Concept to Challenge

1957 to Mid-1961

The orbiting of Sputnik I in October 1957 stirred the imagination and fears of the world as had no new demonstration of physics in action since the dropping of the atomic bomb. In the United States the effect was amplified by realization that the first artificial satellite was Russian, not American. Yet the few scientists and engineers working in Project Vanguard and other U.S. space projects were surprised only at the actual timing. Indeed, they had already considered means of sending man around the moon.

Modern rocket technology dates from the Second World War; the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles in succeeding years resulted in machines that could eventually launch vehicles on space missions. In this same time, man's flying higher, faster, and farther than ever before suggested that he could survive even in space. Sputnik I caused alarm throughout the United States and the ensuing public clamor demanded a response to the challenge.1 During the next year, many persons in government, industry, and academic institutions studied means and presented proposals for a national space program beyond military needs. After decades of science fiction, man himself, as well as his imagination, moved toward an active role in space exploration.

Concurrently with the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in late 1958 - a year after the first Sputnik2 - a proposal (which became Project Mercury) was approved to fly man in near-earth orbit.3


1. Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, NASA SP-4201 (Washington, 1966), pp. 28-29; Martha Wheeler George, "The Impact of Sputnik I: Case-Study of American Public Opinion at the Break of the Space-Age, October 4, 1957," NASA Historical Note 22, 15 July 1963.

2. Senate Special Committee on Space and Astronautics, National Aeronautics and Space Act: Hearings on S. 3609, 85th Cong., 2nd sess., 1958; House Committee of Conference, National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958: Conference Report (to accompany H.R. 12575), 85th Cong., 2nd sess., 15 July 1958; Public Law 85-568, 72 Stat. 426, An Act to provide for research into problems of fight within and outside the earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes (hereafter cited as the Space Act of 1958), H.R. 12575, 85th Cong., 29 July 1958.

3. NASA, First Semiannual Report to the Congress: October 1, 1958-March 31, 1959 (Washington, 1959).


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