The Soviet Union launches the world’s first artificial satellite, the short-lived Sputnik, which transmits a steady signal from orbit that can be tracked by radio. The reaction in the United States is one of alarmed paranoia, since the launch of an orbiting vehicle demonstrates technological capabilities in excess of what is needed to launch missles from the USSR toward American soil. Sputnik’s launch is the Soviet Union’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year, an international scientific event during which the United States has also promised to launch a satellite.
The Soviet Union launches the Sputnik 2 satellite, this time with the first life form from Earth to reach orbit. A dog named Laika is strapped into the satellite, where she has air and food (though only a limited supply, with no provision for a safe return to Earth), but Laika dies within hours due to overheating from the stress of launch and the unfamiliar sensations of zero gravity, making her the first living thing from Earth to die in space.
The first attempt to launch an American satellite into orbit ends in fire, with the rocket failing to produce enough thrust to take off. The booster falls over and explodes on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, destroying the Vanguard TV-3 satellite, intended to be America’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year. The blame is later placed on the insistence of not using proven military rockets as launch vehicles.