Sputnik 2 - was it really built in less than a month?

Sven Grahn

Now that the anniversary of Sputnik 1 has passed, maybe we shall give some thought to the reallly shocking event of the early space age, the launch of Sputnik 2, which took place from Tyuratam at 0230:42 UT on November 3, 1957.

The problem

In most accounts that have been published in connection with the Sputnik 1 anniversary, we have heard that the people working on the Sputnik 1 /R-7 launch were called back from a well-deserved vacation just days after the successful Sputnik 1 launch and asked to build and launch a second satellite in less than a month. When repeatedly asked about this effort the participants in this work that are alive today say there had been absolutely no preparations until Khrushchev called Korolev and asked that another satellite be launched.

We have also recently heard the same thing about Sputnik 1. Boris Chertok said at his talk at IAF97 in Turin that "we built Sputnik 1 in a month or two..." (if I remember it correctly). Even James Oberg says in his book "Red Star In orbit" that "A simple test satellite was thrown together in one of the smaller machine shops in the assembly building" (p. 31). Of course we now know that the preparations for Sputnik 1 had been lengthy. In Asif Saddiqis excellent review "Korolev, Sputnik and The International Geophysical year" we learn that Tikhonravov and Korolev began discussing Sputnik 1 as a stop-gap measure until Object-D (Sputnik 3) would be ready in November 1956! So, when our Russian friends say something was built from scratch in a short time, perhaps we should take that to mean that the final assembly and test was done in such a short time. I think there could be a problem of language here.

In any case, I wish to present arguments here to the effect that some, but certainly very far from all, technical preparations had been made before Khrushchev's request to Korolev to launch a second satellite.

The arguments for previous preparations

  1. In Siddiqi's paper mentioned above we also learn that Korolev presented a plan to launch a series of satellites, including one with animals, at a meeting at the Academy of Sciences on 30 August 1955.

  3. In a document describing the conceptual design of an artificial earth satellite, dated 25 September 1956, Sergei Korolev mentions (as the 8 th and last point) that among the investigations that could be carried out on board the first satellite was "studies of possibility of survival and life of animals during long-term residence on board a spaeccraft".

  5. In the book "Roads to Space", Abram M Ghenin says on p 44: "While we were launching sounding rockets carrying animals we were also making preparations for launching the first artificial Earth satellite with an animal onboard.".....


    These three extracts seem to indicate that the launch of Laika was planned well in advance.

  7. In the same bok ("Roads to Space") Arkady I Ostashov on p. 294 describes how everyone was called back from vacation after the Sputnik 1 triumph around October 11 and that the Sputnik 2 R-7 booster was sent to Tyuratam on October 18!!!! Would all the modifications necessary have been made in just one week? I doubt that. Of course some changes could have been made at the launch site.

  9. In "Roads to Space" Yuri A. Mozzhorin (worked on R-7 TT&C systems at NII MO) explains (p.413) that "The second satellite, carrying the dog Laika, was equipped with a telemetry transmitter, thereby allowing the Tral-D equipment to be activated (Tral-D TM system was developed for Object-D, but not used on Sputnik 1, SG:s comment), The satellite also featured a slow-scan TV camera (100 lines per frame, 10 frames per seond), which relayed images to the ground on the Tral frequency". (We now know that Sputnik 3 transmitted on 66 MHz and that the Tral-D system operated in the range approx. 60-85 MHz). Desiging such systems are not something you do in a couple of weeks!

  10. As Bart Hendricx has pointed out the choice of not separating the dog-cabin from the launch vehicle made it possible to use the Tral telemetry system on the R-7 booster.

    [In Ostashov's text there is a description of the hurried design (and fixes made at the launch pad) of a timer that would permit saving battery power by switching the "Tral" transmitter on for 15 minutes every orbit. I think this is a genuine example of something that was done in the last three weeks before launch.]

  11. Constantine Domashnev has provided the following quotes:

  12. From (2):

    On page 548

    "To speed the work up, Sergei Pavlovich proposed to simplify the construction and not to separate the container with the dog from the booster: - Besides simplicity, - the Chief said, - this will allow us to bypass the part of the heat through the metal of the construction and help us keep an animal from overheating."

    On page 549:

    "When Korolev was giving Khruschev a promise to greet the Soviet people with a new space wonder by the celebration [of 40th anniversary of the October Revolution], he understood what he was risking. However, the Chief designer had a small zadel [? deposit; ? work already done], the very same one, which separated this promise from the gamble [? / bluff]. In fact, the academical "Object-D" was planned in three variations. The first one was materialized in our third satellite. The second was supposed to be orientable. The third allowed a container with test animals."

    From (3) p 301:

    "Less than a week after the launch of the first satellite, S.P. Korolev held meeting on the second satellite, to which [satellite] he had been paying a special attention. [Discussion of the foreign press reaction to the Sputnik] ... "

    On page 304: [The same meeting]

    "Sergei Pavlovich asked Ivanovskii:
    '- The very essence, Oleg Genrihovich'.
    '- All works on the second satellite are on schedule. There are no deviations from the plan, - the constructor reported. - The on-board installation of the device to study Sun ultraviolet and X-ray radiation is completed. Cylindric chamber for a test animal has been kept within strict limits: length - 80 centimeters, diameter - 64. The weight is within limits as well. The total mass - animal, apparatus, power sources - about 500 kg.'...."

  13. On Sputnik 2 there was also a spectrophotometer for UV (1216 A) and Soft-X-rays (1-120 A) using a photomultiplier tube and a filterwheel. This instrument sent data through a commutated telemetry channel. The instrument designed by the St. Peterburg physicist A. Jefremov under the direction of Academicians A. Lebedev and S. Mandelstam.
  14. Another item that needed development for Sputnik 2 was the ejectable nose shroud. It was not simple device, and according to some sources it did not work, thereby causing the overheating and death of Lajka.


My guess is that some preliminary work had been done, but that the work had to be speeded up feverishly after Khrushchov's demand to put something up before Nov 7. Let me quote Abram M Ghenin again (1  p.44): "I was always amazed by Korolev's working method. Even before the goal of the current activity had been attained, preparations were already under way for the next step, and the steps beyond that."

But still, the Sputnik 2 tale is bordering on the incredible.


Finally, let me end with a tribute to Lajka. It was the launch of this little dog that really fired up the imagination of humankind. It triggered many persons on to a career in space science and technology, including myself. When Lajka flew, I was eleven years old, but realized that "Man will fly in space, and I will live to see it!"

That Lajka had to die for human space travel is of course a sad and disturbing fact. It reminds me of the folk tale about the Ponte della Maddalena, a bridge near Lucca in Italy's Tuscany province. This bridge is also known by the locals as "The Devil's Bridge", because legend has it that the builder requested Satan's help in order to complete it. In exchange the devil accepted the soul of the first body to cross over. The builder cunningly avoided sending a human being to hell by first sending a dog over the bridge........


  1. "ROADS TO SPACE, An oral history of the Soviet Space Program", edited by John Rhea, translated by Peter Berlin and published by the Aviation Week group in 1995.
  2. Golovanov, Yaroslav, "Korolev" ( Moscow, "Science", 1994)
  3. Romanov, Alexander, "Korolev" ( Moscow, "Young Guards", 1996)


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