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.
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.
NASA’s earliest objective was to launch a manned vehicle into Earth’s orbit as soon as possible.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Want to join the conversation?
- What happened to the space industry after the cold war?(9 votes)
- It kept on going. GPS, satellite internet, and the International Space Station are all results of the space industry.(6 votes)
- what happened to the dog that was in Sputnik II(8 votes)
- I hate sad dog stories, but I am about to give you one. The Soviets falsely said that Laika (the dog you are referring to), died peaceful and painlessly after staying in orbit for several days. Decades later, this was revealed to be false. Laika died in a panicked state as the Sputnik II overheated within its first couple of hours within launch. Terrible tragedy, yes. I am more sympathetic to this particular dog that died in space than the actual people that died in space related accidents. Just think about it. These animals had no say, and were forced to do something so dangerous. People have a choice.(30 votes)
- who was the first woman in space(9 votes)
- Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly to space on the Vostok 6 mission June 16, 1963.(17 votes)
- Who actually established NASA?(3 votes)
- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was established July 27 1958. It was created in the National Aeronautics and Space Act in which it took in NACA. This was a response to the Sputnik crisis as the west was desperate to have the upper hand over the Soviet Union.(15 votes)
- why were monkeys sent to space first why not a other living thing if the first ones are monkeys(3 votes)
- Monkeys are cute, so this was a good public relations move. Jellyfish wouldn't have drawn near the attention.
Monkeys have a vaguely human biology and shape, so more things usable for humans could be learned from monkeys than could have been learned from parakeets.(8 votes)
- How do you cite this page? I am using microsoft's citation software but there is no publication date for this or author for me to effectively cite this page.(7 votes)
- How many times have men landed on the moon and is there plans to visit it again soon.(5 votes)
- Twelve men have landed on the moon with the Apollo missions. As of now, China and Russia are both working on lunar missions--but this time, Russia is working with NASA to avoid another space race.(3 votes)
- It says
"Alan Shepard became the first American in space, piloting a 15-minute suborbital flight."
But it also says
"John Glenn became the first American to enter Earth’s orbit."
Don't you have to enter orbit and use to momentum from circling the earth to escape earth? Or am I being dumb?(3 votes)
- Alan Shepard went to space before John Glenn, but he only went up and fell back down. John Glenn was first to complete a full orbit of the Earth on his trip to space. Leaving Earth/entering space is officially defined at 100 km/62 miles and is called the Kármán line.(4 votes)
- How did the Space Race affect space exploration today?
I'm writing an e-book on it and came up with this question.(3 votes)
- Both Russia and China are working on lunar missions as we speak, except Russia is working with NASA in order to avoid another space race.(1 vote)
- I have never really heard about Sputnik III I only know about I and II, with said is it possible for someone to give me some information on how Sputnik III helped the Soviet Union in the Space Race?(2 votes)
- There is an extensive and detailed article on Sputnik 3 (with the arabic numeral in its title) at wikipedia. Peruse it with all the proper skepticism you hold for the source, and double-check the footnotes. There's a lot there.(3 votes)