While the Americans under von Braun were designing and improving their rockets, the Soviet Union were in competition trying to be the first to explore space.  The rivalry between the two nations lasted for more than forty years but the Russians seemed to have the upper hand, achieving more firsts than the Americans.

One such accomplishment was Sputnik.

Sputnik is the Russian word for 'satellite'.
It was a 60cm diameter sphere with four radio antennae that would broadcast pulses to the Earth below.

Sputnik was launched on October 4, 1957 and became the first artificial satellite.

It transmitted signals for 22 days until the batteries ran out. Anyone on Earth could tune into a particular frequency and listen to Sputnik's beeps as it flew overhead. 

On January 4, 1958 it eventually re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and burned up after travelling about 70 million km in space.

The Americans eventually launched their own satellite, called Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958.

The launch of Sputnik