Korolev's Triple Play: Sputniks 1, 2, and 3
Please refer to this document for full footnotes and bibliography.
Source: James J. Harford, "Korolev's Triple Play: Sputniks 1, 2, and 3," adapted from James J. Harford, Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon (John Wiley: New York, 1997).
The paper deals with the politics, planning and technology of the period 1946-1958, spanning the development of the R-7 ICBM technology which made possible the launching of an artificial satellite; the strategy used by Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, with the support of Mystislav Keldysh, in bringing the satellite from conceptualization by Mikhail Tikhonravov to actuality; the early work on Sputnik 3, which was planned to be Sputnik 1; the hurried development of Sputnik 1 when Sputnik 3 was not ready; the even more hurried development of Sputnik 2 (the Laika carrier) at Khrushchev's behest; the actual launches; the failure to map the radiation belts; the casual reaction, at first, by Kremlin officialdom to Sputnik 1's success; and then the quick switch to braggadocio when the world impact was realized.
Initial Soviet Reaction to Sputnik 1 Launch
While it jolted the rest of the world, the successful launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, received casual treatment, at first, in Moscow. Korolev's former colleague, Academician Boris Rauschenbakh, told me, some 35 years later, "Look up the pages of Pravda for the first day after the launch. It got only a few paragraphs. Then look at the next day's issue, when the Kremlin realized what the world impact was."
The article in the October 5 Pravda was, indeed, tersely phrased. Positioned modestly in a right hand column part way down on the first page, it did not even mention the satellite in its head. Titled routinely, "Tass Report," it gave the facts of the launch clinically, and the editors apparently felt obliged from the very first sentence to educate the readers on what it was all about:
In the course of the last years in the Soviet Union scientific research and experimental construction work on the creation of artificial satellites of the Earth has been going on.
As already reported in the press, the first launches of satellites in the USSR were planned for implementation in accordance with the program of scientific research for the International Geophysical Year.
As the result of a large, dedicated effort by scientific-research institutes and construction bureaus the world's first artificial satellite of the Earth has been created. On 4 October, 1957 in the USSR the first successful satellite launch has been achieved. According to preliminary data, the rocket launcher carried the satellite to the necessary orbital speed of about 8,000 meters per second. At the present time the satellite is moving in an elliptical trajectory around the Earth and its flight can be observed in the rays of the eastern and western Sun with the help of simple optical instruments (binoculars, spyglasses, etc.).
The article went on to give the basic information--size, weight, orbital inclination, radio frequency on which the beep could be heard--and it credited the great Tsiolkovsky with having established the feasibility of artificial Earth satellites decades earlier.
The Next Day's Turnabout
The next day's Pravda was something else. "World's First Artificial Satellite of Earth Created in Soviet Nation" stretched across the top of page one, which was devoted almost entirely to the achievement. But the lead story in the right hand column did not recount the feat itself, with first hand reports from the Soviet protagonists--their names were top secret, after all, so they could not even be contacted. Instead, the column was datelined New York, and it quoted in detail the congratulations of Russia's fiercest Cold War rival, the USA. The words, generous in their praise, were from Joseph Kaplan, chairman of the U.S. National Committee for the International Geophysical Year. Both the Soviet and American satellite programs were carried out under IGY auspices, with the results available to the world's scientists. Below the Kaplan item were congratulatory bulletins from A. C. B. Lovell, the British astronomer, and from a member of the USSR's political family, Pavel Novatsky of the Polish Academy of Sciences--the latter headed "Big Victory."
Big victory it certainly was. Poems lyricized the event, like "Leap into the Future" and "Scouting the Celestial Deep." An ephemeris, showing the times when the carrier rocket would be visible over cities in the USSR, as well as Detroit and Washington, was printed like a train timetable. It was the moment to cash in on the performance of a feat that Nikita Khrushchev could never have dreamed would have so powerful an effect. He, after all, had been apathetic about "just another Korolev rocket launch," as Rauschenbakh described the attitude of the Soviet premier and his claque on first hearing the news.
In the days to come, though, Pravda was delighted to print the praises of friends and enemies. Reactions from Peking and Shanghai (that friendship would dissolve only a few years hence), Warsaw, Paris, Vienna, Rome, London, and an especially long one from New York, ran under a big headline that ran across the page, "Russians Won the Competition."
The US Muffed the Chance to be First
It was a competition which the Americans should have won hands down. The concept of putting up a satellite had been known to the world's space enthusiasts for many years. In America serious proposals to launch a spacecraft into Earth orbit had been discussed since the mid-1940's. Robert P. Haviland recalls that when he was working in the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics in 1945, motivated by a report on space rockets in a document captured from the Peenemunde Germans, he "wrote a 4-5 page memo proposing a Navy satellite development but it was scorned."
In February, 1946, the US Army Air Corps asked the major air frame companies to submit secret proposals for the design of an "earth orbiting satellite." Douglas Aircraft was notified on July l that its design was judged the winner. Today's aerospace companies will find it hard to believe that the Air Corps evaluation was completed in less than four months! What's more, Douglas was funded for the study at the "unheard of amount in those days" of $1 million but their contract was switched to the newly-formed Project RAND (for Research and Development) in Santa Monica, California. RAND's eventual report on "Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship" predicted, with keen perception, that "The achievement of a satellite craft by the United States would inflame the imagination of mankind, and would probably produce repercussions in the world comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb." Alas, nothing followed the study, and so it would not be a US satellite that would generate those repercussions.
Tsiolkovsky Showed in 1903 That a Satellite Could be Orbited
In Russia, as mentioned earlier, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had shown mathematically in 1903 how a device launched at a certain velocity would achieve Earth orbit. Then in 1948, forty-five years later, the visionary Mikhail Tikhonravov had made the case to Korolev for developing just such a device. At first he was unable to get support for the concept. His presentation to a meeting of the Academy of Artillery Sciences was treated skeptically. Golovanov quotes the remarks of the Academy president, Anatoli Blagonravov, at the meeting: "The topic is interesting. But we cannot include your report. Nobody would understand why...They would accuse us of getting involved in things we do not need to get involved in..." However, what Blagonravov said officially was not what he thought instinctively. This courteous, mild-mannered, chain-smoking, white-haired former general, who would become in later years one of the chief spokesmen for the Soviet Union in the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, was bothered by the wary reception of Tikhonravov's ideas. "There was no way he could escape the thought that this ridiculous report was in fact not very ridiculous at all." Blagonravov, risking the derision of his colleagues, put the report back on the agenda, thereby giving Tikhonravov--and Korolev--license to study possible satellite designs.
The R-7 ICBM Carrier Made a Sputnik Launch Feasible
Some five years later, towards the end of 1953, having redesigned the R-7 rocket to carry a heavier payload, Korolev had drafted a proposed decree for the Central Committee of the Communist Party which included the possibility of using the vehicle to launch a satellite. However, while the draft "was making its way to the top" mention of the satellite was struck out. Not until May 26, 1954 did Korolev formally propose the satellite launch to Dimitri Ustinov, Minister of Armaments. By then the R-7 was capable of propelling an H-bomb warhead of 5 tons--the actual size had not yet been determined--over an intercontinental ballistic trajectory. It could easily orbit a satellite of some 1.5 tons. According to Korolev's deputy, Vassily Mishin, Korolev had to propose a Sputnik launch as part of the test program of the ICBM program. In any case, Korolev's proposal to Ustinov is so delicately phrased that R-7 is not mentioned at all, but merely referred to as the
...new article which permits speaking about the possibility of designing an artificial Earth satellite within the next few years. By a certain reduction of the weight of the payload it will be possible for the satellite to achieve the necessary velocity of 8,000 m/sec.
As Roald Sagdeev, longtime head of the USSR Space Research Institute, put it, "Korolev and his colleagues could have only had a vague idea of how heavy the final reentry vehicle (for the ICBM warhead) should be. Sakharov <Andrei> was still far from knowing how to make this deadly weapon relatively compact and easily portable. Since rapid progress was required, rocket designers adopted a worst-case strategy and started to develop an ICBM that, as it was discovered later, had a substantial excess of launch capability, or throw weight."
US Vanguard Chosen Over Project Orbiter
Meanwhile more substantive thinking on possible satellite designs had been resumed in the U.S. The most expedient design approach came from Von Braun's team at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. Starting with a meeting in early 1954 with George Hoover of the Office of Naval Research, von Braun and his colleagues eventually came up with Project Orbiter, which would have been an Army-Navy-Air Force design using already-developed Army Ordnance weapons technology to put a small satellite into orbit. But the Eisenhower administration had reasons to choose a different approach. Eisenhower wanted to keep the military out of the IGY program, which was dedicated to scientific purposes. That was the surface reason. The other one, more telling, was--ironically--based on military strategy. He wanted to be consistent with his well-publicized "Open Skies" stance at a time when U-2's and spy satellites were being developed to begin reconnoitering the USSR. Eisenhower reasoned that a satellite put up as part of the IGY program would strengthen the freedom of the skies policy and would be less likely to disturb Nikita Khrushchev's sensibilities about overflight than one sponsored by three military services. Also, Soviets were likely to launch an IGY satellite themselves. And so a project named Vanguard--which proved to be an embarrassing choice of names--was chosen to carry the US banner into the space age. Based on a sounding rocket developed by the Naval Research Laboratory, but under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, it was going to be a riskier venture than Orbiter because it called for substantially modified first and second stages, a new third stage, and new rocket engines and guidance technology.
Sedov Reveals Soviet Satellite Plan at IAF
On July 29, 1955, the Eisenhower Administration announced that the U.S. would launch Vanguard for scientific purposes during the 1957-58 IGY. A few days later, at the Sixth Congress of the International Astronautical Federation in Copenhagen, a delegation of Soviet scientists, appearing at IAF for the first time, revealed at a press conference that the USSR, too, might be in the game. Leonid Sedov, head of the Soviet delegation, and the newly appointed chairman of an Academy of Sciences Commission on Interplanetary Communications, choosing his words carefully, said:
From a technical point of view, it is possible to create a satellite of larger dimensions than that reported in the newspapers which we had the opportunity of scanning today. The realization of the Soviet project can be expected in the comparatively near future. I won't take it upon myself to name the date more precisely.
But, Sedov, it seems, was speculating, since no official decision had yet been made that there would be a Soviet satellite in IGY. In fact, not until January 30, 1956 would the Council of Ministers issue a decree authorizing its development.
Tikhonravov Transferred to Korolev Bureau
It was at this time that Korolev was able to arrange for Mikhail Tikhonravov and his team, which had been working on a satellite concept at Special Design Bureau #385 in the Ural Mountains, to join him. One of the members of that team, Konstantin Feoktistov, recalled:
We wanted to build a satellite but Korolev had that responsibility. Tikhonravov was transferred to Korolev's bureau in early 1956 after the Party and the Goverment had authorized Korolev to proceed with the development of a satellite. But the rest of us in the group had to apply to Korolev individually. However, Korolev relied on the advice of Tikhnoravov, his old friend and, by the end of 1957 I was chosen, although it was difficult to leave #385.
Sputnik Plans Lag, Keldysh Criticizes Industry
Even the January decision, however, was not followed by sufficiently aggressive support for the satellite development in the opinion of Korolev and his close ally, Mstislav Keldysh. Time to beat the Americans had flown by and the Soviet establishment was not yet revved up. Nine months later, on September 14, in what must have been exasperation, and probably with Korolev's prodding, Keldysh appeared before the presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences to state his case. He first reviewed patiently, like a good teacher, the physics of placing a satellite in orbit. Then he covered the pioneering scientific measurements which the Soviet satellite would make--the Earth's magnetic fields, the "ionic composition of the upper layers of the atmosphere," the "corpuscular radiation of the Sun," cosmic radiation, possible micrometeorites.
He must have caused eyes to widen a bit when he said "...we are considering placing a live organism in the satellite--a dog. It turns out that the perception of a dog is the most similar to the perception of a man--biologists so consider it. The dog will live there in the absence of a gravitational field, in conditions of irradiation, of cosmic radiation. The dog will be undergoing all sorts of dangers, because if the satellite is hit by a large meteoric particle, it will broach the satellite..."
By then he surely had their full attention, but he went on. "We, of course, can't stop at the task of creating an Earth satellite. We, naturally, are thinking of further tasks--of space flight. The first project along these lines, I believe, will be to fly around the Moon and photograph it from the side which is always hidden to us." Then came hard criticism: "We have come up short in a whole series of tasks in the Academy of Sciences, and are lagging now. Back in August we were to turn in the dimensions of the equipment and their mode of attachment to the rocket...We delayed this work, which resulted in a notable delay in the planning and development of the satellite itself."
He called out specific industry laggards: "In general, the radiotechnological industry isn't helping us enough...They are sluggishly regarding the creation of this satellite...We have already committed one breach in delaying the delivery of size specifications and other information to the Korolev Design Bureau." Finally, the ultimate motivation came out baldly: "...it would be good if the Presidium were to turn the serious attention of all its institutions to the necessity of doing this work on time...we all want our satellite to fly earlier than the Americans'."
Keldysh and Korolev had not only the Academy of Sciences and industry to motivate, they had to deal with the objections of the military generals, who feared that the satellite project would slow down the development of the R-7 ICBM. The fear was understandable since R-7's first five launch attempts had failed. But foot-dragging by the support institutions was only one of Korolev's problems. In spite of Keldysh's speech, the satellite which was supposed to have the honor of being first continued to fall behind schedule. In fact, it would lag so badly that it would become Sputnik 3--a huge, sophisticated satellite, eventually launched on May 15, 1958. Sputnik 3's 1,327 kg payload included virtually all of the instruments called out in Keldysh's speech.
"Simplest" Sputnik Moves Ahead of Big Science Satellite
"But," said Gyorgi Grechko, one of the engineers who worked at the Korolev design bureau during those days, and who later became a cosmonaut, "these devices were not reliable enough so the scientists who created them asked us to delay the launch month by month. We thought that if we postponed and postponed we would be second to the US in the space race so we made the simplest satellite, called just that--Prostreishiy Sputnik, or 'PS'. We made it in one month, with only one reason, to be first in space."
It was at this time, on August 21, 1957, that the R-7, in its sixth attempt, propelled a dummy H-bomb warhead all the way to Kamchatka, some 6,000 km. With that success the confident Korolev made his move to beat the Americans with his PS. His next obstacle was a skeptical State Commission for the R-7 ICBM. Discussion of Korolev's satellite proposal before that body, according to a 1992 report by a journalist in a Moscow magazine, was "sharp, the opponents arguing primarily about the tight timing," and "complete agreement was not achieved." Korolev had to go back to the Commission a second time. This time he tried a different ploy. Why not, he challenged the members, put the question of authorization to the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party--in the context of whether or not the USSR should try to be the first country in the world to launch a satellite? The Commission blanched. "Nobody wanted to be scapegoat." And so the project proceeded.
With the Commission's nervous acquiescence, Korolev bulldozed the development, in a little more than a month, of a plain, polished 83.6 kg sphere containing only a radio transmitter, batteries and temperature measuring instruments, with the intent to place it in orbit on a rocket which had failed in five of its first six launch attempts. It was a very hectic month, and while the satellite was simple, the attention given to its manufacture was unsparing, especially by Korolev, himself.
"I coordinated the production, testing, launch preparations and the launch itself," recalled Oleg Ivanovsky, looking back 36 years during a 1993 interview. Ivanovsky had been deputy to Mikhail Khomyakov, Sputnik 1's principal designer. He recalled that there were problems:
For example, there were two peculiarities which satellites had that missiles did not. One was that the satellite required precise thermal control and the other was that vacuum sealing was used to assure reliable performance. We had to find new techniques of manufacturing the surfaces in order to achieve the necessary optical and thermal qualities. We had no experience in this work. We needed vacuum chambers. I recall one episode when we had to persuade the production shop that the satellite was a new item, not a missile.
Korolev, with his iron character, was able to influence the attitude of people. The Party directed that new paint be put on the factory walls. Korolev put the satellite on a special stand, draped in velvet, in order that the workers would show reverence towards it. He supervised the carrying out of the production schedule every day personally.
One of the metalworkers who was assigned to the Sputnik 1 manufacture was Gennadi Strekalov, later to become a cosmonaut. "My teacher in metalworking did the finishing," he told me. "Two half spheres were stamped, then machined, then the masters did the finishing." Strekalov, who, in 1995, flew to the Mir space station with American astronaut Norman Thagard and then participated in the first Mir-Shuttle rendezvous, is as proud of his work on Sputnik 1 as he is of his four orbital flights.
"Korolev came over to the shop and insisted that both halves of the sputnik's metallic sphere be polished until they shone, that they be spotlessly clean," recalled Konstantin Feoktistov, who would be the first engineer-cosmonaut to go into orbit in the three-man Voskhod 1 seven years later. "The people who developed the radio equipment were actually the ones demanding this. They were afraid of the system overheating, and they wanted the orbiting sphere to reflect as many rays of the Sun as possible."
An idea of how intense were the preparations for the launch of the "simplest satellite," and how sensitive Korolev was to the event's historical importance, comes from the recollections, on the 30th anniversary of the launch, of one of the design team, Mikhail Floriansky:
The jettisoning of the nose cone and the process of separation of the sputnik from its carrier was being tested at the assembly shop late in August, 1957. It is not a complex procedure, but fraught with possible surprises. Everything was going on normally--or so it seemed--when Korolev all of a sudden subjected the plant's chief engineer to a terrible dressing down. Korolev was berating him--what for!--for the poor quality of the surface of the mockup of the sputnik! The quality of the surface is really important in flight because the heat conditions of the sputnik depend on it, but why the dressing down now, when quite a different process was being tested?
Korolev said angrily:
"This ball will be exhibited in museums!"
It was Korolev's aesthetic as well as engineering sense that had led him to insist on the ball shape for Sputnik 1, although one of the early designs proposed was for a cone-shaped structure. "Today, after decades have passed," recalled colleague Mark Gallai in a 1980's interview, "we simply cannot imagine the first sputnik to be anything other than what it was: an elegant ball...with an antenna thrown back like a galloping horse." There were two flight-ready spheres built, one for the launch and another one for ground testing, developing the welding and other fabrication techniques. The second one would later be launched too, with the carrier for the dog Laika on Sputnik 2.
Rebrov Recalls the Launch Preparations
A recollection of the preparations for Sputnik 1, and the launch itself from Baikonur, comes from Colonel Mikhail Rebrov:
People in the "space room" worked in white smocks, performing each operation with the greatest thoroughness. The rocket was assembled in the big hangar. Silence fell when the Chief Designer appeared. At the time Sergei Korolev was exacting and more strict than ever...
Only two days were left. The carrier rocket was rolled out to the launch pad in the early morning of October 2, 1957. Korolev walked in front, together with all the other chief designers. They walked in silence the entire 1.5 km long way from the assembly-testing building to the pad. No one will ever know what was going through Sergei Korolev's mind at the time. Later on, when the sputnik was installed in orbit, and its call sign was heard over the globe, he said:
"I've been waiting all my life for this day!"
The moment of the blast-off has been described many times. Then the rocket got out of the radio zone. The communication with the sputnik ended. The small room where the radio receivers were was overcrowded. Time dragged on slowly. Waiting built up the stress. Everyone stopped talking. There was absolute silence. All that could be heard was the breathing of the people and the quiet static in the loudspeaker...And then from very far-off there appeared, at first very quietly and then louder and louder, those "bleep-bleeps" which confirmed that it was in orbit and in operation.
Once again everyone rejoiced. There were kisses, hugs and cries of "Hurrah!" The austere men, who were greeted out of space by the messenger they had made, had tears in their eyes.
Americans Shocked But Determined to Respond
Hardly tearful, more like rueful, was the reaction of the American space community. Even though the possibility that the Soviets had been making plans for launching a satellite was known in the US, and not only to government insiders, the fact of the launch was a deep jolt to the space professionals.
At that time, I was Executive Secretary of the professional society for space engineers--the American Rocket Society (ARS). Astronautics magazine, the main ARS publication, could not resist reminding its readers that, "A little over two years ago, when the government's guided missile policy committee decided against the Von Braun-Medaris satellite proposal in favor of Project Vanguard, there were four dissenters who voted to send the idea on to the National Security Council for further consideration. One of them was the 'Lone Eagle,' Charles A. Lindbergh, the last one to make aviation headlines of the same magnitude as 'Sputnik.'"
Grim determination characterized the American rocketeers. "They <the Russians> must not be allowed to win this game--a game with far-reaching political, social and economic consequences," Astronautics editorialized.
In the same issue, a very insightful interpretation of the technological significance of the Russian feat by Martin Summerfield of Princeton University had an upbeat aspect, but was somber in its reflection on the advanced state of Soviet space technology.
The success of the Russian "Sputnik" was convincing and dramatic proof to people around the world of the real prospects of space travel in the not distant future. The fact that a 23-in. sphere weighing 184 lb has been placed in an almost precise circular orbit indicates that a number of important technological problems such as high thrust rocket engines, lightweight missile structures, accurate guidance, stable autopilot control, and large scale launching methods have been solved, at least to the degree required for a satellite project.
I got a phone call at my home in Princeton about 7:00PM on Friday evening, October 4, from the New York Times aeronautics reporter, Richard Witkin. Had I heard? What is the reaction of the US rocket community? My response is not even in my memory. But the impact of the launch on the US, as well as on my own career, would be powerful, indeed. ARS at the time had a membership of about 5,000 engineers and scientists, most of them working on missile programs, although a few dozen were on Project Vanguard. By 1962, just seven years later, the membership quadrupled to 20,000, a growth so rapid that industry and government pressures caused a merger of ARS with the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences, the society for aeronautical engineers, into what is today the 40,000 member American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).
The news of the launch in the world's leading newspapers got Second Coming treatment. The New York Times, receiving the story in the late afternoon of Friday, October 4, printed the next morning a rarely used three-line head in half-inch capital letters, running full length across the front page:
SOVIET FIRES EARTH SATELLITE INTO SPACE;
Other world newspapers gave the event similar play. Then the interpretation began. The Manchester Guardian needed only a couple of days to begin to speculate apocalyptically on what the Russians might now do. An October 7 editorial titled "Next Stop Mars?" read, "The achievement is immense. It demands a psychological adjustment on our part towards Soviet society, Soviet military capabilities and--perhaps most of all--to the relationship of the world with what is beyond." Some of the Guardian's speculation was downright clairvoyant. "We must be prepared to be told what the other side of the Moon looks like <Lunik 3 produced the photos only two years later>, or how thick the cloud on Venus may be <revealed by the Soviet Venera and US Mariner series starting in the '60's>. Accurately, the Guardian pointed out that, "The Russians can now build ballistic missiles capable of hitting any chosen target anywhere in the world." That, certainly, was true, but it would be some years before improvements in guidance technology made the capability an actuality. It certainly did not follow, as the Guardian stated a few sentences later, that "Clearly they have established a great lead in missile technology." This was one of the earliest inaccurate predictions of a missile gap.
French reaction was equally ebullient. "Myth has become reality: Earth's gravity conquered," bannered Le Figaro, and went on to report the "disillusion and bitter reflections" of "The Americans (who) have had little experience with humiliation in the technical domain." For three weeks the world could hear the beeping of Sputnik 1 before the radio died out, and it orbited more than 1,400 times before burning up in the atmosphere after three months in space.
Much has been written about the effect of the Sputnik 1 launch on the world scene. Many American space enthusiasts, stricken with gloom at the time, now reflect that it might have been the best thing that could have happened to awaken the need for an aggressive space program. Only four years later President Kennedy would call for what became the Apollo program. An enormous infrastructure of space research and development centers, test and launch facilities and supporting industry and university programs, would come into being.
Some Negative Western Reaction to Space Buildup
There were those who reacted negatively to the surge in space technology and its consequent spurring of the growth of high tech weapons. As former Ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan put it in his memoirs, "It <Sputnik> caused Western alarmists, such as my friend Joe Alsop, to demand the immediate subordination of all other national interests to the launching of immensely expensive crash programs to outdo the Russians in this competition. It gave effective arguments to the various enthusiasts for nuclear armament in the American military-industrial complex. That the dangerousness and expensiveness of this competition should be raised to a new and higher order just at the time when the prospects for negotiation in this field were being worsened by the introduction of nuclear weapons into the armed forces of the Continental NATO powers was a development that brought alarm and dismay to many people besides myself."
Sputnik 2, Pushed by Khrushchev, Readied in One Month
While all this introspection was taking place in the West, the creators of Sputnik were unable to be interviewed, take bows, be photographed, get medals. Sergei Korolev was literally back at the office, because Khrushchev, realizing what a hot property he had, gave him new orders. Do something bold, Sergei Pavlovich, to celebrate the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Revolution! It's only a month away.
Cosmonaut Grechko tells the story.
I heard this from Korolev himself with my own ears. After Sputnik 1 Korolev went to the Kremlin and Khrushchev said to him,
"We never thought that you would launch a Sputnik before the Americans. But you did it. Now please launch something new in space for the next anniversary of our revolution."
The anniversary would be in one month! I'll bet that even with today's computers nobody would launch something into space in one month. It was, I think, the happiest month of his <Korolev's> life. He told his staff, and his workers, that there would be no special drawings, no quality check, everyone would have to be guided by his own conscience. The engineers would make drawings and give them directly to the workers. And we launched on November 3, 1957, in time for the celebration of the Revolution.
The payload of Sputnik 2 weighed 508 kg, more than six times the weight of Sputnik 1. A shroud housed a carrier containing the world's first space passenger, the mongrel dog Laika, plus a duplicate of the Sputnik 1 sphere. Laika is reported to have barked and eaten food during his lonely sojourn but, alas, he died when the capsule overheated after failing to separate from its booster, thereby rendering the thermal control system inoperative. Animal groups protested, but the Soviets made Laika into a martyr for a noble cause. Veterans of the Sputnik 2 project regard it as an even more significant achievement than Sputnik 1. Not a single engineering task had been performed on it until after Sputnik 1 went up.
With the new triumph Khrushchev could not resist escalating his needling of the Americans. In a speech at the 40th anniversary of the Revolution, on November 6, he said, "It appears that the name Vanguard reflected the confidence of the Americans that their satellite would be the first in the world. But...it was the Soviet satellites which proved to be ahead, to be in the vanguard...In orbiting our earth, the Soviet sputniks proclaim the heights of the development of science and technology and of the entire economy of the Soviet Union, whose people are building a new life under the banner of Marxism-Leninism."
Vanguard, Rushed to Launch, Explodes on Pad
Those derisive comments proved even more galling to the Americans a month later when, on December 6, the first attempt to launch the Vanguard satellite was an ignominious failure before the world's television cameras. The three stage rocket was designated TV-3, for Test Vehicle 3, and it had been originally scheduled to be just that, a test. But under Sputnik pressure, the "test" was moved up several months, and made into a full-fledged attempt at a satellite launch. But the vehicle got only a few feet off the ground before sagging back, buckling, bursting into a huge conflagration and tossing its tiny 1.47 kg payload, still transmitting, some yards away.
Pravda delightedly reproduced the front page of the London Daily Herald which showed a photo of the Vanguard being readied on the launch pad next to one of the explosion. Superimposed above the immense Herald headline, which read, "OH, WHAT A FLOPNIK!" was Pravda's comment, "Reklama and Deistvitelnost," or "Publicity and Reality."
US Explorer Authorized, Launched, Discovers Van Allen Belts
Following the Sputnik 2 launch, a team composed of the Von Braun group from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency--for the launch vehicle--and one from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California--for the space capsule --the latter headed by William H. Pickering, was given the nod to put up the first US satellite. On its initial try the team launched the 14 kg Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. Fortunately, Pickering and Ernst Stuhlinger, one of Von Braun's staff chiefs, conscious of the odds against Vanguard's success, had persuaded James Van Allen of the University of Iowa to make the package of scientific instruments being readied for Vanguard compatible with Explorer 1's Jupiter C launch vehicle. This turned out to be particularly fortuitous because Explorer 1, with only one sixth the payload weight of Sputnik 1, scored a major scientific coup when its instruments sensed a pattern of radiation around the Earth leading to the discovery of the now famous Van Allen Belts. It is an interesting footnote on scientific history that Sputnik 1 could have made the discovery if it had installed simple instruments. Sputnik 2, in fact, did have the instruments, wrote Van Allen: "a pair of Geiger-Mueller tubes...which operated properly and yielded data for seven days". But the Soviet scientists failed to develop the data necessary to interpret the discovery.
Sputnik 3 Finally Orbited, NASA Established
Oleg Ivanovsky, who worked on Sputniks 1, 2, and 3, speaks with deserved satisfaction of the Soviet achievements of those months in late 1957 and early 1958. But there was trouble too. "We had our first space failure," he told me, with the difficult Sputnik 3. "It was April 27, 1958, and it was caused by a rocket engine failure. The rocket went up about 12-15 km and the satellite fell separately. There was a search for the satellite. I remember that the pilots conducting the search were not allowed to know what they were looking for. 'Just search the area for anything unusual,' they were told, 'and don't attract the camels.' It was crazy secrecy. Finally one pilot came back and said he had seen something that sounded to us like the satellite. We sent out a rescue team in an armored vehicle. When we got it back some of the instruments could still operate." Ivanovsky then showed me proudly a copper wire which he had recovered from one of the instruments which kept the satellite beeper from operating prematurely.
When the 1.5 ton Sputnik 3 was launched successfully, on May 15, 1958, it caused even more anxiety in the West. Any doubt that the Russians would soon have the capability to send an ICBM to the United States was demolished. Lyndon Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader, had demanded a Congressional investigation of the impact of Sputnik 1 only a few days after its launch. On the Senate floor in January he had made recommendations originating in his Preparedness Subcommittee to "Start work at once on the development of a rocket motor with a million pound thrust," "Put more effort in the development of manned missiles (satellites)," and "Accelerate and expand research and development programs, provide funding on a long-term basis, and improve control and administration within the Department of Defense or through the establishment of an independent agency."
During the same months in early 1958 President Eisenhower, with his science adviser, James Killian, also concluded that a civilian space agency was needed, and directed Hugh Dryden, head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), to prepare legislation which would create such an agency on that relatively small organization's structure. The result was Public Law 85-568, signed on July 29, 1958 by the President, calling for the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It was quite an about-face for a president whose staff members had belittled Sputnik 1 as "a silly bauble" and "a neat scientific trick" and who, himself, had said that it had not bothered him "one iota."
Sputnik 3's large load of scientific instruments was designed to measure micrometeorites, density of the upper atmosphere, cosmic rays, solar radiation, the presence and effect of high energy particles and the Earth's own radiation environment. It could have performed a tour de force of scientific research in virgin territory. The Manchester Guardian reported that "This impressive list (of instruments) is a telling demonstration of the fact that the latest Russian sputnik has been launched for strictly scientific purposes."
Sputnik 3 Misses Chance to Map Van Allen Belts
Unfortunately, to the great embarrassment of the Soviets, the huge vehicle missed one more chance at what would have been its most significant achievement--mapping the radiation belts. Explorer 1's instruments, which had revealed the existence of the radiation from the belts, had at first been overwhelmed by its intensity, and it took some time for the Van Allen analysis team to understand what it had measured. Sputnik 3 could have mapped the belts systematically, but failed to do so because of a defective tape recorder. The recorder, designed to store and transmit to Earth the information collected by the instruments when it was out of direct radio contact, had failed utterly to transmit the necessary data. Roald Sagdeev recounts what happened:
A scientific team landed at the Baikonur Cosmodrome for the final integration and testing of hardware on Sputnik 3. Korolev invited everyone for the last briefing before the final okay was to be given and the countdown started...It was the first impressive collection of scientific instruments, each of which was reported to be functioning normally.
However, trouble was soon discovered in some of the supporting hardware. The problem was with the more or less routine tape recorder, whose function was to accumulate data from the different experiments and to prepare messages for the ground station. The spacecraft, revolving around the globe, would only be in contact with the ground station during periods of "direct radio visibility." Simply speaking, the ground station would be unable to sense the signals from the spacecraft when it was behind the horizon...With such a crucial role, members of the scientific team were extremely worried about the troubled tape recorder and they recommended postponing the actual launch to give the technicians a chance to fix it. However, the tape recorder's ambitious engineer, Alexei Bogomolov <"I too often had to depend on his hardware," Sagdeev footnotes acidly> did not want to be considered a loser in the company of winners. He suggested that the testing failure was simply caused by electromagnetic interference from the multiplicity of different electrical circuits in the test room. He boldly proposed to launch Sputnik 3 on time.
To the great disappointment of the scientific team, Korolev accepted Bogomolov's suggestion... During the flight, however, it was confirmed that Bogomolov had been dead wrong. His tape recorder did not work. Consequently, the scientific information gathered was limited by the area of direct radio visibility...Each scientific group had results, but because of the recorder failure they had to guess whether the phenomena discovered were of local or planetary significance.
The most disappointed scientist, says Sagdeev, was Sergei Vernov, a renowned physicist. The detectors on Sputnik 3 sensed extremely high levels of radiation, but was it local or did it exist around the Earth? Some six weeks earlier, on March 26, Explorer 3 had been launched (Explorer 2 had failed to orbit), carrying the first tape recorder ever launched on a satellite. As Van Allen wrote, it "functioned beautifully in response to ground command and fulfilled our plan of providing complete orbital coverage of radiation intensity data."
The Soviets, without tape recorded data, were hogtied. As Van Allen recalled, the team was at first puzzled that they "were encountering a mysterious physical effect of a real nature." They "worked feverishly in analyzing the data from Explorers 1 and 3 (by primitive hand reduction of pen-and-ink recordings) and organizing them on an altitude, latitude and longitude basis." In an interesting sidelight on the whole episode, at first there was suspicion that the intense radiation was coming from a Soviet nuclear test. Subsequent analysis, however, proved that it was "geomagnetically trapped corpuscular radiation" distributed in a "belt" around the Earth. At a conference in the summer of 1958, the name "Van Allen radiation belt" . was applied for the first time. More confirmation of the origin of the radiation, as well as the discovery that there was also an outer belt, came two months later--again from the Americans--when Explorer 4 mapped the belts from July 26 to September 19, 1958.
"On a purely observational basis," wrote Van Allen, "the Sputnik 3 data actually represented discovery of the earth's outer radiation belt inasmuch as they were acquired before those of Explorer 4 and Pioneer 3." However, Vernov and colleagues had not yet interpreted the observational finding, although in what seems to have been hindsight, Vernov published a photo of what is now known as the Van Allen belts in Pravda on March 6, 1959, alleging that the data were based on findings that he had reported at an IGY conference in August, 1958. However, colleagues of Van Allen who heard the paper maintain that the fragmentary data available at that time from Sputniks 1, 2 and 3 could not have formed the basis for such a finding, and, what's more, no such finding was reported in the paper.
Afterwards, a Russian joke circulated that the belts were to be called the Van Allen-Vernov radiation belts. "What did Vernov do? He discovered the Van Allen belts."