Sputnik 1 Satellite: Definition, Facts & Launch

Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels. He has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

Sputnik I was a Soviet satellite that was the first to be launched into space. In this article, we'll look at the massive effect that this tiny event had on the 20th and 21st centuries.


It was just a tiny sphere with four metal prongs sticking out of it. Its diameter was less than 2 feet. Yet, this tiny sphere single-handedly changed the course of the 20th century. Launched into space on October 4th, 1957, it was the Sputnik 1 Satellite.

The Sputnik 1 Satellite was the first satellite to be launched into the orbit of the Earth. It was launched by the Soviet Union from present-day Kazakhstan. What will see in this lesson, though, is that the launching of the satellite changed the structure of all societies on Earth, including American society.

A replica of the Sputnik satellite.

Launch and Historical Background

Since the end of World War II, the United States and Soviet Union had been in a political stalemate known as the Cold War. In many ways the Cold War was like a professional wrestling match -- full of a lot of talk, but very little direct conflict. Both countries had been non-combatively arguing with each other for title of world superpower.

The launching of the Sputnik satellite caught much of the American public off guard. Although American spy planes had detected that the Soviet Union had been making great progress on the project, the Soviet mission was completed sooner than expected. When the satellite launched, it became clear that the Soviet Union was technologically superior to the United States.

Great fear arose among Americans. For one, the rocket used to launch Sputnik was also capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. Americans were no longer protected by the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, as in the past. Second, Americans had been told that they had a superior, more advanced society than the Soviet Union. The launching of Sputnik seemed to question that fundamental assumption.

Effects of the Sputnik Launch

Have you ever fallen behind your friends in some way? Maybe they have gotten a better house, or better grades than you? Your natural instinct probably is to try harder so you can catch up to or surpass your friends.

The same can be said for the United States after the Sputnik Launch. The American Government realized the Soviet Union was far more technologically advanced, and many changes to defense and education needed to take place. First, the government started the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, to jumpstart American space exploration. The government also began to spend massive amounts of money on scientific research. Within one year after the launching of Sputnik, the National Science Foundation's funding increased by a $100 million, with the funding growing even higher over the next 10 years. Funding also increased for American colleges and universities as a result of the Sputnik program.

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