Preparing Sputnik for flight


Simplest satellite under assembly.

Lifting the veil

As the testing of the R-7 rocket progressed in absolute secrecy during the summer of 1957, the Soviet authorities gave the world few hints about its potential. Professor Aleksandr Nesmeyanov stated that Russia had "created the rocket and all the instruments and equipment necessary to solve the problems of the artificial Earth satellite." Headquarters of the International Geophysical Year, IGY, in Belgium received a statement signed by Vice President of Academy of Sciences I. P. Bardin, informing IGY officials that the USSR would launch a 20-inch sphere into polar(!) orbit. (148)

In June 1957, Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper ran an article by President of the Academy of Sciences A. N. Nesmeyanov, promising the satellite launch "within next few months." The most revealing piece of information on the Soviet satellite program came in the June 1957 issue of the Radio magazine. The article provided radio frequencies and trajectories of the future Soviet satellites. (148)

Finally, on Aug. 26, 1957, the official Soviet Agency, TASS, announced that a multistage intercontinental ballistic missile flew a successful test mission. Most of these hints received little attention in the West, outside of the intelligence community.

The Soviet authorities also created an "Interagency Coordinating Commission in the Field of Organization and Implementation Interplanetary Travel" chaired by Leonid Sedov, the professor of the Moscow Sate University, MGU. In the run-up to the Sputnik launch, the organization was mostly ignored in the West, as few were expecting the USSR achieving it first. Decades later, post-Soviet historians dismissed the organization, as a front intended to confuse the Western intelligence. (18) However even its effectiveness as a cover up is questionable.

Nevertheless, it seems that Sedov and his colleagues at the Commission had at least vague understanding what was going on in the deep underground of the Soviet rocket development program. In the aftermath of Sputnik, Sedov would become a "father of the Russian satellite," in the eyes of the Western press, while Korolev would remain sworn to secrecy until his death in 1966. It seems both men were equally humiliated by this situation.

Preparing for flight


On Feb. 15, 1957, Korolev signed an agreement with NII-885 led by Mikhail Ryazansky on the specifications of the radio transmitter for the PS satellite. It would be the the main component of the spacecraft to be developed outside Korolev's OKB-1. (18)

Pressed on time, OKB-1 conducted the development and the manufacturing of the satellite's parts in parallel. The main hurdles turned out to be the manufacturing of the hemispheres of the satellite with the help of hydro-pumping, their welding with the internal structure and polishing of the external surfaces. (52) Not a single scratch was allowed, so Korolev famously yelled at workers for not doing a thorough job and reminding them that "this satellite will be in museums." Since welding of external components had to achieve a sealed container, X-rays were used to ensure the quality. Developers then used a PTI-4 leak checking hardware, employing helium, to ensure the quality of all seals onboard the satellite container. Again, at the end of August 1957, Korolev reportedly personally questioned the OKB-1 personnel responsible for manual welding of satellite components. At the time, an automated welding was still in the development stage. (250)

In the process of experimental development, a mockup of the satellite was built to model future arrangement of the onboard hardware, cables and mechanisms. Developers also conducted numerous tests of the separation of the payload fairing and the satellite itself from the rocket. Another effort aimed to model thermal regime onboard the satellite. (52)

For the pre-flight processing of PS-1, Moscow-based GSKB Spetsmash led by Vladimir Barmin developed four hardware articles allowing, rail transportation and handling of the satellite. (112) A special processing area for the satellite was organized inside the assembly building at Site-2 in Tyuratam, Kazakhstan. In addition, the arrangements were made to test the separation of the payload fairing and the satellite from the launch vehicle. (70)

On July 24, 1957, a leading engineer of OKB-1 Bushuev signed final design blueprints of the satellite. (18) Also, sometime, in the summer of 1957, Korolev paid a visit to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, apparently for the final coordination of the Sputnik plans. (252, 18) Final integration of the PS satellite started in August 1957. Initially, the assembly was expected to take place on the floor of the main assembly area, however on the instructions from Korolev, a special "clean room" area was cordoned off for the project. For the first time, the personnel of OKB-1 was wearing white coats and gloves. (252)

Ten days, after the first successful flight of the of the R-7, "cold tests" of the satellite with its future rocket had taken place in Podlipki. In September, the satellite was tested in the thermal chamber and on the vibration stand. (18) On Sept. 7, 1957, the R-7 rocket flies a second flawless mission, clearing the way for the satellite launch.

By the end of August 1957, the rocket destined to carry the PS-1 satellite was sent from OKB-1's production plant in Podlipki, to Baikonur. (250) On September 15, 1957, Korolev visited Kaluga, to participate in the foundation of the memorial to Tsiolkovsky. On Sept. 17, 1957, he spoke at the event dedicated to Tsiolkovsky's legacy in Moscow, hinting that the launch of the satellite was coming: "In the near future, for scientific purposes, USSR and USA will conduct first test launches of the artificial satellites of the Earth." As all previous Soviet declarations, Korolev's statement produced little resonance even among members of the audience, as few in the crowd had any idea about ongoing work on the satellite.

On Sept. 20, 1957, Korolev chaired the meeting of the commission, overseeing the satellite launch. It approved a preliminary launch date and called for the drafting of the official statement for the press by Sept. 23. (18)

On Sept. 24, Tikhonravov delivered Korolev "Technical report on the possibility of the launch of PS-1." (18)

On Sept. 26-27, 1957, Korolev flew to Tyuratam (his fifth trip in 1957) via Tashkent to lead the final preparations for the world's first space mission. (253, 18) The pre-launch processing in Tyuratam was conducted by the Engineering and Testing Unit led by Lt. Colonel I. I. Cherenkov. Engineer Colonel A. Nosov performed general management of the pre-launch processing. Engineer Colonel E. I. Ostashev and Engineer Major R. M. Grigoryants represented developers and military quality control. (70)

The rocket for the first satellite arrived to Tyuratam on Sept. 22, 1957. Originally, the launch was scheduled for Oct. 7, 1957, however it was later advanced to Oct. 4, 1957. The rumor circulating among launch personnel had it that the launch date was moved forward in response to the American preparation of its own orbital launch. (51)

One of the veterans of the launch, cosmonaut Georgy Grechko, who at the time was a young engineer at Korolev’s organization, recalled an anecdote, according to which the launch date of October 4 was a result of the mistaken identity. According to Grechko, the urgent schedule change was triggered by an American report entitled “The Satellite Over the Planet,” which was scheduled for presentation on October 5 at the International Astronautics Federation in Barcelona. The report was listed in a bulletin of translated western sources circulating throughout the industry.

Fearing that the event was planned to follow the American orbital launch, Korolev reportedly ordered cancelling some unessential tests and advance the Soviet space shot to October 4. Interestingly, recently declassified Soviet documents dealing with Sputnik, which had been circulating through the government circles as late as September 28, 1957, all quote the planned launch date in the middle of October 1957. (815)

On Oct. 1, 1957, the Radio Moscow announced frequencies at which people around the world could hear signals from the satellite. (257)

On October 2, 1957, the State Commission overseeing the flight approved a decision to conduct the launch on October 4. (51) According to recollections of the Soviet cosmonaut Aleksandr Aleksandrov, Korolev sent a signed request for permission to begin flight tests of the PS-1 satellite on the same day, but had not received a response from Moscow by the time he made a decision to roll out the rocket to the pad. (815)

On the morning of October 3, 1957, the launch vehicle with the satellite was rolled out from the assembly building at Site 2 to the launch pad. (71)

The fueling of the rocket started at 05:45 Moscow Time on October 4, 1957. (252)

During loading of fuel onboard the Block B booster, a signal indicating the completion of the fueling operation came up only two minutes after the preliminary marker of the fueling indicator was passed. To clarify the situation, the fuel was unloaded, confirming that the fueling indicator worked correctly. During a second attempt, all fueling systems worked properly. (84)

The rocket with the satellite was programmed to enter a 223 by 1,450-kilometer orbit, which would take the satellite 101.5 minutes to complete. With all the systems working nominally, the second stage would reach this orbit upon consuming half of its emergency propellant cache. In case a lower-then-expected performance, the engines could be shut down as soon as they run out of one of the propellant components -- fuel or oxidizer. In such a case, the emergency contact of the pump, known as AKT, would trigger the engine shutdown command. (84)

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Written and illustrated by Anatoly Zak. All rights reserved.

Last update: October 4, 2021



Only four pieces of ground hardware were required to prepare Sputnik for launch. Credit: KBTM



A technician can clearly see his reflection in the thoroughly polished surface of the PS-1 satellite designed to facilitate its tracking. Credit: RKK Energia



Several official photos of Sputnik were released by the Soviet media following the successful launch on Oct. 4, 1957.


An assembly technician Yuri Silaev was apparently a person who appeared in the historic footage documenting the assembly of the world's first satellite. Credit: RKK Energia


spacecraft science