Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age

by Roger D. Launius


Few Americans considered the reception on Friday, 4 October 1957, at the Soviet Union's Embassy in Washington, DC, to be anything out of the ordinary. It was the appropriate culmination of a week-long set of international scientific meetings. It was also, in the cynical Cold War world of international intrigue between the United States and the Soviet Union, an opportunity to gather national security intelligence and engage in petty games of one-upmanship between the rivals. This one would prove far different. The one-upmanship continued, but it was far from petty. To a remarkable degree, the Soviet announcement that evening changed the course of the Cold War.

Dr. John P. Hagen arrived early at the party; he wanted to talk to a few Soviet scientists, those he considered personal friends from long years of association in international scientific organizations, to learn their true feelings about efforts to launch an artificial satellite as part of the research effort known as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Hagen, a senior scientist with the Naval Research Laboratory, headed the American effort to launch a satellite for the IGY, code named Project Vanguard. It was behind schedule and over budget. Was the same true of the Soviet Union, or would it go up in 1958 as planned?

Hagen had been through a wringer this last week. Beginning on Monday, 30 September, the international scientific organization known as CSAGI (Comité Speciale de l'Année Geophysique Internationale) had opened a 6-day conference, at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, on rocket and satellite research for the IGY. Scientists from the United States, the Soviet Union, and five other nations met to discuss their individual plans and to develop protocols for sharing scientific data and findings. Hints from the Soviets at the meeting, however, threw the conference into a tizzy of speculation. Several Soviet officials had intimated that they could probably launch their scientific satellite within weeks instead of months, as the public schedule said. Hagen worried that scientist Sergei M. Poloskov's offhand remark on the conference's first day that the Soviet Union was "on the eve of the first artificial earth satellite" was more than boastful, alliterative rhetoric. What would a surprise Soviet launch mean for his Vanguard program and for the United States, he wondered?

Hagen did not have long to wait to learn the answer to this question. The party had gathered in the second floor ballroom at the embassy when a little before 6:00 p.m. Walter Sullivan, a reporter with the New York Times who was also attending the reception, received a frantic telephone call from his Washington bureau chief. Sullivan learned that the Soviet news agency Tass had just announced the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite. When he returned to the party Sullivan sought out Richard Porter, a member of the American IGY committee, and whispered, "it's up." Porter's ruddy face flushed even more as he heard this news, although he too suspected Sputnik's imminent launch, and he glided through the gaggles of scientists, politicians, journalists, straphangers, and spies in search of Lloyd Berkner, the official American delegate to CSAGI.

When told the news, Berkner acted with the characteristic charm of his polished southern gentleman demeanor. Clapping his hands for attention, he asked for silence. "I wish to make an announcement," he declared. "I've just been informed by the New York Times that a Russian satellite is in orbit at an elevation of 900 kilometers. I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement." On the other side of the ballroom Hagen's face turned pale. They had beaten the Vanguard satellite effort into space. Were they really the greatest nation on Earth, as their leaders boisterously reminded anyone who would listen? Were they really going to bury us, as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced at the United Nations? What could the United States do to recover a measure of international respect?

The inner turmoil that Hagen felt on "Sputnik Night," as 4-5 October has come to be called, reverberated through the American public in the days that followed. Two generations after the event, words do not easily convey the American reaction to the Soviet satellite. The only appropriate characterization that begins to capture the mood on 5 October involves the use of the word hysteria. A collective mental turmoil and soul-searching followed, as American society thrashed around for the answers to Hagen's questions. Almost immediately, two phrases entered the American lexicon to define time, "pre-Sputnik" and "post-Sputnik." The other phrase that soon replaced earlier definitions of time was "Space Age." With the launch of Sputnik 1, the Space Age had been born and the world would be different ever after.

Sputnik 1, launched on 4 October 1957 from the Soviet Union's rocket testing facility in the desert near Tyuratam in the Kazakh Republic, proved a decidedly unspectacular satellite that probably should not have elicited the horrific reaction it wrought. An aluminum 22-inch sphere with four spring-loaded whip antennae trailing, it weighed only 183 pounds and traveled an elliptical orbit that took it around the Earth every 96 minutes. It carried a small radio beacon that beeped at regular intervals and could by means of telemetry verify exact locations on the earth's surface. Some U.S. cold warriors suggested that this was a way for the Soviets to obtain targeting information for their ballistic missiles, but that does not seem to have actually been the case. The satellite itself fell from orbit three months after launch on 4 January 1958.

At the IGY reception the scientists immediately adjourned to the Soviet embassy's rooftop to view the heavens. They were not able to see the satellite with the naked eye. Indeed, Sputnik 1 twice passed within easy detection range of the United States before anyone even knew of its existence. The next morning at the IGY conference, the Soviet Union's chief delegate, Anatoli A. Blagonravov, explained details of the launch and the spacecraft. The CSAGI conference officially congratulated the Soviets for their scientific accomplishment. What was not said, but clearly thought by many Americans in both the scientific and political communities, however, was that the Soviet Union had staged a tremendous propaganda coup for the communist system, and that it could now legitimately claim leadership in a major technological field. The international image of the Soviet Union was greatly enhanced overnight.

While President Eisenhower and other leaders of his administration also congratulated the Soviets and tried to downplay the importance of the accomplishment, they misjudged the public reaction to the event. The launch of Sputnik 1 had a "Pearl Harbor" effect on American public opinion. It was a shock, introducing the average citizen to the space age in a crisis setting. The event created an illusion of a technological gap and provided the impetus for increased spending for aerospace endeavors, technical and scientific educational programs, and the chartering of new federal agencies to manage air and space research and development. Not only had the Soviets been first in orbit, but Sputnik 1 weighed nearly 200 pounds, compared to the intended 3.5 pounds for the first satellite to be launched in Project Vanguard. In the Cold War environment of the late 1950s, this disparity of capability portended menacing implications.

Even before the effects of Sputnik 1 had worn off, the Soviet Union struck again. On 3 November 1957, less than a month later, it launched Sputnik 2 carrying a dog, Laika. While the first satellite had weighed less than 200 pounds, this spacecraft weighed 1,120 pounds and stayed in orbit for almost 200 days.

Visions of Technological Success

The concerns of John Hagen and others, raised on Sputnik Night, exacerbated by later Soviet accomplishments in space flight, enjoyed a long gestation period. For much of American history, and certainly throughout the twentieth century, if there is one hallmark of the American people, it is their enthusiasm for technology and what it can help them to accomplish. Historian Perry Miller wrote that the Puritans of New England "flung themselves in the technological torrent, how they shouted with glee in the midst of the cataract, and cried to each other as they went headlong down the chute that here was their destiny" as they used technology to transform a wilderness into their "City upon a hill." Since that time the United States has been known as a nation of technological system builders who could use this ability to create great machines and the components of their operation, of wonder.

Perceptive foreigners might be enamored with American political and social developments, with democracy and pluralism, but they are more taken with U.S. technology. The United States is not just the nation of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but also of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Manhattan Project. These people and achievements reinforced the belief among Americans that their nation was the technological giant of the world. The Soviet success with Sputnik 1 raised in a very fundamental way the question of American technological virtuosity, and questioned American capability in so many other areas already underway that setbacks in this one was all the more damaging to the American persona.

The American Response to Sputnik

The combination of technological and scientific advance, political competition with the Soviet Union, and changes in popular opinion about space flight came together in a very specific way in the 1950s to affect public policy in favor of an aggressive space program. This found tangible expression in 1952 when CSAGI started planning for an international scientific research effort to study geophysical phenomena. It decided that 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958 would be the period of emphasis, in part because of a predicted expansion of solar activity. In October 1954 at a meeting in Rome, Italy, the Council adopted another resolution calling for the launch of artificial satellites during the IGY to help map the Earth's surface. The Soviet Union immediately announced plans to orbit an IGY satellite, virtually assuring that the United States would respond, and this, coupled with the military satellite program, set both the agenda and the stage for most space efforts through 1958. The next year the U.S. announced Project Vanguard, its own IGY scientific satellite program.

During the furor that followed Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, many people accused the Eisenhower administration of letting the Soviet Union best the United States. The Sputnik crisis reinforced for many people the popular conception that Eisenhower was a smiling incompetent; it was another instance of a "do-nothing," golf-playing president mismanaging events. G. Mennen Williams, the Democratic governor of Michigan, even wrote a poem about it:

Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it's a Commie sky
and Uncle Sam's asleep.

You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.
On that same evening of 4 October, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat-Texas, presided over one of his patented barbecues at the LBJ Ranch in Texas. While at the gathering he heard the announcement of Sputnik 1's launch on the radio. He led his guests on a nighttime ramble about the ranch to the nearby Pedernales River, as he commonly did at such affairs, but Johnson's mind kept returning to the heavens as he pondered the Soviet triumph. He recollected, "Now, somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien. I also remember the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for another nation to achieve technological superiority over this great country of ours."

Johnson realized something had to be done about this problem. He opened hearings by a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on 25 November 1957 to review the whole spectrum of American defense and space programs in the wake of the Sputnik crisis. This group found serious underfunding and incomprehensible organization for the conduct of space activities. It blamed the president and the Republican Party. One of Johnson's aides, George E. Reedy, summarized the feelings of many Americans: "the simple fact is that we can no longer consider the Russians to be behind us in technology. It took them four years to catch up to our atomic bomb and nine months to catch up to our hydrogen bomb. Now we are trying to catch up to their satellite."

Without de-emphasizing the legitimacy of Johnson's concern, certainly he also recognized and exploited the political opportunity of the Sputnik crisis. The Republicans had been an opposition party in the early years of the Cold War, and had drummed on the head of President Harry S. Truman in 1949 for the ouster of Chiang Chai Shek in Nationalist China and his replacement by a communist government under Mao Zedong and again in 1950 for the invasion and near capitulation of South Korea to communist forces. Wisconsin Republican senator Joseph McCarthy had used these events, as well as others of both serious and ridiculous nature, to lambaste the Democrats as soft on communism and essentially of allowing the "Red Menace" to conquer the world. The Republicans had turned these issues into political capital that had swept Dwight D. Eisenhower into the presidency in 1952 along with a host of Republican members of Congress. Now the shoe was on the other foot and the possibility existed to defeat the Republicans on the very same issues that they had used so effectively against the Democrats, the Cold War rivalry of the Soviet Union.

Seeing this, the Eisenhower administration had to move quickly to restore confidence at home and prestige abroad. As the first tangible effort to counter the apparent Soviet leadership in space technology, the White House announced that the United States would test launch a Project Vanguard booster on 6 December 1957. The media was invited to witness the launch in the hope that it could help restore public confidence, but it was a disaster of the first order. During the ignition sequence, the rocket rose about three feet above the platform, shook briefly, and disintegrated in flames. John Hagen, who had been working feverishly to ready the rocket for flight, was demoralized. He felt even worse after the next test. On 5 February 1958, the Vanguard launch vehicle reached an altitude of four miles and then exploded. Hagen was tearful at the very public failures and some of his associates thought his career ended then and there, for he never again held an important post.

In this crisis the Army, featuring the handsome and charismatic Wernher von Braun and his rocket team of German immigrants to the United States after World War II, dusted off an unapproved plan for the IGY satellite effort, Project Explorer, and flew it within an amazingly short period of time. After two launch aborts that made observers nervous that the United States might never duplicate the Soviet successes in space flight, the Juno 1 booster carrying Explorer 1 lifted off from the Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch site at 10:55 p.m. on 31 January 1958. The tracking sites marked the course of the rocket to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, but they had to wait to learn if orbit had been achieved.

Wernher von Braun, who was at the Pentagon with other Department of Defense officials preparing for a press conference, received news from the Cape that the launch had taken place and calculated that telemetry from Explorer 1 should be received at the West Coast tracking stations at precisely 12:41 a.m. But that time came and went and still he waited for communication from the satellite. It finally came at 12:49 a.m., when the JPL tracking station confirmed Explorer 1's pass overhead. The delay had amounted to nothing more than a little higher orbit than anticipated and therefore a longer period required to travel the extra mileage.

The spacecraft carried a small instrument, essentially a Geiger counter to measure radiation encircling the earth, built by James A. Van Allen, a physicist from the University of Iowa. Data from this instrument verified the existence of the Earth's magnetic field and discovered what came to be called the Van Allen Radiation Belts. These phenomena partially dictate the electrical charges in the atmosphere and the solar radiation that reaches earth. Later that day of 1 February 1958, a press conference took place at the National Academy of Sciences where von Braun, Van Allen, and JPL director William H. Pickering announced success. The signature image that appeared in newspapers around the nation the next morning depicts three smiling men holding a full scale model of Explorer 1 above their heads in triumph of launching the first United States artificial satellite. Project Vanguard also received additional funding to accelerate activity during this period, and Vanguard 1 was finally orbited on 17 March 1958, confirming the existence of the Van Allen belts and measuring their severity.

The Birth of NASA

Some of the political pressure on the Eisenhower administration to respond to the Soviet success with Sputnik eased with the launch of Explorer 1. But not enough to prevent a transformation in the structure of government. As a direct outgrowth of this crisis in the winter of 1957-1958, the administration worked with congressional leaders to draft legislation creating a permanent federal agency dedicated to exploring space. Numerous proposals surfaced during that winter, the least acceptable, at least from Eisenhower's perspective, was a plan to create a Department of Science and Technology, sponsored by Representative John M. McClellan, Democrat-Arkansas, and Senator Hubert Humphery, Democrat-Minnesota. But Eisenhower resisted other less ambitious plans as well.

A turning point came on 4 February 1958 when he finally capitulated and asked his science advisor, James R. Killian, to convene the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) to come up with a plan for a new space flight organization. Quietly considering the creation of a new civil space agency for several months, PSAC worked with staff members from Congress and quickly came forward with a proposal that placed all non-military efforts relative to space exploration under a strengthened and renamed National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

Established in 1915 to foster aviation progress in the United States, the NACA had long been a small, loosely-organized, and elitist organization known for both its technological competence and its apolitical culture. It had also been moving into space-related areas of research and engineering during the 1950s, through the work of a Space Task Group under the leadership of Robert L. Gilruth. While totally a civilian agency, the NACA also enjoyed a close working relationship with the military services, helping to solve research problems associated with aeronautics and also finding application for them in the civilian sector. Its civilian character; its recognized excellence in technical activities; and its quiet, research-focused image all made it an attractive choice. It could fill the requirements of the constrained job Eisenhower envisioned without exacerbating Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower accepted the PSAC's recommendations and sponsored legislation to expand the NACA into an agency charged with the broad mission to "plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities"; to involve the nation's scientific community in these activities; and to widely disseminate information about these activities. An administrator appointed by the president was to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). During the summer of 1958 Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act and the president signed it into law on 29 July 1958. This ended the debate over the type of organization to be created and other plans died a quiet death. The new organization started functioning on 1 October 1958, less than a year after the launch of Sputnik 1. Its first task was the development of a human space exploration program. NASA has continued to direct the human space exploration initiatives of the United States ever since.

Roger D. Launius