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Where Did Sputnik Get its Name?

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Postage stamp shows Earth in orbit around Sun with a man-made object in Earth orbit.

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 the word sputnik as the name for their satellite because it means “fellow traveler.” This is not what actually happened.

The world first heard about the launch from a brief report in Pravda. Though it was on the front page, it was not at all prominent, a few column inches in the middle right under the bland headline “Tass Report”. A few dry paragraphs spoke of a long-standing dream 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 repeated the announcement the same day in blaring full-width front page headlines. The next day, as Soviet leaders realized what a propaganda coupe this was, Pravda also 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 in English the word “satellite” needed to be qualified with the adjective “artificial” when talking about man-made objects. Up to then the word referred primarily to natural satellites such the moons of Earth or Jupiter. The situation was similar in Russian. That is why Pravda had to spell out what was meant writing that this was an “artificial satellite of Earth”.

Because they were dealing with what had been a relatively obscure concept the Western press struggled with what to call this man-made object. 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, a journalist named [can’t find the reference] was asked for suggestions for a less awkward description. He took the phrase искусcтвеyный 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.

For several decades those writing about it in English continued to show awareness that Sputnik was an informal term for the spacecraft. 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 them in Russian style as The First Satellite and The Second Satellite.

“Sputnik” never attained the status of a proper name in Russian and probably never will since calling a sputnik “Sputnik” would be redundant and therefor 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.

So why do English speakers now believe that the Soviets named their satellite “Sputnik”? This misunderstanding seems to arise from the oft-repeated statement that sputnik means “fellow traveler”. This is taken to mean that the word sputnik was chosen as a fanciful name for the space craft. In reality what is being explained is the origin of the Russian word for astronomical satellites. The fanciful comparison was coined hundreds of years earlier to talk about moons. This confusion can be traced to an article in the New York Times of October 6, 1957 entitled Soviet ‘Sputnik’ Means A Traveler’s Traveler.

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 adopted the Russian word for satellite as its proper name.


Written by David Chappell

March 25th, 2020 at 12:54 pm

Posted in russian,science,space

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