We Shocked the World

Nikita Khrushchev’s son recalls the night Sputnik made history.

The author, whose father was first secretary for the Soviet Communist Paty from 1953 to 1964, relaxes in his office at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. (Watson Institute for International Studies)
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On the evening of October 4, 1957, my father was waiting for a phone call. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev was expected to call from the Tyuratam launch site (later renamed Baikonur Cosmodrome) in Kazakhstan to report the outcome of the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite.

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Earlier that day, my father had been in Kiev, Ukraine, on military business. He attended a demonstration of tanks crossing the Dnieper River, then he discussed with some 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, political leaders enlisted the higher-ranking generals’ support. The generals all agreed with the plan.)

That evening, in Mariyinsky Palace, now the official residence of Ukraine’s president, my father sat at the dinner table talking with the Ukrainian leaders. I settled into a chair at the end of the table, not paying much attention to the conversation. It was late and everybody was tired, but my father wasn’t in a hurry to say goodnight. Around midnight, the door cracked open and the secretary asked my father to take a phone call. When he came back in the room he was smiling, and I knew right away that the launch of Sputnik had been successful.

“A moment ago, an outstanding event happened,” my father told the room in a voice that could not quite conceal his elation. “Korolev has called me and reported that two hours ago the artificial satellite was put into orbit.”

The name Korolev didn’t mean anything to the Ukrainian leaders. My father started talking about rockets, engineers, and our achievements. The Ukrainians were agreeing politely but were not really interested. They wanted to come back to the discussions that had been interrupted by the phone call, about the region’s agriculture, finance, and other matters.

The secretary came into the room again, silently turned on a shortwave radio in the corner, and tuned it. Now, from the speakers, Sputnik’s signals came through: beep…beep…beep. My father listened intently, then the signals grew gradually softer as Sputnik went over the horizon. The session was over, as well as the conversation. My father apologized, said it was late, and went to bed.

The next day, Pravda and other Soviet newspapers published on the front page a 50-line, two-column official announcement from the TASS news agency. It began: “The design and development of artificial Earth-orbiting satellites have been done for several years in the Soviet Union.”

Engineers had begun designing Sputnik in January 1956. The plan was to launch it with the R-7, the intercontinental ballistic missile that Korolev’s team had been working on since 1954. Like later Soviet missiles, the R-7 had military purposes as its primary application and space research as its secondary application. On February 26, 1956, my father and I (I was a student at the Moscow Electric Power Institute—in American terms, an engineering college) had visited Korolev’s design office in Podlipki and viewed missiles, including a full-size model of the R-7. At the end of the visit, we listened to a brief talk on the possibility of the R-7 launching an artificial satellite. Having a fondness for technological innovations, my father got interested in that, but he warned Korolev, “The main priority is security of the country.”

TASS at the time had been reporting that satellite launches were scheduled in connection with the International Geophysical Year, a worldwide program of coordinated scientific observations of geophysical phenomena. Soviet newspapers had even published the frequencies of the satellites’ radio transmitters. But all of the reports were vague, with no mention of launch dates. Nobody in the rest of the world would pay attention to such pronouncements; everybody outside the Soviet Union knew the United States would soon launch the world’s first satellite.

Korolev was afraid that the Americans might be ahead. He was especially worried when he found out that the U.S. Army’s July 1957 test of the Jupiter ballistic missile had been a success. After that, he thought that the Americans would open the door to space before his R-7 had even flown. Korolev was in a hurry. The meeting of the IGY committee was scheduled for the beginning of October, at which time the American scientists intended to tell their plans for space.

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