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The Sputnik Program was a series of unmanned space missions launched by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s to demonstrate the viability of artificial satellites. The name "Sputnik" ("Спутник") comes from Russian where it means "fellow traveller".

Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957. The satellite had a weight of about 83 kg (184 pounds). It had two radio transmitters. It is believed that it orbited Earth at about 250 km (150 miles) above Earth's surface. Analysis of the radio signals were used to gather information about the upper atmosphere.

The United States had also been working on satellites, primarily through teams working for the US Navy as Project Vanguard. Their first launch had originally been intended to launch before Sputnik, but was delayed several times before blowing up on the pad. A rush effort then started under the US Army's Jupiter project and succeeded launching Explorer I in January 1958. This is considered the start of the Space Race between the two superpowers, as an aspect of the Cold War. Both nations attempted to outdo each other in space exploration, eventually culminating in the launch of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Sputnik 1 fell back to Earth on January 4, 1958.

Sputnik 2 was launched some months later, and carried the first living passenger, a dog named Laika. The mission planners did not provide for the safe return of the spacecraft or its passenger, making Laika the first space casualty.

The first attempt to launch Sputnik 3 on February 3, 1958 failed, but the second on May 15 succeeded, and it carried a large array of instruments for geophysical research. Its tape recorder failed, however, making it unable to measure the Van Allen radiation belts.

Sputnik 4 was launched into orbit two years later on May 15, 1960.

Sputnik 5 was launched into orbit on August 19, 1960 with the dogs Belka and Strelka (Russian for "Squirrel" and "Little Arrow"), 40 mice, 2 rats and a variety of plants on-board. The spacecraft returned to earth the next day and all animals were recovered safely.

All Sputniks were carried to orbit by the R.7 launch vehicle, originally designed to carry ballistic warheads.

In 2003 a back-up unit of Sputnik 1 called "model PS-1" was sold on eBay (minus the classified military radio part that were removed in the 1960s). It had been on display in a science institute near Kiev. It is estimated that between four and twenty models were made for testing and other purposes.

A Sputnik I Model was given as a present to the United Nations and now decorates the entry Hall of their NYC Headquarter.

More about Laika...

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