The Sputnik crisis was a period of public fear and anxiety in Western nations
about the perceived technological gap between the United States
and Soviet Union
caused by the Soviets' launch of ''Sputnik 1
'', the world's first artificial satellite
The crisis was a significant event in the Cold War
that triggered the creation of NASA
and the Space Race
between the two superpowers. The satellite was launched on October 4, 1957, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome
. This created a crisis reaction in national newspapers such as the New York Times, which mentioned the satellite in 279 articles between October 6, 1957, and October 31, 1957 (more than 11 articles per day).
The US was the dominant world power in the early 1950s. Lockheed U-2 spy plane
flights over the Soviet Union provided intelligence that the US held the advantage in nuclear capability.
However, an education gap was identified when studies conducted between 1955 and 1961 reported that the Soviet Union was training two to three times as many scientists per year as the US. The launch and orbit of ''Sputnik 1'' suggested that the Soviet Union had made a substantial leap forward in technology, which was interpreted as a serious threat to US national security, which spurred the US to make considerable federal investments in research and development, education, and national security.
The Juno I
rocket that carried the first US satellite Explorer 1
had been ready to launch in 1956, but the fact was classified and unknown to the public.
The Army's PGM-19 Jupiter
from which Juno was derived had been mothballed on the orders of Defense Secretary Charles Erwin Wilson
amid interservice rivalry
with the US Air Force
's PGM-17 Thor
The Soviets used ICBM
technology to launch Sputnik into space, which gave them two propaganda advantages over the US at once: the capability to send the satellite into orbit and proof of the distance capabilities of their missiles.
That proved that the Soviets had rockets capable of sending nuclear weapons to Western Europe and even North America. That was the most immediate threat that ''Sputnik 1'' posed. The United States, a land with a history of geographical security from European wars because of its distance, suddenly seemed vulnerable.
A contributing factor to the Sputnik crisis was that the Soviets had not released a photograph of the satellite for five days after the launch.
Until then, its appearance remained a mystery to Americans. Another factor was its weight of , compared to US plans to launch a satellite of .
The Soviet claim seemed outrageous to many American officials, who doubted its accuracy. US rockets then produced of thrust
, and US officials presumed that the Soviet rocket that launched Sputnik into space must have produced of thrust. In fact, the R-7 rocket that launched ''Sputnik 1'' into space produced almost of thrust.
All of those factors contributed to the Americans' perception that they were greatly behind the Soviets in the development of space technologies.
Hours after the launch, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
Astronomy Department rigged an ''ad hoc'' interferometer
to measure signals from the satellite.
Donald B. Gillies
and Jim Snyder programmed the ILLIAC I
computer to calculate the satellite orbit from this data. The programming and calculation was completed in less than two days. The rapid publication of the ephemeris
(orbit) in the journal ''Nature
'' within a month of the satellite launch
helped to dispel some of the fears created by the Sputnik launch. It also lent credence to the spurious idea that the Sputnik launch was part of an organized effort to dominate space.
The successful launch of ''Sputnik 1'' and then the subsequent failure of the first two Project Vanguard
launch attempts greatly accentuated the US perception of a threat from the Soviet Union that had persisted since the Cold War
had begun after World War II
. The same rocket that launched Sputnik could send a nuclear warhead
anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes, which would strip the Continental United States
of its oceanic defenses. The Soviets had demonstrated that capability on 21 August by a test flight of the R-7 booster
. The event was announced by TASS
five days later and was widely reported in other media.
Five days after the launch of ''Sputnik 1'', the world's first artificial satellite, US President Dwight Eisenhower
addressed the American people. After being asked by a reporter on security concerns about the Soviet satellite, Eisenhower said, "Now, so far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota."
Eisenhower made the argument that Sputnik was only a scientific achievement and not a military threat or change in world power. He believed that Sputnik's weight "was not commensurate with anything of great military significance, and that was also a factor in putting it in roper
In 1958, Eisenhower declared three "stark facts" the United States needed to confront:
*The Soviets had surpassed the Americas and "the rest of the free world" in scientific and technological advancements in outer space.
*If the Soviets maintained that superiority, they might use it as a means to undermine the Americans prestige and leadership.
*If the Soviets became the first to achieve significantly-superior military capability in outer space and created an imbalance of power, they could pose a direct military threat to the US.
Eisenhower followed this statement by saying that the United States needed to meet these challenges with "resourcefulness and vigor."
His ability to project confidence about the situation was limited because his confidence was based on clandestine reconnaissance
and so he failed to quell the fears that there was a shift in power between the Americans and Soviets.
The perception of the Soviets being more modern than the Americans was reinforced by Eisenhower's old-fashioned style.
The launch of ''Sputnik 1'' also impacted Eisenhower's ratings in his polls, but he eventually recovered.
Media and political influences
thumb|upright|Soviet stamp depicting Sputnik's orbit around Earth
The media stirred a moral panic by writing sensational pieces on the event. In the first and second days following the event, ''The New York Times
'' wrote that the launch of ''Sputnik 1'' was a major global propaganda and prestige triumph for Russian communism.
It was after the people of the United States were exposed to a multitude of news reports that it become a "nation in shock."
The media not only reported public concern but also created the hysteria.
Journalists greatly exaggerated the danger of the Soviet satellite for their own benefit.
On October 9, 1957, the notable science fiction writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke
said that the day that Sputnik orbited around the Earth, the US became a second-rate power.
Politicians used the event to bolster their ratings in polls.
Research and development was used as a propaganda tool, and Congress spent large sums of money on the perceived problem of US technological deficiency.
After the launch of ''Sputnik 1'' national security advisers overestimated the Soviets' current and potential rocket strength, which alarmed portions of Congress and the executive branch.
When these estimations were released, Eisenhower was forced into an accelerated missile race to appease those concerned with America's safety.
Sputnik provoked Congress into taking action on improving the US standing in the fields of science.
, the Soviet leader, reflected on the event by saying, "It always sounded good to say in public speeches that we could hit a fly at any distance with our missiles. Despite the wide radius of destruction caused by our nuclear warheads, pinpoint accuracy was still necessary – and it was difficult to achieve."
At the time, Khrushchev stated that "our potential enemies cringe in fright."
The political analyst Samuel Lubell conducted research on public opinion about Sputnik and found "no evidence at all of any panic or hysteria in the public's reaction," which confirmed that it was an elite, not a popular, panic.
The launch spurred a series of US initiatives ranging from defense to education. Increased emphasis was placed on the US Navy
's Project Vanguard
to launch an American satellite into orbit. There was a renewed interest in the existing Explorer program
, which launched the first American satellite into orbit on January 31, 1958. In February 1958, Eisenhower authorized formation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was later renamed to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA), within the Department of Defense
(DoD) to develop emerging technologies
for the US military
. On July 29, 1958, he signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act
, the creation of NASA
Less than a year after the Sputnik launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act
(NDEA). It was a four-year program that poured billions of dollars into the US education system. In 1953, the government spent $153 million, and colleges took $10 million of that funding, but by 1960, the combined funding grew almost six-fold because of the NDEA. After the initial public shock, the Space Race
began, which led to the first human launched into space
, Project Apollo
, and the first humans to land on the Moon
Campaigning in 1960 on closing the "missile gap
," Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy
, promised to deploy 1,000 Minuteman missile
s. That was many more ICBM
s than the Soviets had at the time. Though Kennedy did not favor a massive US manned space program when he was in the US Senate during Eisenhower's term, public reaction to the Soviet's launch of the first human into orbit
, Yuri Gagarin
, on April 12, 1961 led Kennedy to raise the stakes of the Space Race by setting the goal of landing men on the Moon
. Kennedy claimed, "If the Soviets control space they can control the earth, as in past centuries the nation that controlled the seas dominated the continents."
Eisenhower disagreed with Kennedy's goal and referred to it as a "stunt."
Kennedy had privately acknowledged that the space race was a waste of money, but he knew there were benefits from a frightened electorate.
The Space Race was less about its intrinsic importance and more about prestige and calming the public.
The Sputnik crisis sparked the American drive to retake the lead in space exploration from the Soviets, and it fueled its drive to land men on the Moon
American officials had a variety of opinions at the time, some registering alarm and others dismissing the satellite. Gerald Ford
, a Republican US representative from Michigan, had stated, "We Middle Westerners are sometimes called isolationists. I don't agree with the label; but there can be no isolationists anywhere when a thermonuclear warhead can flash down from space at hypersonic speed to reach any spot on Earth minutes after its launching."
Former US Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett, chief of naval operations, stated that Sputnik was a "hunk of iron almost anybody could launch."
The Sputnik crisis also spurred substantial transformation in the US science policy, which provided much of the basis for modern academic scientific research.
By the mid-1960s, NASA was providing almost 10% of the federal funds for academic research.
Further expansion was made in the funding and research of space weapons and missile defense in the form of anti-ballistic missile
Education programs were initiated to foster a new generation of engineer
s and support was dramatically increased for scientific research. Congress increased the National Science Foundation
(NSF) appropriation for 1959 to $134 million, almost $100 million higher than the year before. By 1968, the NSF budget stood at nearly $500 million.
According to Marie Thorsten, Americans experienced a "techno-other void" after the Sputnik crisis and still express longing for "another Sputnik" to boost education and innovation. In the 1980s, the rise of Japan (both its car industry and its 5th generation computing project
) served to fan the fears of a "technology gap" with Japan. After the Sputnik crisis, leaders exploited an "awe doctrine" to organize learning "around a single model of educational national security, with math and science serving for supremacy in science and engineering, foreign languages and cultures for potential espionage, and history and humanities for national self-definition." US leaders were not able to exploit the image of Japan as effectively, despite its representations of supersmart students and a strong economy.
In Britain, the launch of the first Sputnik provoked surprise, combined with elation at experiencing the dawn of the Space Age
. It was also a reminder of the nation's decline on the world stage
. The crisis soon became part of the broader Cold War narrative.
Much of the public nervousness that did exist was dispelled when the Soviets launched Laika
(one of several space dogs
sent into space during the 1950s and 1960s) into space in November 1957 aboard ''Sputnik 2
'', which was seen less as a threat and more as a propaganda maneuver to cause turmoil.
* International Geophysical Year
* Timeline of events in the Cold War
Other online resources
Category:Soviet Union–United States relations
Category:1957 in international relations
Category:1957 in the United States
Category:1957 in the Soviet Union
Category:1957 in spaceflight
Category:October 1957 events