HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

Sputnik: The Satellite That Inspired Generations
© 2003, Kate Castell

Sputnik / Click to enlarge


In 1950, a group of American and European scientists decided to establish a worldwide program to promote research and understanding of the world around them. They decided that July 1957 to December 1958 would be called the International Geophysical Year, or IGY. They hoped that drawing attention to geophysical matters would stimulate new projects and inventions, and increase the knowledge the world had of the planet, its atmosphere, and the things that lay beyond. This focus galvanized many countries to produce new innovations in science and technology.

At the same time, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were involved in the Cold War. They were competing against one another, constantly trying to show that their country (and therefore their form of government and ideals) was the better choice. They were competing for influence over the rest of the world. Eventually the USSR and Communism lost, but far more important results came out of this competition instead.

Development of Sputnik

The idea that a satellite could be put into orbit around the Earth was introduced to the scientific community in 1903. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky showed that this could be done, but his work was all mathematical. In 1948, another Russian named Mikhail Tikhonravov talked to the famed scientist Sergei Korolev about turning this theory into an actual working device. Tikhonravov presented his ideas to the Academy of Artillery Sciences, but they refused to support the project. The Academy president Anatoli Blagonravov, however, could not get the idea that the project would have huge value out of his head. Eventually he brought the project back in front of the Academy, and helped Tikhonravov's ideas gain acceptance (Harford). Thus the satellite project began.

American satellite projects at this time never really got off the ground (no pun intended). The US Army Air Corps requested satellite project proposals as early as 1946, but after the contract was awarded to Douglas Aircraft, one report was produced and the satellite projects stalled (Harford). Satellite projects were considered a waste of time and ridiculous, much as they were in the USSR. It was only because one official in Russia kept promoting the idea that they were able to continue with the projects while the Americans abandoned them.

Russian rocket development programs after that time focused largely on missiles, not satellite launch devices. It wasn't until 1953, when the R-7 rocket was finished, that they began to review the satellite idea. The R-7 rocket was designed to launch Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs, at the United States. The US had bombers stationed at NATO bases all around Russian borders in case they were needed, but Russia had no similar allies within range of the US. They also had no planes that could fly from Russia to the US to drop nuclear bombs. They began to develop a rocket to get the warheads there instead. The R-7 rocket could carry a five-ton warhead as far as it was needed, and with a smaller package could reach orbital velocities (around 8000 meters per second) (Harford).

Sergei Korolev suggested the idea of using the R-7 rocket to put a satellite in orbit in 1954. In 1955 both the US and the USSR said that they would launch satellites during the IGY from 1957 to 1958. At the time, however, the promises were tentative, because neither country had an actual approved program in development. The Russian project was approved by the government in January 1956, and Tikhonravov and Korolev began selecting a team (Harford). Korolev and his scientists faced more opposition, as they had before, and it took a while to develop their satellite. At first they worked with the idea of using a 3000-pound satellite, but they eventually decided to use a simpler, smaller satellite just so they could get something in the air. Sputnik ended up being only a sphere with a radio transmitter, batteries, and a thermometer inside.

In August 1957, one of the R-7 rockets traveled 6000 kilometers carrying a simulated H-bomb warhead. This reassured Korolev that the rocket could launch his satellite, and he began working to get it done soon. He was able to gain political support by saying that they could be the first country on Earth to launch a satellite into orbit if they would try as soon as possible. Then he started directing the assembly of the satellite. Korolev became known for his perfectionism, yelling at the workers when a model of Sputnik wasn't properly polished, because "This ball will be exhibited in museums!" (Harford) The separation of Sputnik from the launch rocket was tested on the ground, and launch preparations began just as hints of the project were being given to the scientific community. Finally, in October 1957, everything was ready.

NY Times / Click to enlarge

Launch and Initial Reactions

Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4th, 1957 from a launch site called Baikonur, near the Aral Sea in what is now Kazakhstan (Dickson). Leonid A. Voskresenskiy and Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr I. Nosov were in charge of the launch operations, and Boris S. Chekunov was to push the button to actually begin the launch. Korolev and his scientists and engineers watched over every detail of the launch. Finally the rocket lifted off at 10:28 PM Moscow Time and entered an elliptical orbit around the Earth (Siddiqi). Sputnik was a 22-inch diameter sphere that weighed 183 pounds and had four antennae coming off it (Launius). It took about 96 minutes to orbit the Earth each time, and anyone could hear it beeping on a HAM radio as it flew over them.

At the time of the launch, hardly anyone seemed to care about the satellite. The Soviet president Nikita Kruschev said that he considered it "just another Korolev rocket launch" (Harford) and that he "congratulated the entire group of engineers and technicians on this outstanding achievement and calmly went to bed." (Siddiqi) The major Soviet newspaper Pravda published only this:

For several years scientific research and experimental design work have been conducted in the Soviet Union on the creation of artificial satellites. As has already been reported in the press, the first launching of the satellites in the USSR were planned for realization in accordance with the scientific research program of the International Geophysical Year. As a result of very intensive work by scientific research institutes and design bureaus the first artificial satellite in the world has been created. On October 4, 1957, this first satellite was successfully launched in the USSR. According to preliminary data, the carrier rocket has imparted to the satellite the required orbital velocity of about 8,000 meters per second. At the present time the satellite is describing elliptical trajectories around the Earth, and its flight can be observed in the rays of the rising and setting Sun with the aid of very simple optical instruments (binoculars, telescopes, etc.). (quoted in Siddiqi)

Korolev seemed to be the only person that was excited at first, saying "I've been waiting all my life for this day!" (Harford)

The US Government found out about the launch at a reception at the Soviet Embassy that night. There were several hints that the Soviets were launching a satellite but many people, even those from Russia, weren't sure if it would really happen. The American government was still hoping to beat the Russians with the Vanguard project. An American delegate who had heard about it through the press and some of his aides announced the news of the launch (Launius). As soon as the news reached the public that night, things changed dramatically all over the world.

Initially, the US government had the same reaction as the government in Russia -- they congratulated the scientists, but overall downplayed the importance of the accomplishment. After several days, however, they realized what an impact the launch had had on the public. As far as politics went, "the Soviet Union had staged a tremendous propaganda coup for the communist system," (Launius) and proved that they could accomplish more than the United States. The result of this launch was that "the international image of the Soviet Union was greatly enhanced overnight." (Launius)

The United States was probably the nation most affected by Sputnik. Many Americans were almost hysterical with fear because few people understood what the satellite was. A lot of people thought it was some kind of a weapon, or something that the Soviets could use to target American cities at which they could aim atomic bombs. People also found the government's dismissal of the satellite as a sign that they were not prepared to protect people from Soviet threats. Some, like G. Mennen Williams, the governor of Michigan, thought it was a failure of the President. He wrote a poem to express his discontent:

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.
(quoted by Launius)

Other political figures also felt uneasy, such as Lyndon B. Johnson who said, "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." (Launius) The more panicky people in the country began to think that a war was starting or that the Soviets would be able to attack them from space. A typical example of this might be the following:

Jim Dawsons, science writer for the Star Tribune, wrote about how his third grade teacher was very nervous at the time. His school at Omaha, Neb., was just a few miles from the Air Force's Strategic Air Command headquarters. A fleet of F-100 fighters appeared in the sky coming right for the school. "MiGs!" the teacher shrieked. "MiGs!" She ran, hysterical, from the classroom, convinced they were about to be nuked by Russian fighter jets. The kids, mostly Air Force brats, ran to the windows to admire the F-100s, the coolest jet of its day. (quoted by Wright)

The day after the launch, newspapers covered every aspect of the story. Many of them provided explanations of the satellite that the average person could understand. This was even more needed then because it was the first time anything like this had happened, so the public had absolutely no prior knowledge about space flight. Many started with clinical, basic explanations of the satellite's dimensions and orbit. There was a lot of focus on the satellite's beeping transmissions and the fact that you could see it when it flew over -- visceral evidence of the Soviets' scientific superiority.

While the Russians were quick to applaud their achievement, they were also very secretive about the details, creating a lot of speculation by the American media. Much of the speculation revolved around the use of the satellite as a weapon. At first, this was largely discounted. One article published the day after the launch assured people that "satellites could not be used to drop atomic or hydrogen bomb or anything else on the earth? nor could they be used in connection with the proposed plan for aerial inspection of military forces around the world." (Jorden) The last statement has not exactly stood the test of time, nor has his report that "satellites would have no practicable military application in the future." The article instead emphasized the use of the satellites to gather scientific data.

The days after the launch produced more and more concern in the media. An article published on October 7th wondered if the beeps transmitted by the satellite were some kind of secret code, and told the readers how to hear it for themselves. The same article also discussed the power needed to transmit the signal, saying, "American scientists have computed that if their batteries are as efficient as ours -- and no one knows -- this would mean at least sixty pounds of batteries." (NY Times) It seems that even the efficiency of Russian batteries could hint at their insidious weaponry skills.

Perhaps the most paranoid article that could be imagined was published on November 5, 1957, two days after the launch of Sputnik 2. It was entitled "Scientists Wonder if Shot Nears Moon" and was an account of how the Russians could possibly have launched the rocket to hit the moon with a hydrogen bomb during an upcoming lunar eclipse. The author dutifully informed the readers that "the explosion of a bomb on a moon darkened briefly in eclipse would create an illumination on the earth brighter than the light of a full moon" and "Some of the largest radars in the United States were reported yesterday sweeping the path that a rocket would follow to reach the moon on Thursday. None reported detecting a target, but in some cases their operations were cloaked in secrecy." (Sullivan) He also reported on the future plans of the Soviet rocket program, which included "journeys to the moon, to Mars and elsewhere" and "sending fast-breeding animals, such as rodents, insects and mollusks, aloft to see what effect naked cosmic rays might have on their descendants." The ideas of a hydrogen bomb going off on the Moon and 1950s journeys to Mars seem laughable today, but it was all so new at the time that they were not aware of the limitations of the technology. It would have been a legitimate fear at the time, and fears like these persisted until the end of the Space Race. (The entire article is attached as an Appendix to give the full effect.)

Besides increasing fear and paranoia, another almost-overnight reaction to the launch was the sudden interest and enrollment in aerospace engineering programs and projects all over the country. The following chart shows the number of people receiving Bachelor of Science degrees in aerospace engineering at Iowa State University. The accompanying discussion suggests that this graph would be typical of aerospace programs all over the country.

From P.J. Hermann, Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics News / Click to enlarge

1947 WWII was over and a lot of the old Navy V-12 and Army ASTP people had come back on the GI bill to finish their degree. Then the Korean Campaign came on and there was little enthusiasm for aerospace. But, as the '50s wore on and Sputnik came on in Oct. 1957, and as development of commercial jet aircraft got started, interest in aerospace expanded. In the '60's the big thing was the moon shots, "To land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth", as President Kennedy stated it. In the 1970s the big thing was to be politically correct, against all such things as war and the draft, and aerospace was something of an unpopular degree. The next big boom in AerE student population was in the '80s. Then came the '90s and the lousy job market again. Now, we begin to look to the next decade and the next millennium, and the prospects are for another increase in student enrollment. (Hermann)

Many people found their lives' directions after the launch. Franklin Chang-Diaz was seven years old at the time, and the idea of something man-made in space fascinated him. He spent the rest of his life training and became an astronaut who flew in Shuttle missions from 1986 to 1996 (Dickson). The American Rocket Society's membership went from 5000 in 1957 to 20,000 in 1962, and has 40,000 members (as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) today.

Long-term Effects of Sputnik

A major result of the Soviet launch of Sputnik was the interest in and importance placed on space programs, especially here in the United States. As Russia's main rival in the Cold War, the US could not be left behind in the Space Race. This would make them seem less technologically capable than the USSR, and dumber as well. There was also the concern of the "missile gap," and the fact that if the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, they could very likely launch an H-bomb into the US.

Adding to this fear was the launch of Sputnik 2, just under a month after Sputnik 1 was launched. Sputnik 2 was bigger, weighing 1100 pounds and carrying Laika the dog. The United States hadn't managed to launch a single small satellite yet, and the Russians were already launching satellites that approached the weight of a nuclear warhead. Finally the government realized how important it was for the US to accomplish something that would put them back in the competition with Russia.

The country scrambled to make up for lost time in the new "Space Race," to fund satellite programs and to emphasize math and science in schools. In 1958 the National Defense Education Act was passed to give $47.5 million in student loans as well as allocate $300 million for equipment and fellowships for science and math graduate students (Dickson). Money was sent to high schools, colleges, and universities to provide them with new books and laboratories, and to give students financial incentives to improve their education. Schools also began to emphasize creativity and independent thinking instead of memorization, even at the elementary school level. Schools also began offering special courses for gifted students, allowing them to learn more things more quickly. Being smart suddenly became something that people admired, instead of something they made fun of (Dickson).

The US also chose to speed up the Navy's Vanguard program, urging them to launch as soon as possible. The Vanguard program was chosen over Wernher von Braun's Explorer program because Eisenhower did not want to aggravate the Russians by sending up a military satellite. Von Braun was working for the Army, whereas the Vanguard program was being developed by the National Science Foundation and only used a Navy lab for the work (Harford). However, the Vanguard project was not as well designed, and speeding up their work made it worse. They attempted a launch on December 6, 1957. The launch had been highly publicized because the US wanted to prove they were just as competent as the Russians. Unfortunately the rocket exploded on the launch pad and its tiny satellite only got "launched" a few yards. This happened in full view of people all over the world, and newspapers the next day made sure that everyone knew what had happened. Papers called it "Kaputnik" (Wright) and it was a great embarrassment to the United States.

After the failure of Vanguard, more attention was turned to von Braun's project. Explorer also had several launch failures, but their persistence paid off on January 31, 1958 when the United States put their first satellite into orbit. Explorer 1 had a radiation-measuring device on it, and found the first evidence of the Van Allen Radiation Belts and the Earth's magnetic field. Vanguard 1 finally got into space on March 17, 1958, after still another failure on February 5 (Launius). It measured the Van Allen belts, proving that they existed and providing some of the first information we ever had about the space around our planet.

The Space Race did not in any way end once the Americans finally launched a satellite -- it may have actually sped up. Just as with the arms race and the buildup of nuclear weapons, each country tried to beat the best thing the other country had done. Mapping the Van Allen belts was once of the first things the US beat the Russians to, because the equipment to do this on Sputnik 2 had failed. Shortly afterward, on May 15, 1958, the Russians launched Sputnik 3. This caused even more concern than the other launches because Sputnik 3 weighed 1.5 tons. This was within the range of the weight of an ICBM warhead. Sputnik 3 also carried more scientific equipment than previous satellites from either country, and sent back information about "measure micrometeorites, density of the upper atmosphere, cosmic rays, solar radiation, the presence and effect of high energy particles and the Earth's own radiation environment." (Harford)

The United States wanted the same capabilities as the USSR, so Congress began to investigate and fund ways to accelerate the nation's fledging space program. On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed a bill that created the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, or NASA. Many people were happy that the President had finally taken space flight seriously. The formation of NASA, which became the premier space agency in the world, led to further and faster developments in space travel. Now that a satellite had been launched, NASA's major goal was to reach the Moon ahead of the Russians. Many early attempts blew up at various points in the launch and crashed, but reaching the Moon was still their goal.

Finally, the most famous result of the Space Race began in 1961 when President Kennedy officially challenged the Russians to get to the Moon before us. The subsequent years, projects, and some fatal failures led to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin making it there in 1969. After this had been accomplished, the race wasn't as frantic. Russia changed their attention to building a permanent space station to leave in orbit, and the US began developing the Space Shuttle program. After the Cold War the two countries combined their abilities, resulting in the continued Space Shuttle missions and the International Space Station that we see in the news today.


Just as the World Wars encouraged the development of better and faster planes, missiles, and rockets, the Cold War promoted increasingly fantastic space travel and technology. The Cold War had a positive effect on worldwide space programs, which in turn shaped our society greatly. It is amazing that something wonderful could come out of a time filled with the threat of annihilation, but it shows what humanity can do when given the chance.

Sputnik was a surprise in many ways. The entire world was shocked by it, and the Russian engineers that launched it were surprised at the world's reaction. Everyone involved at the time and everyone that remembers their reaction to it is probably still surprised today at what the launch of a tiny satellite started: men on the Moon, a space station and space shuttle, and satellites that explorer farther out in space than any human will ever go. These accomplishments have also given us more knowledge and understanding of the universe than anyone could have predicted when a flying radio first orbited the Earth.

Appendix -- New York Times Article (November 5, 1957)

Scientists Wonder if Shot Nears Moon

Scientists in many lands speculated yesterday that a Soviet rocket might already be en route to strike the moon with a hydrogen bomb in the midst of its eclipse Thursday.

They noted that the launching of a satellite Saturday with a payload of more than a half ton showed that a trip to the moon was within Moscow's capabilities.

The explosion of a bomb on a moon darkened briefly in eclipse would create an illumination on the earth brighter than the light of a full moon, in the view of one American scientist. It was thus seen as a "firework" that would provide a spectacular display for the fortieth anniversary of the October revolution.

The moon is to enter the earth's shadow at 7:43 A.M. Thursday, New York time, when it is no longer visible on the East Coast. The start of the eclipse will be visible over Colorado and near-by regions, according to the American Museum-Hayden Planetarium, but the moon will set before total eclipse.

In the Los Angeles-San Francisco area the eclipse will start at 4:43 A.M., Pacific Standard time, and will become total at 6:12 A.M. It will set before the eclipse ends. The total event will be seen in Alaska and eastern Asia, lasting three hours and twenty-eight minutes.

U.S. Radars Sweep Skies

Some of the largest radars in the United States were reported yesterday sweeping the path that a rocket would follow to reach the moon on Thursday. None reported detecting a target, but in some cases their operations were cloaked in secrecy.

The trip to the moon would take four or five days if the rocket were given a velocity of about 25,000 miles an hour as it soared beyond the upper air. This would be just enough velocity to carry it the 211,000 miles needed to escape the gravitational pull of the earth.

There, creeping slowly forward, it would become a slave of the moon's gravity and plunge with increasing speed the last 30,000 miles to its destination.

Reports came thick and fast yesterday quoting Soviet scientists who predicted journeys to the moon, to Mars and elsewhere.

There was talk of sending fast-breeding animals, such as rodents, insects and mollusks, aloft to see what effect naked cosmic rays might have on their descendants.

U.S. Denies Reports

Reports that the United States might send up small creatures in its current satellite program were denied, but the possibility was not ruled out of such experiments later on. The present plan is designed to fulfill United States obligations during the International Geophysical Year.

The "year," an eighteen-month period that began July 1, is concerned with research into the nature of the earth and its environment, rather than with the effects of such environment on living creatures.

Dr. Fred L. Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., said yesterday that it was "entirely possible the Russians already have a rocket on the way to the moon."

If they have, he added, it would have been launched Saturday, the same day the second earth satellite was fired from the Soviet Union.

Dr. S. Fred Singer, physicist at the University of Maryland and a specialist in upper air research, wrote in the magazine U.S. News & World Report that the flash of a hydrogen bomb on the moon could be equivalent to "many times the illumination produced by a full moon."

© 1997 The New York Times Company


  1. -----. "The Times Looks Back: Sputnik." Ed. Bernard Gwertzman. 1997. Accessed 8 May 2003. [URL]

  2. -----. "Scientists Split on Soviet Signals." New York Times, October 5, 1957. [URL] Accessed May 22, 2003.

  3. Dickson, Paul. Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. New York: Walker and Company, 2001.

  4. Harford, James J. "Korolev's Triple Play: Sputniks 1, 2, and 3." 1997. NASA. Accessed 2 Apr. 2003. [URL]

  5. Hermann, P.J. Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics News. 2 Oct 1998. Iowa State University. Accessed May 22, 2003. [URL]

  6. Jorden, William J. "Soviet Fires Earth Satellite Into Space?" New York Times, October 5, 1957. [URL] Accessed May 22, 2003.

  7. Launius, Roger D. "Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age." 1997. NASA. Accessed 2 Apr. 2003. < a href="http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/sputnik/sputorig.html>

  8. Plumb, Robert K. "Satellite is First Step Into Space." New York Times, October 5, 1957. [URL] Accessed May 22, 2003.

  9. Siddiqi, Asif A. "Korolev, Sputnik, and The International Geophysical Year." 1997. NASA. Accessed 2 Apr. 2003. [URL]

  10. Sullivan, Walter. "Scientists Wonder if Shot Nears Moon." New York Times, November 5, 1957. [URL] Accessed May 22, 2003.

  11. Wright, Michael. "Sputnik: First Artificial Satellite." 30 Aug. 1997. Accessed 2 Apr. 2003 [URL]

For a Sputnik signal recording: http://fiftiesweb.com/pop/sputnik.wav

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