Learn about the launch of Sputnik and the establishment of NASA.


  • The “space race” was a Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop aerospace capabilities, including artificial satellites, unmanned space probes, and human spaceflight.
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created in 1958 as the federal agency with primary responsibility for the development of civilian aerospace research.
  • Early Soviet successes in the space race had a major impact on US society and culture, altering strategic defense doctrines and leading to new educational initiatives.

The Cold War in space

The Cold War was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in every conceivable arena – even space. When the Soviets launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957, it set off alarm bells in the Eisenhower administration and created intense fear and anxiety among the US public that the Soviet Union had surpassed the technological achievements of the United States.
Sputnik orbited the earth and transmitted radio signals for twenty-one days before burning up in the earth’s atmosphere.1^1 Sputnik II was launched the following month, in November, carrying a dog named Laika. In May 1958, the Soviets launched Sputnik III, which weighed almost three thousand pounds. Continuing their run of successful launches, the Soviets in 1959 sent a space probe, Lunik III, to photograph the dark side of the moon.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

In response to perceptions of Soviet technological success, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established on October 1, 1958 as the primary federal agency responsible for aerospace research and the civilian space program. In December, NASA took control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory operated by the California Institute of Technology, forming NASA-JPL. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, which took the lead in developing space technology for military purposes, was also created in 1958.
Color photograph of John Glenn in astronaut gear taken inside of the Friendship 7 spacecraft.
Astronaut John Glenn became the first American to enter Earth's orbit in 1962. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
NASA’s earliest objective was to launch a manned vehicle into Earth’s orbit as soon as possible.2^2 It would be the Soviets, however, who would win the race to put a man in space. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter Earth’s orbit, in a single-pilot spacecraft called Vostok I.
The Americans were not far behind, however, and one month later, in May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, piloting a 15-minute suborbital flight. In February 1962, John Glenn became the first American to enter Earth’s orbit. Early Soviet successes in the space race led US President John F. Kennedy to announce the inauguration of the Apollo program, which pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

The National Defense Education Act

Soviet achievements in space were a wake-up call to Americans convinced of their own scientific and technological superiority.
One of the responses was more federal funding for math and science education. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which envisioned public education as a key component of national security. The bill appropriated $800 million for loans to college students and for states to improve instruction in the hard sciences.3^3 The act was divided into ten titles, which each addressed a distinct issue. For instance, Title II dealt with provisions for student loans, while Title VI appropriated funding for the study of foreign languages designated as crucial “national security” languages, such as Russian and Mandarin Chinese. Title III strengthened existing public education programs in science and mathematics, and Title IX established a new Science Information Service operating under the auspices of the National Science Foundation.
All of these measures were envisioned as enhancing public education in the interest of bolstering national security and defense.4^4

The “missile gap”

More worryingly for US policymakers, Soviet achievements in space seemed to herald a new phase of the arms race. The technology that the Soviets used to launch satellites into space could also be employed to construct inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which could deliver nuclear warheads to targets in the United States.
Fears of nuclear warfare escalated, and U.S. officials were forced to rethink their entire doctrine of war. As movies, television shows like The Twilight Zone, and government-sponsored propaganda reflected and exacerbated fears of nuclear disaster, U.S. defense planners began to question the assumptions underlying the doctrine of massive retaliation.5^5
Many observers, including foreign policy analysts and Pentagon officials, urged the United States to further develop its own ICBM capabilities and close the so-called “missile gap.” Although these contemporary observers probably believed that the Soviet Union had surpassed the United States in missile technology and capabilities, documents that were released after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 showed that the missile gap never actually existed, and that the United States had maintained a clear superiority in missile technology even during the years of the most spectacular Soviet achievements in space.6^6

What do you think?

What effect did Soviet achievements in space have on American society and culture?
What sorts of policies were adopted in order to maintain and strengthen US scientific and technological superiority?
How were US domestic politics in the 1950s shaped by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
  1. See “The Space Race,” Digital History, 2014.
  2. For more on NASA and the “Space Race,” see Matthew Brzezinski, Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007).
  3. Paul S. Boyer, Promises to Keep: The United States since World War II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), p. 164.
  4. For more on the NDEA, see Wayne J. Urban, More Than Science and Sputnik: The National Defense Education Act of 1958 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010); and Barbara Barksdale Clowse, Brainpower for the Cold War: The Sputnik Crisis and National Defense Education Act of 1958 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981).
  5. For more on American society and culture in the nuclear era, see Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
  6. Peter J. Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).