The BBC World Service Radio Witness History podcast Laika, the first dog in space contains a short audio clips from some vintage 1950's British news. At 02:30 in a recording replete with exciting music in the background is heard to say:

Sputnik the second has been launched. A multi-stage rocket with a fuel more powerful than anything the West has in stock, put its final stage into around-the-world orbit.

Two things are astonishing about Sputnik the second; its weight, more than half a ton, and its live passenger Laika the most famous husky in the world, or strictly speaking, (unclear final word).

The narrator goes on to explain that Laika was incorrectly identified as a husky.

Question: What "fuel more powerful than anything the West (had) in stock" put Laika in orbit aboard Sputnik 2?

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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble Well, wait, one of us needs to undelete. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jul 16 '19 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove I'm not sure that OM will get a notification of your comment in this case, better ping elsewhere as a backup. We had a short conversation about the link to your answer which seems to be based on information from the 1990's whereas my question is about the state of the art in the late 1950's. It's possible that the kerosene used by the Soviets at that time was different than that used by the Americans, kerosene chemistry being complicated by molecular weight distribution, side chains, saturation, etc. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 16 '19 at 2:12
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    $\begingroup$ The information available today about historical Soviet rocket engines is vastly, vastly more accurate than the information available to the BBC in 1957. The USSR did use a "magic propellant" in the 1980s, Syntin, which had significantly better specific impulse than kerosene, but that was first synthesized in the 1960s. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jul 16 '19 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove this is getting really interesting! but I'm only interested in the information available today about the kerosene available in 1957. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 16 '19 at 2:25
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    $\begingroup$ Note that Laika was not the first dog in space (but the first dog in orbit, the difference is just few km/s). $\endgroup$ – Manu H Jul 16 '19 at 11:55

Laika's magical mystery propellant was kerosene and LOX.

Sputnik 2 was launched on the 8K71PS launcher. This was a modified R-7 ICBM, and like all the R-7 derived launchers, its RD-107 and RD-108 engines burned kerosene/LOX. The Russian specification for rocket-grade kerosene is called RG-1, and it's similar to the American RP-1.

The specific impulse of the RD-107 is 256 sec (sea level) to 313 sec (vacuum), consistent with other kerosene-LOX gas generator rocket engines of the era; I've never seen any suggestion anywhere that performance was better than that.

It's not likely that a BBC news program in 1957 would have accurate knowledge of the fuel used in a Soviet launcher. The USSR was extremely secretive about their technology when they weren't being outright deceptive. If the BBC got the idea that the Sputnik had better fuel than Western rockets from the USSR, it was almost certainly propaganda, and if they got the idea from anywhere else it would be guesswork.

Another possibility is that the BBC guessed or learned that the Sputnik launcher used kerosene, and compared it to a rocket in the Redstone family -- perhaps the Juno I, which launched Explorer 1 a couple of months after Sputnik 2. In that case, the fuel used by the Russian launcher was indeed significantly more powerful than the 75% ethyl alcohol (215 sec at sea level) or hydyne (235 sec) used on those rockets. The journalistic sin here would be ignorance of the Jupiter and Atlas missiles flying on kerosene.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the thorough answer! This is not directly related, but involves both countries at about the same time: Why did Jodrell Bank assist the Soviet Union to collect data from their spacecraft in the mid 1960's? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 16 '19 at 5:25
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    $\begingroup$ RP-1 was only formulated in January 1957, the first test launch utilizing it (Atlas A) occurred in June 1957 and it took until 1959 for an operational launcher - Atlas D. Laika was launched in November 1957. So while US had the RP-1 developed at that time, it could be argued it didn't have it "in stock". (and while Kerosene was experimented with as a rocket fuel for a long time, the sloppy specification of JP-4 which was the aviation standard made it unsuitable for rocket use; only the more strict RP-1 standard made it a viable propellant.) $\endgroup$ – SF. Jul 16 '19 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I think my answer is "arguable" enough not to really change or oppose the gist or RB's answer. I was just pointing out kerosene, while not some "magical superior formulation", wasn't as widely known as a rocket fuel at the time. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jul 16 '19 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ @SF Citation for RP-1 being formulated in 1957? Astronautix claims the spec was developed in 1954. PGM-19 Jupiter was produced starting in 1956. (Sadly, Development of the Rocket Engine for the Jupiter Missile only says the spec was for jet fuel (i.e. JP-4) and the final engine ran on RP-1, with no discussion of the transition.) $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jul 16 '19 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove Ignition, Clarke, p.105. Long story short the standard for JP-4 was too loose, the engines would run fine on one batch on fuel and fail on another. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jul 17 '19 at 5:40

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