Saturday, October 03, 2015

October 4, 1957: Sputnik changes the world

The Space Age has turned 58 years old.

On October 4, 1957, the world changed.   The 84-kg Object PS 1, as the Soviet Union called it - or Sputnik 1, as everyone else called it - rode a modified R-7 ICBM into space and into global headlines. 

What happened next? Many, many momentous things.

The sensation was created even though the launch should not have been a complete surprise. Soviet experts and publications openly discussed their International Geophysical Year (IGY) satellite (in general terms), and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had predicted the possibility a year in advance. Yet it was a surprise. As Sputnik’s creator, Chief Designer of the Soviet space and missile program Sergei Korolev, congratulated his comrades for opening the road to the stars, radio operators around the world tuned in the satellite’s beep and others scanned the night sky. The satellite was too small to be seen with the naked eye, but the core of the R-7 booster had followed Sputnik into orbit and was spotted easily. This visual proof magnified the satellite’s impact. Several influential American media outlets, most notably LIFE magazine, published alarmist critiques, which succeeded in raising the public’s concern.
Reports that Sputnik caused panic in Western nations were exaggerated. However, the satellite did send shock waves through U.S. and allied governments. James R. Killian, a scientific adviser to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, wrote that the event violently contradicted the fundamental belief that the United States’s technical capacity had no serious rivel.. Western armed forces had a specific and worrisome concern. Missile experts correctly deduced the launcher was a powerful ICBM. The Soviet Union had announced the first flight of Korolev’s ICBM a few months earlier, but U.S. intelligence had been unsure of the validity. Now there was no doubt. 
If the little sphere caused consternation among governments, it also excited scientists who knew that the Earth satellite concept, long a theoretical possibility, had at last been proven feasible. British author and space visionary Arthur C. Clarke recalled that it was a complete shock, but he realized it would change the world.
The international impact of Sputnik was unexpected even by the Soviet leaders. At first, the official newspaper Pravda gave the launch only a brief mention. Only after it became clear Sputnik had caused a global sensation did the satellite earn banner headlines. A CIA assessment stated that Sputnik had immediately increased Soviet scientific and military prestige among many peoples some governments. Soviet diplomats and politicians made the most of the resulting admiration. 
The effect of the Sputnik launch on the Western public was raised by the subsequent media coverage and magnified by the 3 November 1957 launch of Sputnik 2. Sputnik 2 weighed 508 kg, was highly visible (thanks to the failure of the R-7 core stage to detach as planned), and carried the first living creature in space, the dog Laika. Coming at a time when the United States was still scrambling to launch even a 1.5-kg Vanguard test satellite, warnings of Soviet superiority seemed, if anything, too moderate.

Museum display with R-7 booster in the foreground and Sputnik on the far right. (Satellite in the middle is a display model based on the US Vanguard satellite) 

President Eisenhower had also been surprised by Sputnik. While he reassured the public that the U.S. satellite program had not been conducted as a race against other nations and that Sputnik raised no new security concerns, he privately called his advisers on the carpet for an explanation. At the same time, he considered what actions were necessary in response. The president saw reason for concern but not panic. He refused demands for an all-out crash program, but did ask Congress for a $1 billion emergency appropriation to boost American missile programs. 
The U.S. government responded to calls from the media and academic leaders to improve education in engineering and the sciences. In 1958 Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act to provide funding for science and math programs in colleges and high schools. This federal intervention in education, traditionally a state and local matter, began the transformation of America’s system of government. This had consequences in social programs, civil rights, and other areas far removed from space. Another consequence the Soviet leaders did not foresee was the effect of Sputnik on international law. Before Sputnik, the right of transit through space above a nation’s territory was an unsettled question. Donald Quarles, Eisenhower’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, pointed out that the Soviets had possibly done the United States an unintentional favor by establishing the concept of freedom of international space. Not one government protested the overflight of Sputnik. In July 1959 this acceptance was cited by a United Nations report endorsing “freedom of space”—an idea enshrined by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. 
In the Soviet Union, Sputnik made Korolev a powerful man with vast resources to devote to his dreams of spaceflight. The price imposed was the need to keep the successes coming to maintain leadership in this new field. Korolev responded with new satellites, lunar probes, and in 1961 the launch of the first human into orbit.
Sputnik also galvanized the lagging U.S. space program. With the official U.S. IGY satellite program, Project Vanguard, still struggling, the Army missile team headed by Wernher von Braun was given approval to launch a satellite. After a frantic effort, Explorer 1 was orbited in January 1958. The government was already discussing the options for a long-term space program. On the military side this led to the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and the post of Director, Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), beginning a shift of control over research funding and military budgets in general from individual services to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Civilian space programs, Eisenhower decided, should belong to a new agency. On 1 October 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came into existence. It began pursuing numerous space endeavors, including science and applications satellites and its own human-in-space program. Sputnik’s launch was the beginning of the journey to the Moon. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Matt Bille and Erika Lishock, The First Space Race (2004). Roger Launius et al., eds., Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years since the Soviet Satellite (2000). Walter A. McDougall. …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985). Asif Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974 (2000).

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