The first artificial satellite was put into orbit by the former Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. Until then, Earth had only one satellite, a natural one, the moon.
The satellite, SPUTNIK 1, which in Russian means ‘fellow-traveller’ was about the size of a basketball and weighed 83.6 kilograms.
It orbited Earth every 96 minutes in an elliptical orbit ranging from 215 to 940 kilometres, emitting an eerie ‘bleep bleep’ sound heard by millions throughout the world, on radio and TV. People everywhere were filled with awe. Man had at last broken free from the confines of his home planet, and now the whole universe beckoned. The Americans however were more shocked than awed. They had planned to launch their own satellite, and they had not expected the Russians to beat them to it. On November 3, the Russians again took them by surprise by launching yet another satellite, SPUTNIK 2.
SPUTNIK 2 weighed half a tonne and carried a passenger, a dog named Laika. Laika was the first living creature to orbit Earth.
SPUTNIK 1 fell back to Earth and burnt in the atmosphere on re-entry on January 4, 1958. SPUTNIK 2 orbited Earth till April 14 when it too fell back to Earth. Laika however had died long before that – just after a week in space.
On January 31, 1958, the Americans salvaged some of their pride by successfully launching their first satellite, EXPLORER-1.