Excerpts from the 1998 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia
Sputnik was the project name for three artificial satellites (sputnik means "traveling companion" in Russian) launched by the USSR in 1957 and 1958. They weighed, in order, 84, 519, and 1,351 kg (184, 1,140, and 2,980 lb). Their scientific purpose was primarily to investigate outer space and to discover if living organisms could survive space conditions. Their launching also marked the opening of the "space race" between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Sputniks came as a tremendous shock to the West, which had up to then tended to downgrade Soviet technical capability. In hindsight the Sputniks should not have been such a surprise, because Moscow had released several explicit communiques about Soviet intentions, announcements that were dismissed as propaganda in the West. Reactions in the United States and Europe, which in some cases bordered on hysteria, initiated the American drive to send astronauts to the Moon.
Sputnik 1 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Oct. 4, 1957. It was simply a test payload containing a radio beacon and a thermometer, and had been referred to by its designers as the "ES" (elementary satellite). A month later, on November 3, a half-ton payload carrying a dog was put into orbit. The dog, called Laika, was kept alive for ten days, proving that life could survive the conditions of space. Sputnik 3, launched on May 15, 1958, reportedly contained apparatus to measure space radiation.
Seven other spacecraft were given Sputnik designations; they functioned either as prototypes for the Vostok manned spacecraft or as platforms from which probes to the planet Venus were launched.
by James E. Oberg
The female dog Laika was the first living creature to be sent into outer space. She was launched by the USSR on Nov. 3, 1957, in the 508-kg (1,120-lb) Sputnik 2 satellite. Laika traveled in a sealed, cylindrical cabin that contained equipment for recording her pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and heartbeat. The craft was not designed to return her to Earth.