On October 5, 1957, the Soviet newspaper Pravda announced that the
Soviet Union had launched a 184 pound object into Earth orbit. That first
satellite has since come to be known in the English-speaking world as
Sputnik. In the West it is now widely assumed that the Soviets chose that
name for their satellite because “sputnik” means “fellow traveler.” This
belief is mistaken.
The world first heard about the launch from a brief report in a side
column on the front page of Pravda. Under the bland headline “Tass
Report” there was a dry description of the long standing speculation in the
scientific community about the possibility of creating “an artificial
Earth satellite.” Only in paragraph three did they come to the point,
stating that the Soviet Union has brought this dream to fruition. The
article went on to give a few facts and figures about the new satellite.
No name for the satellite was mentioned.
Despite the fact that Pravda buried the lede, the announcement created
an international sensation. Foreign papers announced the event the same
day in blaring front page headlines. The next day, as Soviet leaders
realized what a propaganda coupe this was, Pravda dedicated
the entire front page to coverage under the full-width headline
“The World First Artificial Satellite of Earth Was Made in the Soviet
Union!”. Articles above the fold included “A Triumph of Soviet Science
and Technology” and “The Most Impudent Dreams of Mankind Become Reality”.
In 1957 the word “satellite” needed to be qualified with the adjective
“artificial.” Up to then this word referred primarily to natural satellites
such the Earth’s moon. Thus the Pravda’s clunky phrase “artificial
satellite of Earth”.
Because they were dealing with a new concept the Western press struggled
with what to call this “artificial satellite”. In the first few days it
was call “an artificial satellite of Earth” as Pravda had, but
it was also called “the device” and even “the Red moon”.
In Washington, journalist [?] was asked for suggestions for
a less awkward description. He took the phrase искустественый
спутник Земли (artificial satellite of Earth) from Pravda,
kept only the key word, and left it untranslated: sputnik. The
suggestion was soon widely adopted and Sputnik became the Western name
of the Soviet satellite.
However, awareness continued for some time that Sputnik was not a formal
name. For example, after the Soviet Union launched a second artificial
satellite, an article in Scientific American discussed
tracking them and included a graph with lines labeled Sputnik I and
Sputnik II, but in the body of the article they were referred to as The First
Satellite and The Second Satellite.
“Sputnik” never attained the status of a proper name in Russian and
probably never will since the idea of a sputnik called
Sputnik would be silly. The Russian-language press continues to refer
to Sputnik I simply as “the first artificial sputnik of Earth”
(note the lower case) and to report on the launch of American sputniki.
But whence the idea that “Sputnik” is an imaginative name chosen because
it means “fellow traveler”? This is a misunderstanding. While sputnik
does mean “fellow traveler”, it was already the standard Russian word
for astronomical objects which orbit a parent body. The Moon is Earth’s
sputnik. The idea that the term was invented for the Soviet space
program may be traceable to an article in the New York Times
of October 6, 1957 entitled Soviet ‘Sputnik’ Means A
The English word “satellite” has a similar origin. It once meant an
attendant of a person of importance. Imagine the confusion which could
have occurred if the US had launched the first artificial satellite and
neglected to name it. It is only a slight stretch to imagine the Soviet
press writing, “the Americans named their sputnik Satellite which
means ‘an entourage member’.”
In conclusion, the belief that the Soviets named their satellite Sputnik
after the Russian word for “fellow traveler” is false even though that
is the literal meaning of the word sputnik. They called it
“sputnik” because that is the normal Russian word for satellite. Naming
it “Sputnik” would have been silly. When they failed to name it at all
the Western press stepped in and named in Sputnik from the Russian word
- Сообщение ТАСС (Pravda, October 5, 1957)
- Front page (Pravda, October 6, 1957)
- TASS Report (Pravda, October 5, 1957) English translation provided by NASA. Note the blurb at the top which repeats the myth that the Soviets named their satellite.
- Soviet Fires Earth Satellite Into Space (The New York Times, October 5, 1957) Note that no name for the satellite is given and the word sputnik does not appear.
- Soviet ‘Sputnik’ Means A Traveler’s Traveler (New York Times, October 6, 1957, p 46)
- The aftermath of the Sputnik launch Source of the photographs of Pravda lined to above
- Sputnik and US Intelligence: The Warning Record (Studies in Intelligence) Includes a photograph of the front page of the October 5, 1957 New York Times.
- Sputnik 1 (Wikipedia)
- Chronology of 1957: The Beginning of the Space Age
Includes reference to news coverage.