The Making of Sputnik

MOSCOW -- On October 4, 1957, my father, Nikita Khrushchev, awaited a telephone call. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev was expected to call from the Tyuratam launch site (later renamed Baikonur Cosmodrome) in Kazakhstan to report on the launch of the world’s first man-made satellite.

Earlier that day, my father was in Kyiv, Ukraine, on military business. He attended a demonstration of tanks crossing the Dnieper River, then discussed with Soviet generals the fate of Defense Minister Marshal Georgy Zhukov. (Zhukov was suspected of plotting to seize power, and, before forcing a decorated World War II general to resign, my father and his colleagues enlisted the support of other high-ranking generals, who all agreed with Khrushchev’s plan.)

That evening, my father dined with the Ukrainian leaders. I sat at the end of the table, not paying attention to their conversation. Everybody was tired, but my father wasn’t in a hurry to sleep. Around midnight, the door opened and the secretary asked my father to take a phone call. When Khrushchev came back, he was smiling: Sputnik’s launch was successful.

Soviet engineers began designing Sputnik in January 1956. The plan was to launch it with the R-7, an intercontinental ballistic missile in development since 1954. But the rest of the world paid no attention to the vague pronouncements of a possible launch that had been appearing in the Soviet press; everybody outside the Soviet Union knew the United States would launch the world’s first satellite.