The Spacecraft Tarot: Sputnik

Tippy Ki Yay
5 min readJan 10, 2021
The original watercolor illustration is by me, Tippy Ki Yay. The background image is Hubble imagery and the credit belongs to NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

The Fool represents a new beginning.

In many tarot decks, the Fool is depicted as a jester-like character, so absorbed in the happiness of the moment that he doesn’t realize he is about to step off a cliff. The Fool is naïve and open to new experiences, without any skepticism or weariness to deter him. Even if the future is unclear or uncertain, he boldly steps into the unknown without hesitation. The Fool serves as a reminder to bring a fresh perspective to every new experience.

Sputnik I launched into orbit the same way the Fool steps off the cliff: completely oblivious of how the next moments would unfold, no inkling of how this event would change the course of history forever.

The world was unprepared on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched a 22-inch sphere ball of aluminum into Earth’s orbit from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Four spring-loaded antennae trailed behind it as it soared across the skies, completing an orbit around the planet every 96 minutes. Although the spacecraft was difficult to observe visually from the Earth, anyone with a radio receiver could hear its distinct trail of beeps as it flew overhead.

The Soviet Union had launched the world’s first artificial satellite into space: Sputnik, Russian for “fellow traveler.”

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had been participating in efforts to launch a satellite as a part of the International Geophysical Year, a scientist-led collaborative program to study the Earth.

The Soviet Union space program and military program worked in tandem, but operated in secrecy. The successful launch of Sputnik I demonstrated that the Soviet Union had perfected the use of an intercontinental ballistic missile, and nations of the world suddenly feared that the Soviet Union had the ability to launch a nuclear attack.

The Vanguard Test Vehicle 3 exploding on the launchpad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on December 6, 1957. Image Credit: U.S. Navy

When Sputnik launched, the world was in the thick of the Cold War.

Since the end of World War II, geopolitical tensions had been growing between the Soviet Union, the United States, and their respective allies, sprouting from ideological differences and technological competitions. Although there were no direct conflicts, each nation competed aggressively in everything from sports, to scientific developments, to demonstrations of military force.

In reaction to the successful deployment of Sputnik, the United States galvanized to close the technology gap. The test flight for what would’ve been the country’s first satellite in orbit failed spectacularly on December 6, 1957 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Vanguard Test Vehicle 3 lost thrust two seconds after launch and fell back onto the pad, exploding in front of spectators and media from all over the world. The rocket and the launch pad were destroyed and the satellite was thrown from the explosion, sustaining too much damage to be reused.

To further advance the country’s space exploration efforts, the United States government established a civilian space agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Unlike the Soviet Union, the United States drew a clear distinction between its military and scientific space efforts.

On October 1, 1958, NASA officially opened its doors. The launch of Sputnik had immediately and without precedent created a new arena for the Cold War rivalry to take place: the heavens.

Explorer I was NASA’s first successful satellite. Image Credit: NASA

The “Space Race” had begun.

Sputnik was a modest vessel for having created such ripples in world history. The spacecraft took the form of a metallic sphere, equipped with a radio beacon whose beeps could be tracked by people’s radios around the Earth.

Sputnik data could be used to locate exact places around the world with accuracy. The spacecraft also collected measurements about the density of the Earth’s atmosphere using the drag on the antenna.

NASA teams used what they learned from Sputnik’s success to finally launch its first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit on January 31, 1958. Sputnik would continue as a series of spacecraft over the course of several decades, each new version building off the lessons from the previous one.

As the decade finished out and the 1960s began, the Soviet Union and the United States were no longer just sending simple satellites into space. They were building and designing spacecraft for humans to travel inside.

As each Cold War rival advanced their space exploration technology further, they each had their eyes on the prize: landing humans on the Moon.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin descending from the ladder on the Lunar Module to the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969. Image Credit: NASA

On July 20, 1969, this dream was realized when NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission. As the “Space Race” drew toward a close, the Soviet Union and the United States set aside past hostilities to collaborate on space exploration.

Almost six years exactly after the first Moon landing, July 17, 1975, spacecraft from the former two rivals docked to each other in space, for the first time merging the Soviet Union and NASA technology off the planet. Russians and Americans shook hands across the hatch, sharing kind words and gifts as the world watched on television. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project solidified the beginning of a long, cooperative relationship in space.

Even after the Soviet Union dissolved on December 26, 1991, the majority of the world powers continue to work together on space exploration endeavors. One of the most significant manifestations of this partnership is the International Space Station (ISS), which merges technology and hosts astronauts from all over the world.

Since the first Expedition crew began their mission to the ISS on November 2, 2000, there has been continuous human presence in space aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The International Space Station floats above the Earth. Image Credit: NASA

The launch of Sputnik I toppled a line of dominos that led us to this moment of collaboration. Although the atmosphere of the Cold War created uncertainty and mistrust between rivals, the world’s powers used this spirit of competition to drive advancements in space exploration technology.

Sputnik was truly a “fellow” traveler — the first of many thousands.

Much like the Fool, Sputnik reminds us to embrace the unknown. Do not allow past experiences and disappointment to teach you not to trust. Resist the urge to close yourself off from new experiences in fear of getting hurt again.

Sputnik reminds us to aim high and take giant leaps — even if the height scares you.

A model of Sputnik I floats against a black background. Image Credit: NASA

Read the complete Spacecraft Tarot series.