Sputnik Launch 60 Years Ago Was Slow to Resonate With Americans

The 1957 Sputnik launch is regarded as the start of the US-Soviet space race, but the American public's concern about a Soviet space program wasn’t high at the time.

A Smithsonian Institution curator will argue at an event this week that when the Sputnik satellite launched 60 years ago on Oct. 4, it was "hyperbolic" to argue that the public immediately panicked about Soviet Union technological superiority.

Sputnik was the first space satellite and viewed as the beginning of the space race, when the Soviets and the United States used Earth orbit as an arena to test out space equipment and astronaut capabilities. The race culminated with the US putting astronauts on the moon beginning in 1969. While the Soviets targeted the moon as well, after several rocket failures they chose instead to focus on constructing space stations.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between the United States and Russia have been very different, with the nations collaborating extensively on the International Space Station. In late September, the two nations signed a cooperation agreement to work on Deep Space Gateway, a proposed space station near the moon that NASA plans for the 2020s, according to Russian space agency Roscosmos. The station could serve as a launching point for Mars missions in subsequent decades.

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Despite the collaboration, the early years of the US-Soviet space race are often cited in the media. Accounts generally say that Sputnik set off a terror in the American public that resonated through the education system and immediately brought in support for the space race. But according to Michael Neufeld, a senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's space history department, the short run after Sputnik showed little effect.

Neufeld will speak Oct. 4 at an event in Washington, DC called "The Space Race and the Origins of the Space Age," which will also feature representatives from Blue Origin, Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, Fordham University, and the Washington Post.

"All public opinion polls showed that concern was not very high at the beginning," Neufeld told Seeker, "There was a lot of admiration for the Soviet achievement."

The public was more concerned about the crisis over Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, when controversy erupted over nine black students enrolling in a formerly all-white school, Neufeld said. Segregation was still active in many parts of the American South. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower's command, the Arkansas National Guard was mobilized to support integration.

More US concern arose in early November 1957 when the 1,000-pound Sputnik II carried the dog Laika into space, Neufeld said, which appeared to legitimize the Soviet claim that they could launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. On Dec. 6, 1957, the US responded with a rocket launch attempt of its own, which failed spectacularly on national television when the rocket carrying the Vanguard 1A satellite exploded shortly after launch.

"This failure, increasingly, it exacerbated both the tide of political and media criticism and anger over the US coming second," Neufeld said. "It also increased public opinion against the Eisenhower administration and concern over the nuclear arms race, rockets, and space."

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Following the failure of Vanguard 1A, the United States swiftly responded by putting another rocket type up for launch: the Redstone missile, which successfully launched the Explorer 1 satellite on Jan. 31, 1958. The group that developed the missile was led by the famous Nazi-turned-US rocketeer Wernher Von Braun, who later was the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that flew humans to the moon in the late 1960s.

The space race, according to Neufeld, actually began in 1955 when both the United States and the Soviet Union declared they were going to launch satellites for International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). At that time, the US considered using either the Vanguard or Redstone missiles. It was a government committee that chose the Vanguard due to the superior scientific capability advertised for its satellite. Eisenhower, Neufeld said, had little to do with the decision.

But as the effects of the Sputnik launch reverberated through the Eisenhower administration, it produced a significant reorganization of the US government. Eisenhower upgraded the president's science committee to make it report directly to the president. The predecessor agency to the military testing organization DARPA, called ARPA (the Advanced Research Project Agency), was created in February 1958 to try to pull together the competing space programs among different US military branches, Neufeld added.

But by the summer of 1959, the Army — due in part to its successful Redstone program — dominated most military space activity, with the exception of the Corona reconnaissance satellite program run by the Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency.

NASA was created in 1958 to give the United States a civilian space agency in addition to its military space activities. This made the US the first nation in the world to place space activity under civilian control, Neufeld said.

A common narrative suggests the Sputnik launch led to the moon race of the 1960s, but Neufeld said the decision to go the moon was unique to John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower's successor as president. Kennedy was embarrassed by the failed US military invasion of Cuba in April 1961 and was looking for another way to quickly upstage the Soviets. He happened to choose space as the arena of competition. "If [Richard] Nixon had won the election, and it was a close election, he might have made a different decision," Neufeld said.

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The US and the Soviet Union had a "moment of détente," Neufeld said, in the 1970s that led to collaboration on the Apollo-Soyuz mission of July 1975. Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts met up orbit and conducted joint scientific experiments and press conferences. Soviet-US relations cooled again, he added, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the tension continued through both of Ronald Reagan’s presidential terms in the 1980s.

The situation changed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leading to US fears that Russian engineers would go to Iran, North Korea, or Pakistan and work on their military programs, Neufeld said. The Russian economy was falling apart, so the US hosted a series of paid shuttle flights to the Soviet-built space station, Mir. Russia also became an early and key partner in building the International Space Station, whose first pieces reached orbit in 1998.

"The International Space Station created this mutual dependency of the United States and Russia on each other in space, because they needed us to prop up their space station and human space program," Neufeld said.

Today, the United States depends on the Russians to transport astronauts to the orbiting complex. The US space shuttle program was retired in 2011, leaving only the Russians capable of launching astronauts to the ISS aboard its Soyuz rocket. US commercial crew vehicles will start replacing Soyuz flights in the next year or so.

"The US needs Russian rockets to get there, and the Russians need us to support the ISS — it's 75 percent funded by the US," Neufeld said. "Regardless of the political context creating crisis between [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the US administration, so far the ISS has continued undisturbed by all of this because both countries need each other to run that program."

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The ISS is slated to run until at least 2024, prompting questions about what might happen to US-Russian relations. The Russians have put forward several independent ideas, such as moon or Mars missions or running their own space station. Neufeld, however, said those ideas are unlikely to materialize because the Russians have few resources, and no nation "wants to do these human spaceflight missions as a national enterprise any more."

For Deep Space Gateway, the US and Russia plan to "develop international technical standards which will be used later, in particular to create a space station in lunar orbit,” according to a statement from Roscosmos.

"Roscosmos and NASA have already agreed on standards for a docking unit of the future station," the agency said. "Taking into account the country’s extensive experience in developing docking units, the station’s future elements will be created using Russian designs."

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