is Launch. Rocket is clear.” Korolev inserted a large titanium key into a slot in the middle of his console. “Proceeding with final countdown.”
Korolev turned the key
On the launch pad, flames blossomed beneath the engine bells of the R-7 Semyorka rocket. For a brief moment the rocket seemed to stand still, while the fuel pumps throttled up to full power. Then at T +00:00:03, the ground computers sent a signal to the lock down clamps holding the rocket to the pad, and the rocket roared like a freight train into the night sky.
“Pad is clear.”
“Confirmed,” said Korolev.
“Rocket is 50 kilometres downrange. Altitude is 50 kilometres and increasing,” said the Guidance officer.
“Now approaching Max Drag,” called out the Telemetry officer.
Fifty kilometres overhead, the rocket was buffeted as it soared through the upper edges of the atmosphere.
“Trajectory is stable. Right down the middle of the range.”
“Confirmed,” said Korolev again.
“Engine shut down in one minute,” called out the Booster officer.
High over head, the R-7’s engines, shut themselves off, and the rocket glided smoothly through the silent vacuum of space. A few seconds later, four pyrotechnic bolts fired, and the nose cone was ejected. A few seconds after that, a spring was triggered and a small satellite floated free. It was round, metallic and silver. It was only about the size of a basketball, with four slender antennas trailing behind it. As soon as it separated from the spent rocket, an internal radio began to transmit a steady beep-beep-beep.
On the ground, Engineer Lieutenant Vasily Borisov was tuning a radio searching for the satellite’s radio transmission.
“Do you hear it?” asked Korolev, slightly impatiently.
“One moment, Comrade Chief Designer. I am attempting to acquire the signal now.” One hand turned a knob on the large radio set in front of him, while the other hand rested lightly on his headphones. Suddenly the hand pressed very hard and Borisov said excitedly, “yes, I have it.” He took off his headphones and flipped a switch. A steady beep-beep-beep could be heard. Then the room exploded in cheers.
The White House,
President Eisenhower was conducting his weekly meeting with his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, when Sherman Adams, the White House Chief of Staff entered the Oval Office. The fact that Sherman had entered without knocking meant that it must be something important.
“Can I help you with something Sherman? Is something wrong?”
“I’m sorry for disturbing you Mr. President,” said Adams, “but I thought you ought to see this right away.” He took a piece of paper out of a folder and walked across the Oval Office to the President’s desk. “The CIA intercepted this an hour ago. It’s a transcript of a phone call that took place between the head of the Russians’ missile development program and Premier Khrushchev. The Chief Designer is informing Khrushchev of the successful launch of an artificial satellite atop an R-7 rocket.”
Dulles uttered a shocked, “What?! When did this happen?”
“Approximately 10:30 PM, Moscow time,” responded Adams.
“What else do we know?” asked Eisenhower.
` “Not much unfortunately,” answered Adams. “We’re treating this as legitimate, because within 15 minutes of this phone call Moscow began sending messages confirming the successful launch to all of its embassies.”
“Thank you, Sherman,” said Eisenhower. “That will be all for now.” Adams turned and walked out of the Oval Office.
Eisenhower and Dulles exchanged looks. “I thought our intelligence indicated that it would be some time before the Russians would be able to attempt something like this,” said Eisenhower.
“That was my understanding as well,” said Dulles.
“So what does this mean?” asked Eisenhower.
“It means that everything has changed,” said Dulles.