Five years before Sputik launched, the International Council of Scientific Unions had decided to establish the period July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). (The fact that it was actually a period of 18 months somehow didn’t seem to bother them at the time.) To celebrate the IGY the White House announced plans in 1955 to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite during this period. A week later, the Soviets, who had as early as 1954 begun considering a development plan for an artificial satellite, approved plans for their own satellite program.
The initial Soviet program was very ambitious, involving large satellites, with significant scientific payloads, the development of which would have resulted in launches sometime during the IGY. However, it soon became clear that the complexity of the proposed program could not be met in time. Based on a fear that the United States would beat the Soviets to the punch, the Soviet program changed completely. Instead of a complex satellite, a very simple and light satellite would be designed, which, while it could provide some scientific data, would essentially just get into orbit.
They had a rocket designed for ICBMs that was up to the task, and eight months after the new program was approved, and after several embarrassing failures, Sputnik 1 was successfully launched. (In November, the Soviets followed that successful launch with Sputnik 2, which housed a dog, the first living casualty of the new Space Race.)
The initial U.S.-government reaction to the launch of Sputnik was itself subdued. The Soviet program was not secret, and details of Sputnik were made publicly available before the launch, but no one took much notice. Moreover, U.S. spy planes had carefully been monitoring the Soviet rocket program so that the U.S. government was aware of the imminent launch, publicly stating that it did not come as a surprise. The Naval Research Laboratory, among other facilities, tracked Sputnik’s U.S. crossings.
But Sputnik’s launch did trigger concern among the U.S. public and their representatives in Congress. It demolished the notion, nurtured by the U.S. propaganda machine, that the Soviet Union was technically backward. The televised failure of the U.S. government’s first attempted satellite launch of the so-called Vanguard satellite only made the situation worse. Moreover, if a Russian satellite could fly over the United States, Russian missiles carrying nuclear weapons could perhaps also rain down upon the country.
Politics and science had already begun a courtship with the Manhattan Project during World War II, but the Space Race wedded them, a trend that has continued right up to the present time. By 1958 the United States had created two new agencies, NASA and the agency that would eventually become known as DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research-Projects Agency), and the U.S. government dramatically ramped up its support of scientific research and education programs.