“Each of these first rockets was like a beloved woman for us. We were in love with every rocket, we desperately wanted it to blast off successfully. We would give our hearts and souls to see it flying.”

Boris Chertok, in a series of interviews with the Associated Press

The 4th October 1957, looked like an ordinary Friday in Washington D.C. People were wrapping things up and preparing for the weekend. For Dr. John P. Hagen, a solar radio astronomer, and director of the Navy’s earth satellite program, it was the end of a challenging week.

Beginning on Monday, 30 September, the international scientific organization known as CSAGI (Comité Speciale de l’Année Geophysique Internationale) held a six-day conference with scientists from the United States, the Soviet Union, and five other nations, on rocket and satellite research, as part of the International Geophysical Year activities. In the opening session of the conference, Sergei M. Poloskov, a member of the Russian Delegation, gave a talk, titled ‘Sputnik’, the Russian’s word for “travelling companion”. ‘Sputnik’ was also the name chosen for the artificial satellite the Soviets were prepared to launch. “We are now, on the eve of the first artificial satellite”, said Poloskov throwing the conference into a state of wild speculation.

On October 4, 1957, at 7.28 UTC, from Site No. 1 (now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome) in southern Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union launched into an elliptical low Earth orbit the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, an aluminium 22-inch sphere with four radio aerials sticking out of it. It weighed only 83,6 kg (184.3 pounds). Sputnik travelled and it circled Earth more than 1,400 times at 96 minutes an orbit. It was the beginning of a new age in history – the space age.

For the next 21 days until the transmitter batteries ran out, amateur radio operators, throughout the world, monitored the beep of Sputnik’s radio signals.  It orbited within the outer ionosphere for the next 3 months, until the atmosphere friction led to orbital decay and its demise.

Sputnik maybe provided the opportunity to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to boast about Moscow’s supposedly technological superiority but it had a major impact on the United States.  Sputnik success could increase Soviet Union’s influence in Asia and Africa, but most importantly could give the USSR the upper hand in the arms race. It ignited what has been described as a ‘near-hysterical reaction’ on the part ‘of the American press, politicians, and public’.

Edward Teller on Time magazine cover. 18 November, 1957

Senator Henry M. Jackson (D) characterized Sputnik as “a devastating blow to the prestige of the United States as the leader in the scientific and technological world.” Edward Teller, the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’, whose portrait appeared on the cover of the Time magazine a few months later, warned President Eisenhower that the Soviets were winning the race in military technology and in scientific research, and pronounced the Sputnik program as “A greater defeat for our country than Pearl Harbour”.

The Vice-President Richard Nixon saw the Sputnik success as a failure of the Western civilisation and it became a source of tension between him and President Eisenhower.  At a cabinet meeting on 11 October, 1957 he had spoken out in favour of increased defense spending.  He argued that the administration needed to take an initiative on the missile issue. But Eisenhower had other concerns. In a recession year, his main priority was to keep the budgetary expenditures from going, as he put it, “hog wild.” He expressed confidence in the technological power of the United States and shunted aside the proposals for nuclear-powered spaceship that would fly to the moon, explaining, “I’d like to know what’s on the other side of the moon, but I won’t pay to find out this year.”

Eisenhower understood that to get a satellite up quickly was not the most important thing to do. He could be so calm because he knew that the United States had its own missile and satellite programme, in fact several programmes that would drive American technology with far-reaching impact.

United States’ first try to launch a satellite in December 1957, was unsuccessful. The rocket blew up only two seconds after take-off, and the satellite was immortalised as “Kaputnick.” It was soon followed by a second, also unsuccessful try on January 1958. Finally, on 17 March, 1958, the Project Vanguard launched successfully the 3 1/4-pound (about 147kg) satellite, Vanguard 1, which is now the oldest man-made object in space.

Also, early in 1958, the Defence Department created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (APRA) – later to become the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DAFRA) –  to develop US missiles. But Eisenhower decided that this kind of research should be conducted by a civilian agency. Finally, on October 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) organisation was established. Its role, according to its first Administrator Keith Glennan and deputy administrator Hugh Latimer Dryden, was research and development (R&D) of space science technology, including the development and lunch of unpiloted systems, vehicles and satellites in space, astronauts training and space exploration.


References and further reading:
  1. Project Vanguard: The NASA History,  by Constance McLaughlin Green, Milton Lomask
  2. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin,  Penguin Books, 2012.
  3. Zuoyue Wang. In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America, Rutgers University Press, 2008
  4. Time Magazine, 18 November, 1957
  5. The Sputnik Challenge: Eisenhower’s Response to the Soviet Satellite, by Robert A. Divine, Oxford University Press, 2006.
  6. Michael H.Gorn, “Hugh L. Dryden’s Career in Aviation”, Monographs in Aerospace History,  [www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/pdf/88790main_Dryden.pdf] Available  from NASA History Office
  7. Featured Image: A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in the world to be put into outer space: the replica is stored in the National Air and Space Museum. Source:  http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/database/MasterCatalog?sc=1957-001B