When Sputnik took off 50 years ago, the world gazed at the heavens in awe and apprehension, watching what seemed like the unveiling of a sustained Soviet effort to conquer space and score a stunning Cold War triumph. In a series of interviews in recent days with AP Television, Boris Chertok, one of the founders of the Soviet space programme, and other veterans told the little-known story of how Sputnik was launched, and what an unlikely achievement it turned out to be. His name, and that of Sergei Korolyov, the chief scientist, were a state secret. Today, aged 95 and talking to a small group of reporters in Moscow, Chertok can finally give full voice to his pride at the pivotal role he played in the history of space exploration. As described by the former scientists, the world's first orbiter was born out of a very different Soviet programme: the frantic development of a rocket capable of striking the United States with a hydrogen bomb. Because there was no telling how heavy the warhead would be, its R-7 ballistic missile was built with thrust to spare, with much more power than the Americans' developments, Georgy Grechko, a rocket engineer and cosmonaut, told The Associated Press. "The key reason behind the emergence of Sputnik was the Cold War atmosphere and our race against the Americans," Chertok said. When the warhead project hit a snag, Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space programme, seized the opportunity. Korolyov, both visionary scientist and iron-willed manager, pressed the Kremlin to let him launch a satellite. The U.S. was already planning such a move in 1958, he pointed out, as part of the International Geophysical Year. Sputnik's surface was polished to perfection to better deflect the sun's rays and avoid overheating. The launch was first scheduled for October 6. But Korolyov suspected that the U.S. might be planning a launch a day earlier. The KGB was asked to check, and reported turning up nothing. Korolyov was taking no chances. He immediately cancelled some last-minute tests and moved up the launch by two days, to October 4, 1957. Soon after blastoff from the arid steppes of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, the satellite sent out what would be the world's most famous beep. But the engineers on the ground didn't immediately grasp its importance. The first official Soviet report of Sputnik's launch was brief and buried deep in Pravda, the Communist Party daily. Only two days later did it offer a banner headline, quoting the avalanche of foreign praise. Pravda also published a description of Sputnik's orbit to help people watch it pass. Working round-the-clock, Korolyov and his team built another spacecraft in less than a month. On November 3, they launched Sputnik 2, which weighed 1,118 pounds. It carried the world's first living payload, a mongrel dog named Laika, in its tiny pressurised cabin. The first Sputnik beeped for three weeks and spent about three months in orbit before burning up in the atmosphere. It circled Earth more than 1,400 times, at just under 100 minutes an orbit. In the end, it was the Americans who won the race to the moon, nearly 12 years later. Khrushchev wasn't interested in getting there, his son says, and the effort made under his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, was underfunded and badly hampered by rifts between Korolyov and other designers. Today, even as Sputnik recedes into the history books, the new generation of cosmonauts are working together forgetting the rivalry between each other.