During the entire year of 2007, CASTOR celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first satellite to orbit the Earth by detecting and tracking over 2,000 individual satellites. The launch of Sputnik 1 was the first of many 50th anniversaries of space that were and will be celebrated over the coming years.

The period of 1957 to 1965 saw many firsts: from Sputnik 1 to the first space walk. Two superpowers were locked in an immense struggle for dominance in space which ultimately culminated in the first humans to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

The amazing part of this drama is not only the feats themselves, but how quickly each feat was accomplished one after the other. The early space program was a real-time study of the amazing heights that humanity can reach if it puts its mind to it: not because it is easy, but because it is hard.


Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957 by the U.S.S.R. and was the first artificial satellite of the Earth. The launch caused wide-spread panic in the western world, especially in the United States.

Sputnik 1 could be seen to orbit the Earth from spectators on the ground. The satellite emitted a radio signal of short beeps which could be received by Earth-bound radios.

Sputnik 1 orbited the Earth until January 3, 1958.



Only one month after Sputnik 1, on November 3, 1957, the Soviets performed another first with the launching of Sputnik 2. This time, there would be a living creature on board, Laika, a stray dog, went from wandering the streets of Moscow to becoming a hero of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Laika was also the first living creature to die in space (if you do not count bacteria, insects, etc.). The Soviets did not plan on returning Laika to Earth and so her life was sacrificed for human progress.

Sputnik 2 (and the remains of Laika) re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on April 14, 1958.



The progress did not stop there. The United States, having been caught off guard with Sputnik's success, hastily began its own space program (now called NASA) and successfully launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, on February 1, 1958, just several weeks after Sputnik 1 fell back to Earth.

Explorer 1 remained in orbit until March 31, 1970. Its cousin, Vanguard 1, launched on March 17, 1958 is still orbiting the Earth and is expected to do so for another several hundred years. Vanguard 1 remains the oldest man-made object still in orbit.



The Soviet Union continued its string of successes with the launch of the Moon imaging probe Luna 1 (Mechta) on January 2, 1959. Luna 1 passed within 6,000km of the Moon's surface. Luna 1 was also the first man-made object to be placed in a sun-centered (heliocentric) orbit, where it remains today; in between the orbits of Earth and Mars. A second lunar probe, Luna 2 was launched on September 12, 1959. At exactly 22:02:34 UTC on September 13, 1959, it was the first man-made probe to intentionally crash into the Moon, which technically means it was the first man-made object to land on the Moon.



Only two years after the success of Sputnik 1, the Soviets once again had a first. The Luna 3 probe was launched on October 3, 1959 and unlike its two predecessors, it obtained the first ever images of the Moon's far side (well, 70% of it). For the first time, humanity could see the far side of their Moon! The images were very distorted, but some details could be clearly distinguished.

All photographs of the Moon were automatically developed on board the spacecraft. A scanning light beam was then shone through the images onto a photo-multiplier tube, which recorded the light and dark patterns. This information was then transmitted back to the U.S.S.R. Even today, this seems a remarkable feat, especially if you consider that this was done over fifty years ago!



Fifty years ago this April, the Soviet Union was bursting with pride once again at having achieved so much in space in such a small span of time. Just 3 1/2 years after Sputnik 1, the U.S.S.R. successfully placed the first human being into orbit on April 12, 1961 aboard Vostok 1. Yuri Gagarin became the first person ever to orbit to Earth but he would not revel in his fame for long. He died in a MiG 15 training jet crash on March 27, 1968, only 7 years after his historic journey into space.

Now that humanity knew that they could travel and live in space, ideas of habitats in space and traveling to other worlds could be realized.



1962 saw amazing progress from the western hemisphere. On July 10, 1962, the satellite Telstar 1 was launched into orbit. It gained immediate fame nearly two weeks later when it broadcasted the first live trans-Atlantic television signal from North America to Europe and vice-versa. This was the era just before geosynchronous satellites, so the window of opportunity was a maximum of 20 minutes every 2 1/2 hours.

Telstar 1 also permitted the first telephone call that would be relayed from space, as well as the first telephony communication from space.

The Telstar system was supposed to have been many satellites orbiting in a constellation that would relay telephone, telephony and television signals back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean 24 hours a day. Although this dream was realized, it would not be using Telstar satellites. The geosynchronous orbit would be much more practical in the long term and therefore became the orbit of choice for worldwide telecommunications.

Telstar 1 was active for a very short time as compared to today's telecommunication satellites. Its life was cut short by high-altitude nuclear testing (Starfish Prime) by the American military and Telstar 1 went silent on February 21, 1963.

Only two of the original Telstars were launched, the second on May 7, 1963. Telstar 2 remained in service until 14:03 UTC May 16, 1965.

There are more modern geosynchronous satellites that adopt the name of Telstar. The first of these was Telstar 301 (later called Telstar 3A and ArabSat 1DR) which was launched on July 28, 1983. The latest of these is Telstar 11N, which was launched on February 26, 2009 and now belongs to Telesat Canada.


CASTOR had the very unique honour of detecting the original Telstar 1 satellite on March 31, 2007. At the time, Telstar 1 was the 466th satellite detected by CASTOR during its Sputnik 50th anniversary celebration project.

Both Telstar 1 and 2 still remain in orbit.


A few months after Telstar's success, Canada performed its own first by becoming the third nation to construct and operate an orbiting satellite. Alouette 1 (Skylark) was engineered to study the Earth's ionosphere. It remained in service for 10 years and it is said that if the right signals were transmitted, it would still function nearly 50 years after its launch! There is only one way to find out if this is true and the best time would be on September 29, 2012 with all of its surviving engineers in attendance.

Although technically the third nation with an orbiting satellite was the United Kingdom (with Ariel-1 several months before Alouette), its satellite was constructed and launched entirely in the U.S. Alouette 1 was built entirely by Canada and launched by the U.S.


CASTOR has had the high honour of detecting this historic satellite on October 19, 2009 during its International Year of Astronomy (IYA) satellite survey. Alouette 1 became the 3031st satellite CASTOR detected since January 1, 2007.

Alouette 1 and 2 still remain in orbit.


Just one week before the death of Telstar 1, the first of a new generation of telecommunications satellites was launched by the United States.

The idea of the geoynchronous orbit was first popularized by Arthur C. Clarke in 1945. Clarke wrote an article which explained that using three strategically placed satellites would allow worldwide radio communications without relying on the Earth's ever-changing ionosphere. In effect, you could listen to any country in the world with a single receiver, provided you had a receiver dish large enough.

Nearly 20 years after Clarke's revolutionary idea, the U.S. launched its first experimental military geosynchronous satellite called Syncom 1 (SYNchronous COMmunication). Syncom 1's orbit altitude was much higher than Telstar 1 but that was intentional. Syncom 1's orbit period was exactly the same as the Earth's rotation period such that the satellite would always be accessible from one part of the world.

After Syncom 1 was launched, something went wrong. An electronics failure made the satellite fall silent seconds after its initial geosynchronous orbit insertion. Communication with the satellite was not possible after the mishap. Ironically, it was astronomy that verified that Syncom 1 was in a geosynchronous orbit. Telescopic observations of the satellite confirmed that it had indeed reached geosynchronous orbit.

The honour of being the first geosynchronous communications satellite was bestowed upon Syncom 2 on July 26, 1963.

Syncom 3 became the first geostationary communications satellite on August 19, 1964.

All three Syncoms still remain in geosynchronous orbit.



While the Americans were revelling in their new telecommunications age, the Soviet Union had much more to accomplish in its manned space program. Just over two years after the first human orbited the Earth, the Soviets performed yet another first by becoming the first nation to place a woman into orbit.

That woman was Valentina Tereshkova, who was specifically chosen because of her strong proletarian background, her father had been a "Patriotic War" (WWII) hero and she had previous parachuting experience (which would become very handy when coming back to Earth).

She remained in orbit for 3 days in which she studied the effects that space travel had on the female body.



The Soviets had yet another surprise to unveil in the Space Race. Having placed a man and a woman in space, they decided that it would be useful to have someone physically climb outside of the space capsule on a tether. Their motives might have been to allow repairs on the spacecraft if any major damage had been done due to the launch or if they had been hit by a meteoroid.

In 1965, the Americans were beginning their Apollo program. The Soviets had performed another first when Alexey Leonov climbed out of his spacecraft to orbit alongside Voskhod 2. When he tried to climb back into the capsule, he had found that his spacesuit had inflated due to the much lower pressures in space. He had to bleed off some of his air within his spacesuit to actually get back inside the capsule.

Alexey Leonov was chosen to become the first (Soviet) man on the Moon, but with the great advances of the American Apollo mission already far ahead of the Soviet program, this was not to be realized. To date, no Russian has ever set foot on the lunar surface.


This is the Bulgarian stamp that I took the likenesses of Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova and Alexey Leonov from. This stamp is from my private collection. Inscribed are their names and the dates in which each made history.


The success of Telstars 1 and 2 and Syncoms 1 to 3 motivated the Americans to construct a commercial geostationary satellite that could be used for non-military television, radio and telephone service throughout North America.

Intelsat 1 (Intelsat 1-F1 or Early Bird) was launched successfully and was originally to be used for only a year and a half, but survived for over four years, seeing phenomenal advances in satellite communications over that brief time.

Its shining moment came on June 25, 1967. Along with its successors, Intelsat 2 (Blue Bird) and ATS-1, the satellite broadcasted the first worldwide television special called "Our World", which was seen by up to 700 million people in 31 countries.

Intelsat 1 was deactivated in January 1969, but briefly reactivated to assist with the communications of the Apollo 11 mission. It was deactivated yet again in August 1969. However, it was briefly revived on April 6, 1990 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its launch.

Intelsat 1 still remains in geosynchronous orbit.


Of course, some can name many more famous space events in this time period (such as Alan Sheppard's, John Glenn's and Gordon Cooper's journeys into space) but this article mainly focuses on the famous firsts that were accomplished by both sides during the Space Race. Although ideologically opposed to one another, both sides accomplished magnificent feats in a relatively small time span.

The Soviet Union claimed astonishing firsts in space from 1957 to 1965. This fact is made even more surprising when you consider that many of the intellectuals of the Soviet Union had been imprisoned, tortured or killed by Stalin's purges in the 1930's, 40's and part of the 50's. This includes the father ("Chief") of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, who survived unimaginable hardships in the gulags of Siberia in 1939. His injuries were contributing factors to his death 30 years later.

The United States adopted a two-prong effort to space travel, one being placing humans in space (for an eventual Moon landing) and the other being pioneering the telecommunications infrastructure that would revolutionize the way in which we communicated on a daily basis. Telstar 1, Syncom 1 and Intelsat 1 (Early Bird) are the reasons why you can see live images from the other side of the world; every second of every day if you now wished.

It is very difficult to list every single first in space from 1957 to the present because there are just so many of them. It was decided to stop at 1965 because this was the time when the Soviets were ending their firsts and the Americans were ramping up for their Apollo program.

The next major first in space that will occur in this century will be a human landing on Mars, however this could be along way off due to financial restrictions that did not exist in the 1960s and an unwillingness by many nations to cooperate with each other towards such a goal. No human has stepped onto another world since 1972 (nearly 40 years ago) and some are beginning to doubt that humans can get to the Moon right now, despite great technological progress. Our current progress is far more focused on the Earth-bound consumer rather than the intrepid astronauts and cosmonauts.

Although the U.S. and Russia are still the dominant forces in space, a single nation can no longer perform significant firsts in space, mainly because the financial obligations are much to high. A manned landing on Mars would require the cooperation and resources from all of the experienced space-faring nations. At this time within the current scientific and political climates, this feat is not yet possible.

With all of this success comes inevitable consequences. There have also been "bad" firsts, such as the Cosmos 954 radioactive crash into Canada's northern territories and the recent collision between Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251. With the latter incident, we have officially polluted our space environment to the point that we are literally endangering the wondrous telecommunications infrastructure that we have so carefully created over the past 50 years.

Fifty years ago we populated space with reckless abandon to pioneer a brave new frontier, increase our scientific knowledge and to revolutionize the ways in which we communicate to each other. Today, we now have to wrestle with the consequences (good and bad) of that legacy.





A String of 50th Anniversaries Was Last Modified On May 13, 2011