Russia on Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the tiny satellite whose crackly beeps started the Space Race between the Cold War superpowers.
|USSR postage stamp depicting Sputnik 1. The caption reads: The world's first Soviet artificial satellite of the Earth.|
"We Were First," trumpeted a headline in the popular Izvestia daily. "At 22:28 Moscow time on October 4, 1957, humanity entered a new space age. The Soviet Union sent the Earth's first artificial satellite into orbit."
Veterans of the Soviet space programme laid flowers near the Kremlin wall at the grave of Sergei Korolyov, the space pioneer who oversaw the Sputnik project, and a monument to the satellite was unveiled near Moscow.
The Russian space agency Roskosmos said giant screens were put up in Moscow to relay scenes from the historic launch -- at the time, a huge propaganda coup for the Soviet Union in its rivalry with the United States.
The launch of Sputnik was at first played down in Soviet official media but prompted awed headlines in Western newspapers and caught the United States badly off balance.
The hurried launch of a US satellite in December 1957 was a flop, or "flopnik," as the London Daily Herald observed in a headline, barely getting off the ground before it burst into flames.
Sputnik, a silvery orb with four frond-like antennae and two radio transmitters whose signals could be heard around the world, also helped inspire a generation of astronauts and scientists.
The satellite was the first of several early achievements for the Soviet Union's space programme, including sending the first human being, Yury Gagarin, into space in 1961 -- another stinging loss of face for the United States.
The United States later took the upper hand with the first manned mission to the Moon in 1969. Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, famously dubbed his step "one giant leap for mankind."
On the eve of the Sputnik anniversary, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov took a group of school children around the Korolyov space centre near Moscow, named in honour of Sputnik's creator.
Also on Wednesday, the Russian and US space agencies signed agreements in Moscow under which Russia will provide technology for US missions to scan the surface of the Moon and Mars.
Russia's space programme suffered severe funding cuts after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but has been revived thanks to greater state financing and international partnerships.
President Vladimir Putin has exhorted Russia's scientists to up their game in space technology. There are plans afoot to send a probe to Mars and for a manned Moon mission by 2025.
Putin voiced pride earlier this year that Russia had "paved the way for space exploration" but he acknowledged that economic hardships i