Happy Birthday, Sputnik: The Beep Heard Round the World

NASA reflects on 50th anniversary of the satellite that started the space race.

ByABC News
February 12, 2009, 3:43 PM

Oct. 3, 2007 — -- It started with a simple beep on Oct. 4, 1957. But it was a beep heard around the world. When the Soviet Union launched the 183-pound Sputnik, the tiny satellite ignited a frantic space race between the USSR and the United States.

Milt Heflin was 14 years old when Sputnik launched, and he was already an avid radio enthusiast. He remembers sitting in his backyard in Edmond, Okla., listening to outer space.

"I can still picture myself sitting in the backyard at a card table, with a battery operated radio ... the beep, beep, beep in the head phones. Man, that was really wild," Heflin said. "I came from a little town in Osage County, and word got around that I had heard Sputnik, and people wanted to come to my house to listen to it themselves. No one could believe it."

Heflin's love for radios began when his parents gave him a crystal radio kit for Christmas. By 1957, he had become a licensed ham operator, and when Sputnik was launched he immediately started listening for Sputnik's beep.

Heflin would take that love for radios and his curiosity about Sputnik and space and eventually become a flight director at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he witnessed firsthand how far the space program could go with a little motivation.

Sputnik wasn't big. It was about the size of a basketball, took 98 minutes to circle Earth on an elliptical orbit, and its launch changed everything.

National Air and Space Museum curator Roger Launius wrote about the turmoil that erupted the night that Americans learned about Sputnik.

"Two generations after the event, words do not easily convey the American reaction to the Soviet satellite, the only appropriate characterization that begins to capture the mood on Oct. 5 involves the use of the word 'hysteria.'"

The space race was on. The U.S. satellite entry was Explorer 1, which launched from Cape Canaveral at 10:48 p.m., Jan. 31, 1958.

Explorer 1 weighed 30.66 pounds and carried a small scientific payload that eventually discovered the magnetic radiation belts around Earth, named after the principal investigator James Van Allen.