Photograph by Mark Thiessen
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Sputnik 1, the first human-made satellite placed in orbit around Earth.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen

Dear Sputnik: How a simple sphere changed my life

Fifty-one years after the satellite's launch, a writer reflects on how it influenced him growing up in the Soviet Union.

This essay is an entry in our "Dear Spacecraft" series, where we ask writers, scientists, and astronomy enthusiasts to share why they feel personally connected to robotic space explorers.

Dear Sputnik,

You are the main reason I wished so often to be born a couple of decades earlier than I actually was. Just imagine the sorrow of a space fan who barely missed the epochal event in 1957 that humanity had dreamed of for centuries: the launch of Earth’s first artificial satellite, and the dawn of a new Space Age.

In the late 1970s, I was coming of age in Moscow in the Soviet Union. As I looked up at the skies through the telescope of the Moscow planetarium, I remember arriving at two vague ideas about space exploration: that you had started without me, and that you were already a fossil, a legend of a bygone era.

Images of you were almost as common as portraits of Vladimir Lenin and slogans about the victories of socialism. You were everywhere: on postage stamps, greeting cards, matchboxes, and monuments. Your name adorned hotels and cinemas, restaurants and discos, radios and razors, candies and cakes.

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The author inside the vehicle assembly building in Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, in the summer of 2000. The Soyuz rocket seen here is a direct descendant of the ballistic missile that launched Sputnik in 1957.

But like other decaying Soviet symbols, you had detached from reality, becoming a cliché to my parents’ increasingly cynical generation. Each day, they passed your likeness on propaganda posters as they pushed themselves into overcrowded streetcars and buses in the morning to get to work. At the end of their long days at factories and offices, tired and exhausted, they had to endure humiliating lines in half-empty stores for basic necessities, from bologna and cheese to socks and shorts—and, near the USSR’s end, even toilet paper.

My generation was also turning away from you and other Soviet space heroes, succumbing to the “corrupting influence” of the West: jeans, ABBA, Pepsi, and the golosa, the “voices” such as Voice of America and the BBC that we heard on the radio. Our parents taught us how to tune in to them over the deafening noise of KGB suppression transmitters.

But beneath the Levis and refrains of “Mamma Mia,” I was first and foremost a space geek, and I needed to know your origin story. I looked everywhere I could to learn more about you and the Soviet space program, but exploring your past quickly got difficult—if not dangerous.

Anybody who tried to peek beyond the dull façade of your official biography discovered an iron curtain of secrecy and paranoia. One day, my father brought me a roll of film with photocopies of western articles about the Soviet and U.S. space programs, which I had asked him to find in a limited-access technical library. I was careless enough to take the film to a nearby photo shop for paper copies; when I returned to pick them up, the staff looked at me as if they had caught a CIA agent!

Your birthplace was the biggest taboo. We couldn’t read about it in any book, and we weren’t supposed to ask our teachers about it. But during one of my early childhood trips by commuter train, I caught a tantalizing glimpse.

We were riding along the Yaroslavl Railroad on the way to our family’s dacha, or country house. Two train stops away from our destination, my father pointed at a monumental brick building towering over barbed wire fences near the station of Podlipki. “That’s where Korolev built his sputniks and rockets,” my father whispered. “But don’t tell anybody, because posadyat.” He looked up as he said the word, which literally translates as “to get you to sit down.” We both knew its real meaning: to get thrown in prison.

Not surprisingly, for a kid, it sounded both scary and terribly exciting. Nothing fires up your interest more than a forbidden mystery. Looking back, this moment planted a seed of fascination within me. I needed to see inside.

Whenever we stayed at the dacha, I sometimes returned to Podlipki with my parents to stock up on provisions in the main grocery store, which offered a wider selection than the neighboring towns’ dreary shops and increasingly empty shelves. In some funny way, I have to thank you, Sputnik, for making my parents’ lives a little easier. We all flocked to Podlipki because it was an open secret that the town was on the moskovskoye snabzhenie, earning a special “Moscow-level supply” because of its status as the spacecraft-building town.

But at the time, my parents didn’t necessarily appreciate your contribution. Like many other families across the Soviet Union gathering for meals, they actually blamed you and your rockets for the scarcity of food on the table. For a while, their discontent was limited to those “kitchen talks.” But it was only a matter of time—an unbelievably short one, as we soon realized—before the USSR would collapse, taking its magnificent space program down with it.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. Podlipki was renamed after Sergei Korolev, the legendary father of the Soviet space program who blessed your development and design. Still infected with the space geek virus, I was now a journalist—and I had finally received very special permission to visit your secret birthplace.

I remember riding a taxi along the familiar fence and telling the driver to turn into a short driveway that ended with imposing metal gates. There were no signs, doorbells, or guards; the driver looked at me with considerable apprehension. But I assured him it was the right turn, even as my heart was pounding.

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A moment after we had approached, the gates opened and we drove into a small parking lot completely enclosed by another internal fence: Korolev’s famous lovushka (trap), a locale often mentioned in the memoirs of Soviet space veterans.

I showed my passport there and was led into your cradle. There was Korolev’s long office, still in use by his successors, with giant curtained walls on two sides. The curtains on the left were open, revealing windows to the outside. The opposite windowless wall remained veiled, however, hiding secret designs that saw the light of day only during classified meetings.

I can picture Korolev pulling back the curtain to unveil you for the first time: a tiny silver sphere that would change the world.

In the years since, I have made a pilgrimage to almost every place connected to your biography. I’ve stood many times near the spot where you had blasted into orbit in the darkness of night on October 4, 1957, and I’ve visited probably every museum around the world that displays your replica.

Why do all of this? I guess I’m compensating for the fact that I missed your birthday.

Anatoly

Anatoly Zak is a writer and illustrator specialized in the history of space exploration and the publisher of RussianSpaceWeb.com . He is also the author of Russia in Space: The Past Explained, The Future Explored.