3. "Beep, Beep, Beep!" Sputnik-1 and the First Interplanetary Probes

Two engineering models of Sputnik-1 - and the signal it sent from Space.
At this point I learnt one of the many pieces of valuable information I picked up from visitors to the Exhibition, underlining that the value of being a Volunteer was not simply how one could make the visitors’ time in the Exhibition more enjoyable and informative, but how one could improve one’s own knowledge (which, in turn, could then be passed on to other visitors). Whereas the Soviet Union captured a number of German rocket scientists and engineers, others – including the leading German scientist, Werner von Braun – surrendered to the Americans in 1945. But the crucial point about von Braun was that he surrendered to the US Army; and over the next few years in the USA, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force each worked on their own Space programme. Because of inter-service rivalry – a phenomenon familiar to service people in any country, which can be manifested as good-natured competitiveness or as outright jealousy, especially when resources are being handed out – the three services didn’t share their secrets; and the ultimate beneficiary of this was the Soviet Union. It was only after the USSR had succeeded in launching Sputnik-1 that the American programmes were amalgamated and NASA was formed in 1958.

Despite the Americans’ self-inflicted problems, by early 1957 intelligence being received by the Soviet Union from the USA suggested that the Americans were getting very close to launching a rocket into Space. Korolev and his designers were working on “Object-D”, a sophisticated satellite which would be able to send back a variety of data. Korolev went to see the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to ask him if they could put Object-D on hold and design something much simpler, in order to be the first into Space. Khrushchev was not an educated or sophisticated man, and certainly didn’t understand the science or engineering behind what Korolev and his team were doing. But he understood politics. And he certainly understood how prestigious it would be for the USSR to be the first country to launch a rocket into Space. He agreed to Korolev’s request.

The exploded version of the Sputnik-1
engineering model.
Korolev and his team went back to the drawing board; and in six months they had come up with Sputnik-1: a simple ball with four aerials sticking out of it. (In the Exhibition, there are two engineering models of Sputnik-1 hanging from the ceiling, one showing what it looked like, the second an exploded version showing what was inside it. I was struck by the number of visitors who described it as “beautiful”.)

Without fanfare (in case it all went wrong), the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1 into Space on 4 October 1957 (ten days after I was born, making me a true space-age baby!) The first news about Sputnik came from the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire. They not only picked up the “Beep-beep-beep” signal which the satellite sent out to show where it was (and which we hear in the Exhibition from time to time), they were able to trace the trajectory and show that it had been launched from the Soviet Union. The Russians were delighted and proudly declared themselves to be first in the race into Space. (One boy of about ten years old very politely put me right on one detail. When I said that they had been able to spot it because it was the only man-made object in Space at the time, he pointed out that there were two: the last stage of the rocket which had taken Sputnik-1 into Space was up there, too!)

There’s a curious footnote to the role played by Jodrell Bank. The radar tracking station had been set up in 1945, and the first huge radio telescope was opened only in 1957. But whilst the scientists understood its value, the politicians did not. They had serious doubts that they should be spending such huge sums of money on the project, and its future was under threat. But in the language of the twenty-first century soundbite, an imaginary newspaper headline could sum up what happened in October 1957: Sputnik-1 Saves Jodrell Bank. Tracking the Russian satellite and confirming that it came from the USSR suddenly made Whitehall see the value of Jodrell Bank.

Animals in Space. Bottom left in the display
is a mock-up of how the dog travelled; on the
right is a suit for a monkey; and at the top is a
reproduction of the nose-cone of Sputnik-2.
Sending out the “Beep-beep-beep” signal was basically all that Sputnik-1 did. Politics had already begun to play a crucial role in the Space race, and the Soviet Union had just fired the starting gun. All that the satellite contained was a battery, a transmitter and a thermometer. The battery was expected to last for 14 days; it actually went on for 22 days, after which Sputnik-1 began to descend and ultimately burnt up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. But the models in the Exhibition are exact copies. (As one Space engineer told me, both sides always made at least three examples of each object that was to be sent into Space.)

The Soviet Union had not announced the launch of Sputnik-1 in advance, in case something went wrong; but now that the secret was out Khrushchev milked the news for all it was worth, as supposed proof of how the socialist system had overtaken the capitalist one. Khrushchev didn’t understand science – he was an ill-educated Ukrainian peasant – but he had learnt under Stalin the importance of seizing the moment; and this was the USSR’s (and therefore his) greatest moment. The cover of Time magazine bearing Khrushchev’s image as “Man of the Year for 1957” bears this out. (In reality, it should have been Korolev – but he was still unknown.)

In the same cabinet which one passes as one moves into the second part of the Exhibition is the Sputnik samovar and a poster declaring, “We’re first in Space; now let’s be first in Chemistry”. Slightly ahead on the right-hand side is a brief history of animals in Space, with a mock-up of the nose-cone of Sputnik-2, which carried Laika into Space; a model of how the dogs travelled; a suit for a monkey; and a photo of Laika herself. On the wall is a photo of Belka and Strelka, and an explanation that not only did they survive their trip (unlike Laika) but after they returned Belka even gave birth to puppies and one was presented to Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of the US President at the time, John F Kennedy.

No, not a Dalek. 'Object-D' -
or Sputnik-3 as it became.
I’m sure that there was much more to the story of animals in Space which we weren’t told. I don’t believe that the USSR sent a man into Space after they had sent just three dogs there. And as there was a suit for a monkey, what happened to the monkeys? But I enjoy telling visitors two curious facts about all the dogs used in the Space programme. Firstly, they were all strays – not because the Russians were concerned about breaking up the family home, but because they reckoned that as strays they had had to look after themselves and they would be tougher. Secondly, they used only bitches. For one thing, they thought that they were more placid than the dogs. But even more practically, it meant that when they wanted to wee they could do so without trying to lift their leg!

Turning back on yourself to the left, you see the aforementioned “Object-D” – or Sputnik-3 as it became. This was a much more sophisticated satellite than Sputnik-1, and its appearance was summed up by the young boy who asked me, “Is that a real Dalek?”

"Dear Sputnik...I want to go into Space, too!"

In the cabinet beside Sputnik-3 there is a lovely letter from a young girl called Masha, addressed to “Dear Sputnik” and asking to be sent into Space, “like Vasya…who has written to you”. Like the boy, Masha has “a ski suit, boots and a warm hat”; but “I don’t like tinned food, so I’ll bring my own bread and butter”!

"Mad wine, Sir?"

Next to this there is a bottle of wine, bearing the label Vin Fou; one of the 1,000 bottles which the French winemaker, Henri Maire, sent to Korolev after losing his bet that Korolev would not be able to send a spacecraft round the far side of the Moon. Completing the collection in this cabinet is Sir Patrick Moore’s lunar globe, one of only two objects in the Exhibition which belong to the Science Museum.

Luna-1; still in orbit.

There are then three 1:3 scale models of items which played very significant roles in the unmanned exploration of space. In 1958 Luna-1 was fired at the Moon, missed and ended up going into orbit around the Sun (and it still is).

Luna-9 fulfilled a vital function for the lunar exploration programmes for both the Russians and the Americans. Although each side had achieved hard landings on the surface of the Moon, in 1966 Luna-9 made the first soft landing. This was to prove crucial for manned missions because it showed that the surface was firm enough to take a spacecraft. Its secondary function was to send a probe onto the surface which opened up to take 360 degree photographs of the Moon.

(Above) Description of Luna-9. The diagram in
the bottom right illustrates how Luna-9 landed
on the surface of the Moon, then sent out its
probe to take 360-degree photos of the surface.
(Left) Full-size engineering model of Luna-9 in
the Museum of Cosmonautics in Kaluga, Russia.
Note the bust of Lenin on the wall behind.
(Below) Engineering model of the probe sent out
by Luna-9.

These photos led to a second role for Jodrell Bank in the Soviet Space programme – but one which the Russians did not approve. The photos which the Luna-9 probe sent back were the first to show the surface of the Moon close-up. Jodrell Bank picked up the signal and decoded it; and so the first such pictures of the Moon were published in Britain. The Russians were not pleased.

Full-scale model of Luna-16 in the Museum
in Kaluga. The girl gives an idea of the
height of the spacecraft.
Alongside Luna-9 is Luna-16. This landed on the Moon in 1970, so after the Americans had already brought rocks back from the Moon. But Luna-16, with its scoop reminiscent of something which could have been designed by Heath Robinson, was the first machine controlled from Earth which picked up dust from the surface, dropped it into the sphere on the top, and sent it back to Earth. Some of the dust is displayed in the Museum of Cosmonautics in Kaluga, along with an engineering model of Luna-16.

Lastly in this section are the engineering models of two probes sent to Venus, Vega-1 and Venera-7. The former inflated a balloon which was blown around Venus on the strong winds, while trailing equipment which sent back data. Venera-7 was described by the Curator as “one of the most important space missions”, landing on the surface of Venus and sending back data for 23 minutes before it burnt up in the 500 degree Celsius temperature.

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