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The Space Race Begins

Sputnik I, the Earth’s first satellite

Sputnik I, the Earth’s first satellite, was launched during the IGY by the Soviet Union.

Three months into the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, held a conference to coordinate IGY nations taking part in rocket and satellite launchings and tracking.  Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States all planned launchings using non-military rocket and satellite designs and deployments.

On October 4, 1957, during a reception for the IGY participants at the Soviet embassy, the news came that the Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik, the first Earth satellite.  It was the first of several Sputnik satellites launched during the IGY.  That night, the scientists greeted the news with applause and congratulations all around.

Soon after, however, there was great disappointment when they learned that Sputnik had been launched using a military intercontinental ballistic missile.  Although scientists could learn the results of experiments aboard Sputnik, they would not have access to its design or orbital elements.

The United States launched the non-military satellite Vanguard-1

The United States launched the non-military satellite Vanguard-1, the second successful U.S. satellite placed in orbit, during the IGY in 1958.

This crisis overshadowed the other activities of the IGY...and the "space race" had begun.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Defense responded to the Sputnik launch by launching a satellite of their own. However, Vanguard-1, a satellite that non-military scientists had planned to launch for the IGY, was not yet ready to launch.

A satellite named Vanguard-1

Vanguard-1, a satellite that non-military scientists had planned to launch for the IGY, sits on its launch pad.  It did not launch until after the Soviets launched Sputnik and the United States Army launched Explorer I.

So, on January 31, 1958, the U.S. Army launched Explorer I, the United States' first satellite. They used a rocket developed to test guided missile components.  It carried on a small instrument, called a "cosmic ray package," that measure cosmic rays. IGY scientists designed the instrument.

Later that same year, on March 17, the Vanguard-1 was the second U.S. satellite successfully placed in orbit.