The USSR rocketed to the lead in the Cold War's "Space Race" with the launch of Sputnik, a basketball-sized satellite that became the first manmade object to orbit the Earth.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

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  • On October 4, 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. The satellite, an 85-kilogram (187-pound) metal sphere the size of a basketball, was launched on a huge rocket and orbited Earth at 29,000 kilometers per hour (18,000 miles per hour) for three months. When it finally fell out of orbit in January 1958, Sputnik had traveled 70 million kilometers (43.5 million miles) around the planet. The only cargo onboard Sputnik was a low-power radio transmitter, which broadcast a beeping noise at regular intervals. This beeping could be heard by radio listeners around the world.

    A year after the launch of Sputnik, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), formally launching the "Space Race" between the United States and the Soviet Union. This competition in technological development would lead to the Moon landing, space shuttle, and International Space Station, which still orbits Earth today.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    artificial satellite Noun

    object launched into orbit.

    broadcast Verb

    to transmit signals, especially for radio or television media.

    cargo Noun

    goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.

    International Space Station (ISS) Noun

    satellite in low-Earth orbit that houses several astronauts for months at a time.

    NASA Noun

    (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) the U.S. space agency, whose mission statement is "To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind."

    orbit Verb

    to move in a circular pattern around a more massive object.

    Encyclopedic Entry: orbit
    planet Noun

    large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.

    Encyclopedic Entry: planet
    radio Noun

    wireless transmission based on electromagnetic waves.

    rocket Noun

    device that moves through the atmosphere by release of expanding gas.

    Soviet Union Noun

    (1922-1991) large northern Eurasian nation that had a communist government. Also called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR.

    space shuttle Noun

    vehicle used to transport astronauts and instruments to and from Earth.

    sphere Noun

    round object.