50 years ago today — on October 4th 1957 — the world learned that the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite into space. The word “Sputnik” entered our language, and the world would never be the same. Houston Public Radio’s Jim Bell takes a look back.
No one had any idea how much the world was going to change because of what happened on October 4th, 1957. A tiny and, by today’s standards, primitive orbiting space satellite was setting in motion an effort unprecedented in human history. The human race was taking its first nervous steps off its home planet into the vacuum of space, and just a little more than a decade later man would reach the moon.
They couldn’t have known it at the time, but history changed that day. Sputnik wasn’t much bigger than a basketball, and it weighed only 186 pounds, but, “Never before had so small and so harmless an object created such consternation”, wrote historian Daniel J. Boorstin, in his book Americans: The Democratic Experience.” Another historian wrote of the “shock, disbelief, denial, and consternation”, and said Sputnik’s “impact on the American psyche was not unlike the news of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.”
Here’s how it started, with a sound unlike any sound ever heard up to that point, something one network radio network announcer described as “the sound that forevermore separates the old from the new.”
Then came the announcement from Radio Moscow.
“This is Radio Moscow and here is the news. As the result of intensive work by research institutes and designing bureaus, the first artificial Earth satellite in the world has now been created. This first satellite was today successfully launched in the USSR.”
The United States had lost the space race before it even knew there was a race. It also lost the lead in science and technology, and its world leadership was brought into question. Everything America knew about rockets was in the missile programs the Army, Navy and Air Force were struggling to develop for national defense.
To show how far behind the United States was, NASA didn’t exist. Space travel was still the stuff of comic books and cheesy science fiction movies with Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Riders to the Stars. Former Johnson Space Center Director Chris Kraft was an engineer at the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA, and Kraft says Sputnik caught them all by surprise because nobody at NACA was even thinking about space.
“I don’t think anybody in NACA saw it coming. NACA was doing nothing but airplanes. As a matter of fact, ‘space’ was a verboten word in the NACA library, because we had no interest in space.”
Kraft says NACA was only concerned with aviation and building high speed airplanes, and had almost no reaction to the news that Russia had launched a space satellite into orbit. The U.S. government’s first official reactions to Sputnik were from the Pentagon and alarmed members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The Soviets launched Sputnik on an intercontinental ballistic missile, which Kraft says was a clear signal to the world that it had the technology to deliver nuclear warheads to anyplace on the globe.
“The whole response to Sputnik was a military thought. What’s the impact of the weapons of the world of a space vehicle, or being able to orbit something in space around the Earth and leave it up there?”
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson immediately began holding hearings on Sputnik’s military implications and pushing appropriations for new missiles, while others worked to persuade President Eisenhower and Congress to get serious about getting this country into space. In 1958, almost a year after Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created, the old NACA was dissolved, and many NACA aviation engineers, including Chris Kraft, found themselves working for NASA. Kraft says America may have lost the race to get into space, but NASA turned it into the race to the moon.
“Unquestionably Sputnik was the event which was the catalyst to everything that happened in space after that time, no question about it.”
While NASA played catch-up designing and building space ships, and hiring astronauts with the right stuff to fly them, America’s educators were alarmed at what Russia’s successes in space revealed about the quality of education in America’s schools. The U.S. was behind the Russians in space because our schools weren’t teaching enough math and science, so renewed emphasis on those subjects broke out nationwide almost overnight.
By the early 1960s, America’s schools and colleges were turning out a new generation of engineers, scientists, and future astronauts. In his book This New Ocean, William E. Burrows of New York University says it wasn’t just the beginning of the space age, it was the beginning of a new age of exploration.
“What it led to was, of course, ultimately Apollo, and the exploration of the Solar System, which in my opinion, the Voyager, the Grand Tour, four planets in twelve years, was the greatest feat of exploration in all of history, and of course we did land people on the moon.”
Burrows says it also gave us humans our first look at our own planet from space, and did much to energize the worldwide environmental movement over the the past 50 years.
“For the first time, as you know, from looking at the Apollo pictures, you could see, not this endless frontier as we like to think of it, but a very finite little blue-green sphere with wisps of white around it, floating in a great big black void, and that of course became the icon of the environmental movement.”
The biggest and most long lasting change wrought by Sputnik, was the revolution it spurred in American education circles. Burrows says Sputnik forced educators to start rethinking how this country educated its children, compared to the way children were taught in the Soviet Union.
“All of a sudden when Sputnik went up, their kids were all scientific geniuses, hungry for knowledge, straight A students and the rest of it in Russia, and our educational system was shot through with Archie Andrews and Jughead wearing white bucks and saddle shoes, dating Veronica and Betty, and really pointing nowhere. That was not the case obviously, but there was a lot of self flagellation because of Sputnik.”
Almost overnight, American schools started requiring more science and math and getting tough on grading standards. Colleges and universities not known for sports suddenly became the rage, and brainy students were lining up to go to MIT, Cal-Tech and other schools known for their engineering programs. It was almost “cool” to be a science nerd with a slide rule.
Burrows says because of Sputnik, and its aftermath, America would never be the same. He calls it one of those “watershed moments” in history, especially in terms of what it did for education.
“My sense is that university students are generally a lot more disciplined and focused than they were in the 50s. And I think that is a lasting affect of the fact that we realized both sublimally and consciously that we were not God’s gift to the universe. It was a competitive world out there and we had to play that game. Now enter China, and wait and see what happens with this new competition.”
In his book Suddenly Tomorrow Came, Texas A&M historian Henry C. Dethloff wrote “October 1957 was one of those milliseconds in the human experience that marked the beginning of a ‘giant leap’ for all mankind, a leap that might properly be equated to such other moments in history as the discovery of fire, agriculture, the New World, flight, and atomic energy…and a leap, to be sure, that is a perilous, difficult, and uneasy one.”
Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.