- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

MOSCOW — When Sputnik took off in 1957, the world looked on in apprehension, watching what seemed like the product of a sustained Soviet effort to conquer space and score a stunning Cold War triumph.

But 50 years later, it emerges that the world”s first satellite launch was a spur-of-the-moment gamble driven by the dream of one scientist, whose team scrounged up a rocket, slapped together a satellite and persuaded a dubious Kremlin to open the Space Age.

In a series of interviews in recent days, Boris Chertok, one of the founders of the Soviet space program, and other veterans told the little-known story of how Sputnik was launched.

Mr. Chertok couldn”t whisper a word about the project through much of his lifetime. His name, and that of Sergei Korolyov, the chief scientist, were a state secret. Today, at 95, Mr. Chertok can finally give full voice to his pride at the pivotal role that he played in the history of space exploration.

“Each of these first rockets was like a beloved woman for us,” he said. “We were in love with every rocket, we desperately wanted it to blast off successfully. We would give our hearts and souls to see it flying.”

This very rational exuberance, and Mr. Korolyov”s determination, were the keys to Sputnik”s success. So was happenstance.

As described by the former scientists, the world”s first orbiter was born out of a very different Soviet program — the frantic development of a rocket capable of striking the United States with a hydrogen bomb.

Because there was no telling how heavy the warhead would be, its R-7 ballistic missile was built with thrust to spare — “much more powerful than anything the Americans had,” said Georgy Grechko, a rocket engineer and cosmonaut.

The towering R-7”s high thrust and payload capacity, unmatched at the time, just happened to make it the perfect vehicle to launch an object into orbit — something never done before.

When the warhead project hit a snag, Mr. Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program, seized the opportunity.

Both visionary scientist and iron-willed manager, he pressed the Kremlin to let him launch a satellite. The U.S. was already planning such a move in 1958, he pointed out, as part of the International Geophysical Year.

The Soviet Union already had a full-fledged scientific satellite in development, but it would take too long to complete, Mr. Korolyov knew. So he ordered his team to quickly sketch a primitive orbiter. It was called PS-1, for “Prosteishiy Sputnik” — the Simplest Satellite.

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