Sputnik’s Effect on the United States

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union ushered in the Space Age when it stunned the world by launching the first satellite into space orbit. Dubbed Sputnik, meaning “companion”, the tiny satellite orbited the earth every ninety-six minutes. Democratic Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson described the effect of the launch of Sputnik had on America as a “second Pearl Harbor”(Burns).

Appearing akin to a small shooting star, Sputnik shot across the night sky to the astonishment of American onlookers. Sputnik emitted a radio signal with a faint, distinct “beep-beep” to aid the Soviets in determining the satellites location and progress (Mellberg 26). This otherwise harmless radio signal represented an alarm bell to the Americans, and for the first time the United States was technologically behind their Communist counterparts.

During 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions decided to officially designate July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). This period was designated because scientists knew that solar activity would be at a point that would allow for mapping of the Earth’s surface. Both the Soviet Union and the United States set plans in place to launch artificial satellites into space during this period. In anticipation for the IGY the White House formally announced the United States plans to launch an earth-orbiting satellite in July, 1955. In September, 1955, Vanguard, developed by the Naval Research Laboratory was officially chosen to represent the United States during the IGY.

As a possible alternative to Project Vanguard, Wernher Von Braun and his team dubbed the “Redstone Arsenal” began work on the Explorer project after receiving funding from the Department of Defense after the launch of Sputnik (Garber). In December, 1957, the Department of Defense launched a Vanguard rocket that carried a satellite payload. This first launch resulted in a failure on the launch pad and the United States was lambasted by others for their inability as a nation to have a working satellite program. To add further insult to injury, Russia launched their second satellite, Sputnik II, which carried a live dog named Leika on November 3, 1957.

Leika survived until her air supply ran out (Mellberg 26). Throughout World War II the United States had used their technological superiority to give them a safety blanket to the outside world. After dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ending the war in the Pacific, the Soviet Union quickly gained ground to the United States in the technological and weapons race. After quickly replicating the atomic bomb after four years the Soviets proved that they were a world power to be reckoned with. The launch of Sputnik showed that the Soviet Union had the means and technology to effectively launch a nuclear or ballistic weapon into America.

Though Sputnik is usually considered in context to be a representation of the beginnings of the Cold War, Sputnik did have some positive effects that contributed to advocating educational and technological advancements in the United States. The launching of Sputnik had the effect of the United States government allotting resources and money in order to bolster America’s ability to catch up to the Russians. Up until the launch of Sputnik in 1957 the United States had viewed Russia as being an inferior nation that was incapable of technological progress.

The launch of Sputnik showed America that Russia was a viable opponent and that they had the ability to be more advanced than the United States. This realization by the American people had the effect of bringing about the largest educational system reform since the institution of the public school system. Congress allocated huge amounts of money in order to provide scholarships to future student of science and engineering. Thus, many students who received government aid in turn pursued government jobs after successfully graduating. The money allocated by Congress had the effect of expanding the existing university system that was in place in America.

Another positive outcome of the launch of Sputnik was the development of new groups to update outdated textbooks and curriculum of high school and college students. Many programs including Lawrence Hall of Sciences were created and to this day publish material. In each of the new programs created by the initiative teachers were aided by scientists and other specialist positions in creation of the textbooks, thus ensuring the accuracy being put into the curriculum. Sputnik’s launch had far lasting effects on the education system and aided the United States in gaining ground on Russia and the launching of eventual Moon missions.

Sputnik, and later, the Cuban missile crisis, showed America that they were very susceptible to sudden and deliberate nuclear attacks from aggressor nations. The Civil Defense Preparedness Agency provided information to the American public on how to effectively build and stock fallout shelters in cast of nuclear war. One of the commonly remembered effects of Sputnik were the common “duck-and-cover” drills that were performed in many schools of the period. In this drill, students would drop to their knees and cover their head. Teachers were instructed to have their kids drop to the ground in the event of an atomic explosion.

One of the most important effects that Sputnik had was the start of the space race. Winning this race to be the first to conquer the moon would prove which country was in fact more technologically advanced and superior. Both countries had the belief that a rocket could send a man to the moon and also had the ability to carry nuclear weapons. The space race became as much a matter of national prestige as it did a matter of national security.

Another effect of Sputnik was ushering in the creation of a non-military agency dedicated to the exploration of space. Originally intended to be the American answer to Sputnik, Project Vanguard had many failures and resulted in the army eventually launching their own Jupiter-C rocket, which carried Explorer 1 into orbit on January 31, 1958. This launch helped to soften the pressure being applied to the Eisenhower administration by the American public. The public demanded that a dedicated agency be created to facilitate the space race.

In February 1958, the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) polled Congress to create a new civil agency which would unite all the existing space research groups into one collective group. In the summer of 1958, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which was signed into law by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. This “Space Act” changed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The original goal laid forth by NASA was to “gain scientific data using automated probes and to send into space craft that will carry men on voyages of exploration” (The Birth of NASA). Since its inception NASA has persisted in being the international leader in space exploration and research.

Sputnik represented the realization and shock to the United States that for the first time they were not the leaders in science and technology. Although having the effect of causing fear and speculation among the public and government bodies, Sputnik had many beneficial benefits including reform of the education system, allotment of scholarships and grants for undergraduates and graduates, and the creation of new jobs in the technology and aerospace industries, which would lead to the eventual landing on the Moon.

Sputnik had the prime effect of showing America its key shortfalls, and if money and resources were not dedicated to the space race, America would lose a key superiority to the Soviet Union. Charles Paul Freund summed the effect of Sputnik as: Not that Sputnik didn’t leave its mark, Indirectly, the Internet is one. A permanent role in education is another. So is the template of federal rescue in the shadow of threat. And so are the fading memories of those one-time students who were made to trade their Slinkys for slide rules and who were taught, briefly, citizenship in set theory (Freund).

Works Cited

Burns, Alexander. The Horror of Sputnik—and the Real Good It Did. 5 Oct. 2005. AmericanHeritage.com. 9 Mar. 2006. Fruend, Charles Paul. “Sphere of influence: Sputnik’s lingering effect.” Reason. 1 (2002): 62. Garber, Steve. Sputnik and The Dawn of the Space Age. 21 Feb. 2003. NASA. 16 Feb. 2006 Mellberg, William. Moon Missions: man kind’s first voyages. Plymouth, MI: Plymouth Press, Ltd. “The Birth of NASA: November 3, 1957-October 1, 1958.” NASA. 16 Apr. 2002. .