Behind The Iron Curtain: Sputnik

On October 4, 1957 the first artificial satellite Sputnik-1 acted as the starter pistol for the space race.

Cover of LIFE magazine dated 10-21-1957 of Smithsonian Observatory scientists working at M.I.T. in Cambridge to try to calculate Sputnik's orbit; © Time Inc. Dmitri Kessel

In the article Why Did U.S. Lose The Race? Critics Speak Up Dr. C.C.Furnas writes:

The U.S. should have been and could have been the first nation to launch a satellite. Some officials who now belittle Russia’s Sputnik are among those who, in the first place, were not convinced our own satellite program was worth pushing. Had they been so convinced, there is every reason to believe that a U.S. satellite could have been orbiting the earth as early as 1955. Instead, it was not until 1955 that a U.S. satellite program was even seriously discussed. But with vigor and determination, even at that late date we might still  have got out “moon” up there first. We had the brains, we had the know-how, we had the money. Why, then, did we not get the first satellite.

American scientists and military scrambled to track the Sputnik.

Plotting of Sputnik I orbit on globe built by Robert H. Farquhar.Cambridge, MA, US.© Time Inc.Dmitri Kessel
Scientists in the Naval Research Lab plotting the course of Sputnik I.© Time Inc. Paul Schutzer
Technicians at the Office of Naval Research Lab re-aligning a radio antenna to pick up signals from Sputnik I.© Time Inc.Ed Clark
US Naval Research Laboratory, Minitrack Ground Station : scientists with charts and equipment tracking satellite in main lab.© Time Inc.Paul Schutzer
US Naval Research Laboratory, Minitrack Ground station interior of mobile unit at night.© Time Inc.Paul Schutzer

USSR squeezed every possible bit of PR out of the Sputnik launch, sending models and displays to world fairs and international exhibits.

Model of the Russian satellite Sputnik I on display at the Soviet pavilion during the 1958 World's Fair.© Time Inc. Michael Rougier
Space satellite exhibit in the Soviet pavilion, at Brussels world's fair.© Time Inc. Michael Rougier
Space satellite exhibit and statue of Vladimir Lenin (L) in the Soviet pavilion, at Brussels World's Fair.© Time Inc.Michael Rougier

In the end, Americans probably got the last laugh: while the Russians won the bragging rights, American capitalists managed to commercialize their enemy’s success. And that’s the real difference between capitalism and socialism.

Children wearing clothes with Sputnik I designs.© Time Inc.Peter Stackpole
A boy surrounded by various types of space toys. © Time Inc.Yale Joel