At that point, Ivanovskiy says, he remembered a critical step that was his sole responsibility—and wondered if he had forgotten to do it. When Sputnik separated from its R-7 launch rocket, a mechanical switch would close and allow power to flow from the battery, activating Sputnik. To prevent the battery being drained on the ground, a metal plate called a safing clip held the switch open. The plate had to be removed after Sputnik was attached to the rocket. "I removed that plate, and since it was a piece of metal no one needed, I poked it into my pocket," says Ivanovskiy. In doing so, Ivanovskiy was the last human to touch Sputnik.
Standing atop the gantry tower next to the nose cone, he suddenly worried whether he had, in fact, remembered to remove that safing clip. Ivanovskiy gloomily contemplated what he would have had to do next—call a halt to the countdown so that the rocket could be returned to the assembly building and the satellite disconnected to inspect the activation switch.
He shoved his hand into his pocket—and his fingers touched the plate. "The very plate that could have prevented it from switching on happened to be in my pocket. That meant it would work. And it did work."
He continues. "Before the last countdown, when last minutes were counted—I think that was 30 minutes—usually everybody leaves the launchpad, everyone is forced out. As a rule, three to four people are left by the rocket. I remember: There was Korolyov by the rocket, there was Voskresenskiy—his deputy or ‘chief launcher’ as Korolyov called him—by the rocket, there were military people, management, deputies.
"I remember Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov frowned at us, meaning, ‘What are you doing here?’ We realized it would be better to leave. And then we departed for the measurement station." Soon after Ivanovskiy left the pad, a legendary event occurred that he did not witness: A military bugler appeared and blew a call. "Probably a military signal like ‘Listen, everyone!’ The soldier’s name remained unknown. And his signal was the beginning of the space era!"
There was no descending numerical countdown, as with American launches. Instead, at intervals of about 30 seconds, a voice through a speaker declared the time to go in terms of readiness. The warm-up, preignition, and main combustion initiation sequence of the R-7 took 10 to 15 seconds to gather force before the rocket lifted off.
"So for the first time in my life, I experienced launch of an R-7 while being three kilometers from the launchpad. And of course I was impressed when those colossal forces confined in the fuel tank with rocket propellant got released. . . . We were jumping like children and crying and hugging and kissing." The launch was near midnight—the flames would have lit up the surrounding steppe like a sunrise. "When the rocket is flying, five bright spots are seen first, four side ones and one in the center, and they were all working! Then the four side ones drop off, and only one star remains. And that small star is fading quickly in between the stars, and eventually that small star is not seen at all.
"When we realized the launch was good—nothing got torn off, nothing got burned or exploded—of course we were interested in rocket’s telemetry, how it would handle its task of putting Sputnik on its specific trajectory," Ivanovskiy says. "After we had got information that everything was well there, and the command had been given for separation of Sputnik, we rushed off to the station that would begin receiving the ‘beep’ signals."
Sputnik had sprung off its launch frame, and the activation trigger had turned on the radio. Ivanovskiy was there for the newborn cries of the very first creature of the space age. "And we really heard those signals there for the first time," he told me. "Yes, and then they disappeared." But that was good news. "It was flying to the east, and the signals were fading gradually because Sputnik was heading to the Western Hemisphere and behind the radio horizon."
Now came the dramatic wait. "We had to see whether it would show up again, if we could hear the signal again, or if it would fall back down to the earth as everything had fallen down before now.
"In that truck, there were radio receivers in the back. I was given one earpiece. And first with some noise and then louder and louder and more distinctly, we could distinguish those ‘beeeep, beeeeps.’ Finally we heard those signals. Close by us was the chief designer of radio hardware, Mikhail Sergeyevich Ryazanskiy. Those radio transmitters were produced at his institution. He called Korolyov by phone and said: ‘Seryozha! Congratulations! There is a satellite.’ And he had tears in his eyes. We were all crying as well."
The next day brought Ivanovskiy an epiphany of how his corner of the world was forever different. "We were flying to Moscow the next day, and we landed at an intermediate airfield. There I saw a newspaper for the first time with the TASS message about the first artificial satellite. I felt ashamed. But why? Because I felt myself completely naked, exposed to public observation. And why? Because we had been brought up [to believe] that what we were doing was top secret and that in no case could we tell anybody anywhere about it—we could neither write nor tell anybody. And here suddenly! Openly! Written on newspaper pages! That was awful."
Afterward, there were awards—even a few bonuses—along with national and professional pride. But mostly the success brought more work, says Ivanovskiy. "There was no miner’s gold, no wealth flooding toward us after that. Whoever we had been before that—ordinary engineers—we remained, with the same salaries, the same concerns, the same job titles. We did not receive any yachts, neither cottages nor palaces."
A month later, while preparing a second Sputnik (this one with a dog aboard), Ivanovskiy was again in charge of final preparations. For a second time he was at the polygon.
"At that time, someone ran in and said: ‘Let’s go outside! The first Sputnik will be flying over us!’ We ran out to the yard of our assembly building and were waiting until something appeared over the horizon. Before that we had not seen anything, but some people had been monitoring, and information was published about when it was flying over. And we noticed a small ‘glowworm,’ how it appeared and how it was slowly, solemnly flying over in the rays of the sunset. We applauded. It was very solemn." But it was not the shining sphere he had patted good-bye to, inches from his face, that night at the launch site only a month before.
"It was not Sputnik at all," he tells me. Rather, "that was the central part of the rocket. The Sputnik itself could not be seen with a naked eye.
"That is how it went," he concludes, leaning back in his chair. "For me, that was the beginning of my space activity. I am still ‘in space.’ In January this year I was ‘only’ 85 years old. And thanks to God, I keep ‘flying in space.’"
He looks back on a career that was launched by this first of all satellites. "I was lucky to take part in all ‘firsts’ of space. The first Sputnik, the first live creature in orbit, there were the first Lunas, the first [probes to Mars], there was [Yuri] Gagarin." Ivanovskiy had accompanied Yuri Gagarin up the gantry elevator on April 12, 1961, and had assisted him into his Vostok capsule, shaken his hand, and sealed the hatch behind him. Ivanovskiy’s was the last face Gagarin saw before leaving the planet. For some of the dogs aboard test flights, his had been the last face they ever saw.
"Korolyov asking me . . . well, that certainly was great luck."