October 4 marked the 55th anniversary of the shock and awe when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first space satellite, and Americans worried that the United States was suddenly threatened by Soviet missiles.
While U.S. concerns now seem exaggerated, the American response to the Soviet sputnik was far-reaching in its scope and in its consequences. In fact, the reaction led to U.S. leadership in space, science, education, and defense for many years to come.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union sent its 184-pound sputnik into orbit, shocking Americans who had assumed that scientific breakthroughs were always “Made in the USA.” The United States had planned only a 3-pound, grapefruit-sized Vanguard satellite, not realizing that the world was ready to watch a space race in which both speed and size mattered.
There was other evidence of Soviet prowess in missiles. In August and September of 1957, the USSR had two successful flights of its first intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], compared to two test failures of the American Atlas missile. Six months before, the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that the Russians would not likely have any operational ICBMs until 1961. A new National Intelligence Estimate forecast 10 operational Soviet ICBMs by 1959, 100 by 1960 and 500 by 1962 – compared to an expected U.S. force of only 24 ICBMs by 1960 and 65 by 1961.
A month after the first sputnik, the Russians launched a dog into orbit in a satellite weighing more than half a ton. The very next day, President Eisenhower met with a panel of scientists and defense experts –the Gaither Committee – that he had appointed several months earlier. That group concluded that the USSR had “probably surpassed us in ICBM development” and warned of “an increasing threat which may become critical in 1959 or early 1960.”
This was the basis for the feared “missile gap,” which helped John F. Kennedy win the presidency in 1960.
In fact, that gap was turned in the United States’ favor by the American response to sputnik. Eisenhower adopted many of the Gaither group’s recommendations, though not their rhetoric. He accelerated U.S. missile programs as well as the effort to build a nuclear-powered submarine. He increased his next defense budget almost 4% and approved increases in the planned size of the ICBM force by 62% and a tripling of the planned intermediate range missile [IRBM] force. To guard against surprise Soviet attacks, the president ordered greater dispersal of U.S. bombers as well as the start of a limited airborne alert bomber force. He also secured NATO agreement to allow the European basing of American IRBMs.
Eisenhower also seized upon the sputnik crisis to push for a new law, long resisted by Congress but finally adopted in 1958, strengthening the power of the Secretary of Defense and consolidating military research and development programs. One outgrowth was the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency [ARPA, later DARPA], which funded the basic research that subsequently led to stealth aircraft, high speed computers, and the Internet.
The president and congress also concluded that America needed to boost its brainpower as well as its military firepower. Eisenhower named the first Presidential Science Advisor and supported creation of a civilian space agency, NASA. Lawmakers supported his defense budget increases, but also tripled the funds going to the National Science Foundation.
One of the most far-reaching educational measures was the National Defense Act of 1958 [NDEA], establishing a four-year program college student loans, science, math and foreign language teaching, and graduate student fellowships in science, engineering, and foreign area study. That program totaled almost $4.4 billion in today’s dollars. [Full disclosure: thanks to NDEA money, I was able to be the first in my family to go to college.]
In the decade after sputnik, these measures tripled the number of doctorates awarded and doubled the share of U.S. GNP devoted to basic scientific research. The success of the NDEA led to other federal programs aiding education at all levels.
Today we are richer, better educated, more technologically advanced, and better protected against a wide range of military threats thanks to the way Americans came together in a bipartisan way to respond to sputnik a half century ago.