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Sputnik crisis

Soviet stamp depicting Sputnik's orbit around Earth

The Sputnik crisis was a period of public fear and uncertainty in the United States in the wake of the success of the Soviet Sputnik program and a perceived technological gap between the two superpowers.[1] It was a key Cold War event beginning with the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The Sputnik crisis led to the creation of NASA and the start of the Space Race. The term was coined by then-US President Dwight D. Eisenhower.[citation needed]


The successful launch of Sputnik 1 and the subsequent failure of the first two Project Vanguard launch attempts greatly accentuated the perception in the United States of a threat from the Soviet Union, a perception that had persisted since the Cold War began after World War II. The same rocket that launched Sputnik could send a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes, stripping the continental United States of its oceanic defenses. The Soviets had demonstrated this capability on 21 August with a successful 6,000 km test flight of the R-7 booster. The event was announced by TASS five days later and was widely reported in the magazine Aviation Week amongst other media.

Hours after the launch, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Astronomy Department rigged an ad-hoc interferometer to measure signals from the satellite.[2] 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[3] helped to dispel some of the fear created by the Sputnik launch by the Soviet Union. It also lent credence to the (likely false) idea that the Sputnik launch was part of an organized effort to dominate space.[4]

Less than a year after the Sputnik launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The act 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; however, by 1960 the combined funding grew almost six-fold because of the NDEA.[5] After the initial public shock, the Space Race began, leading to the first human launched into space, Project Apollo and the first humans to land on the Moon in 1969.[1]


The launch spurred a series of initiatives by the United States,[6] ranging from defense to education. Increased emphasis was placed on the Navy's existing Project Vanguard to launch an American satellite into orbit. The preceding Explorer program that saw the Army launch the first American satellite into orbit on 31 January 1958 also saw a revival.[7]

By February 1958, the political and defense communities had recognized the need for a high-level Department of Defense (DoD) organization to execute R&D projects and created the Advanced Research Projects Agency. This was later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. On 29 July 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the creation of NASA.[6] Despite campaigning in 1960 on closing the "missile gap",[8] President John F. Kennedy decided to deploy 1,000 Minuteman missiles. This was many more ICBMs than the Soviets had at the time.[9]

Education programs were initiated to foster a new generation of engineers and support was dramatically increased for scientific research.[10] 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.

Americans experienced a "techno-other void" after the Sputnik crisis and continue to express longing for "another Sputnik" to boost education and innovation. During the 1980s, the rise of Japan filled that void temporarily. Following 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." But American leaders were not able to exploit the image of Japan as effectively despite its representations of super-smart students and a strong economy.[11]


In Britain the Sputnik crisis was much less visible and reaction to the launch suggested an appreciation of the novelty of the Space Age. It eventually became part of the Cold War narrative when the Soviets launched a dog into space in November 1957.[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b DeNooyer (2007).
  2. ^ "Some History of the Department of Astronomy". University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Archived from the original on 4 May 2007. 
  3. ^ King, I. R.; McVittie, G. C.; Swenson, G. W.; Wyatt, S. P. (9 November 1957). "Further observations of the first satellite". Nature (4593): 943. doi:10.1038/180943a0. 
  4. ^ Isachenkov, Vladimir (1 October 2007). "Secrets of Sputnik Launch Revealed". USA Today. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 13 February 2014. Retrieved 13 February 2014. 
  5. ^ Layman & Tompkins (1994), p. 190.
  6. ^ a b History Channel (2012a).
  7. ^ Schefter (1999), pp. 25–26.
  8. ^ Dickson (2003), pp. 5–6, 160—162.
  9. ^ Dickson (2003), pp. 213–214.
  10. ^ Totten, Michael (26 September 2013). "The Effects of the Cold War on us Education". Education Space 360. Retrieved 15 August 2014. 
  11. ^ Thorsten (2012), p. 74.
  12. ^ Barnett, Nicholas (2013). "Russia Wins Space Race: The British Press and the Sputnik Moment, 1957". Media History 19 (2): 182–195. doi:10.1080/13688804.2013.791419. 


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  • Burrows, William E. (1999). This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age. New York: The Modern Library. ISBN 978-0-375-75485-2. 
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  • Dickson, Paul (2003). Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group. ISBN 0-425-18843-4. 
  • Hardesty, Von; Eisman, Gene (2007). Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race. Forward by Sergei Krushchev. Washington, D.C: National Geographic. ISBN 9781426201196. 
  • Neufeld, Michael J. (2007). Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-307-26292-9. 
  • Ordway III, Frederick I.; Sharpe, Mitchell (2007). The Rocket Team. Burlington, Ontario: Apogee Books. ISBN 978-1-894959-82-7. 
  • Roman, Peter (1995). Eisenhower and the Missile Gap. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801427975. 
  • Schefter, James (1999). The Race: The Uncensored Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-49253-7. 
  • Siddiqi, Asif A. (2003). Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. ISBN 0-8130-2627-X. 
  • Spitzmiller, Ted (2006). Astronautics: A Historical Perspective of Mankind's Efforts to Conquer the Cosmos. Book 1 — Dawn of the Space Age. Burlington, Ontario: Apogee Books. ISBN 978-1-894959-63-6. 
  • Thorsten, Marie (2012). Superhuman Japan: Knowledge, Nation and Culture in US-Japan Relations. Oxon, UK: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-41426-5. 
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