The World Needs a Terrestrial Sputnik Moment

The Soviet satellite’s launch galvanized the American public around scientific research in a way that would be useful today.

The Sputnik 1 satellite
Bettmann / Getty

The Space Age began on October 4, 1957, exactly 60 years ago. On that date, the Soviet Union used a rocket originally intended for use with ballistic missiles to launch Sputnik 1, a small polished metal sphere weighing 184 pounds. Upon reaching its orbit, it became Earth’s first artificial satellite. Traveling at five miles per second, with an altitude that ranged between about 140 miles at its lowest point and 600 miles at its highest point, it orbited the earth once every 98 minutes. It was very nearly a failure. Telemetry after the fact indicated that an initial booster imbalance came within one second of causing the rocket to pitch so low that it would have veered downward, causing it to crash near the launch site.

Sputnik itself was just a small metal sphere filled with nitrogen, with a radio transmitter, power supply, fan, and antennae. All it did was beep, at two frequencies that could be detected by radio receivers, including ham-radio operators, around the world. That’s it.

On the surface, it would seem it was not much to write home about, and in fact the Soviet government initially didn’t write much about it. The official Communist newspaper Pravda printed only a few paragraphs about Sputnik 1 on launch day. But given the geopolitical situation at the time, outside the Soviet Union, in particular in the United States, the whole landscape of international power and prestige changed.

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.

The public became galvanized by fears of falling behind the Soviet Communist regime. Suddenly there was a new push for science and technology training in U.S. schools, and Congress enacted a law in 1958 providing low-interest loans to encourage students to study science and math at university. Ultimately the U.S. would build the space infrastructure that led to the moon landing in July of 1969.

Sputnik also had other political impacts. Democrats used the successful launch to argue that there was a dangerous “missile gap” with the Soviets, a central plank of John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential campaign.

Sputnik not only heralded a new era of intense competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, but also spread to many more countries—from Europe to China to India to North Korea—who all used space technology to build research infrastructure and to pursue international prestige.

As a child of the 1950s, I remember how the “Sputnik Moment” jump-started whole new areas of basic and applied research, not to mention the teaching of science and mathematics. And while I continue to find it unfortunate that space exploration is largely driven by national prestige, rather than the progress of science, it is nevertheless true that the side effects have been dramatic, and largely positive. Exactly three months after its launch, Sputnik reentered the atmosphere and burned up. The satellite may have disappeared, but its legacy continues to color almost every aspect of the world in which we now live.

As we face the 21st-century challenges of climate change and nuclear proliferation and much else, it’s worth asking whether we need a terrestrial Sputnik moment to catalyze public and government action to realistically face these challenges. With any luck, the galvanizing act will be as harmless as the small metal sphere the Soviets launched, and not something much more traumatic.