Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, and was the very first artificial Earth orbiting satellite. The USSR launched it to an elliptical orbit over a low earth orbit at an altitude of roughly 200 miles over the equator.
It then orbited over an equatorial region before eventually falling back to the same orbital position. This was the beginning of the space race, as the United States and the United Kingdom were trying to beat their Cold War rivals to the moon. It took nearly 20 years for Sputnik to make its way into orbit around the Earth. It continued to circle the Earth until it came within about one million miles of the planet's surface.
As its orbit kept changing over time, Sputnik was no longer able to be controlled and needed a little help from a rocket booster. Finally, on November 4th of 1958, it began to descend back to the same orbit and return to earth. It had lost a lot of heat when in its orbit and was no longer able to be controlled, but by that time it was already well past the time of day for it to burn up completely.
With the help of the United States, the space race would become a world leader and continue to shape the world's technology into the 21st century. While this may seem like a strange topic of discussion at a dinner party today, in the 1960s, it was very important to talk about what each country was working on.
America was very much in the lead with its space program and continued to lead the world with its space race after the launch of Sputnik. At that point, the United States was using the Atlas V rocket to send its astronauts into space. This was much different than the American manned moon program of the early 20th century. The United States would go on to develop the Saturn V rocket, and this would enable them to get astronauts to the moon and into deep space. However, it was Russia that really helped change the way we look at and understood space travel.
It was a combination of Russian scientists and engineers that developed the Soyuz launch vehicle that is used to ferry people to the International Space Station today. It is a great piece of technology that has allowed the United States to become the dominant force in space travel today.