Sixty years ago, the United States launched its first satellite, the pencil-shaped craft called Explorer 1, which blasted into space on Jan. 31, 1958. Explorer 1 orbited Earth every two hours, transmitting data about cosmic radiation, cosmic dust, and temperature until its batteries died four months later. The seven-foot satellite continued circling our planet for 12 more years before falling out of orbit in March 1970.  Happy birthday, Explorer 1!

But the mighty U.S.A. was not the first to put a satellite into space. That distinction belongs to the former Soviet Union, which surprised the world four months prior when they launched Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. Like a gleaming silver beach ball with four antennae spiking out behind it, Sputnik transmitted a constant “beep … beep … beep …” heard by ham radio operators as it circled the planet.  

Earthlings around the world hoped to catch a glimpse of it gliding across the night sky; when they did, it turns out they were actually seeing Sputnik’s larger rocket booster. Within weeks the beeping ceased, and three months after launch Sputnik tumbled toward Earth and burned up in the atmosphere.

Dawn of the Space Age
Both Sputnik and Explorer I stormed the skies during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a vast multi-disciplinary scientific collaboration involving 67 countries and thousands of scientists (estimates range from 20,000 to 60,000). From July 1957 to December 1958, IGY participants conducted research and collected data to advance our understanding of the earth’s surface, core, and atmosphere.  
The IGY brought climate science to the fore, set in motion the age of space technology and exploration, and triggered
the “space race” between the United States and Soviet Union, in an ostensibly borderless and non-competitive scientific environment.  

From Polar to Geophysical (And Back Again)
The IGY expanded on two prior events called International Polar Years. The first Polar Year, in 1882-83, brought together scientists from 12 countries to study weather, the atmosphere, magnetic storms, and auroras during more than a dozen expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic.

A half century later, in 1932-33, 40 countries participated in the second Polar Year, which helped advance understanding of the jet stream, radio science and technology, atmospheric science, and Earth’s magnetic field.

A third Polar Year likely would have been planned another 50 years hence, but post-war improvements in research equipment and a predicted period of strong solar activity – including lunar and solar eclipses – prompted interest in moving the date forward.  

“Science was ready for a third international research program long before the conclusion of the half-century interval,” wrote Frank Ross, Jr. in his 1961 book “Partners in Science: The Story of the International Geophysical Year.” He wrote, “Enormous strides had been made in science and technology, even greater than those which had preceded the second Polar Year. Many of the scientific and technical advances were a direct outgrowth of World War II, which had placed enormous demands on both scientific and technical work.”

Fifty years after the IGY, the fourth International Polar Year took place from 2007-2008.

Birth of the IGY
In 1950, physicist Lloyd Berkner proposed the third International Polar Year to a group of physicist colleagues, who subsequently presented the idea to the international science community. Their European colleagues suggested widening the event’s scope to include geophysics – study of the whole earth as opposed to just the polar regions – and planning for the International Geophysical Year began.

“Geophysics … is a family of sciences involving the earth as a whole: its oceans of air and water, its shape, the magnetism generated within it and outside it, and the role of such outside influences as the sun,” explained New York Times science editor Walter Sullivan in his 1961 book “Assault on the Unknown: The International Geophysical Year.”  

As such, the IGY’s planners set the following fields of study for the 18-month event: rockets and satellites, meteorology, geomagnetism, aurora and airglow, the ionosphere, solar activity, cosmic rays, longitudes and latitudes, glaciology, oceanography, seismology, gravity measurements, and nuclear radiation.  

Wide press coverage of the IGY drew the public’s interest, resulting in “financial support on a scale more generous and adequate than any such international scientific enterprise had ever before gained,” wrote Sydney Chapman, in his 1960 book “IGY: Year of Discovery.” Dr. Chapman was a British geophysicist and one of the foremost organizers of the IGY. That financial support helped cover the approximately $2 billion IGY price tag (equal to $14 billion in today’s dollars), enabling scientific field work at more than 4,000 research sites across the globe.

Legacies of IGY
Two widely reported and hotly debated science topics in our time – space exploration and climate change – emerged during the IGY. Several other discoveries, agreements, and large-scale projects also stand out as significant IGY outcomes.  

“Visible legacies of the IGY include the launch of the first artificial satellites, the Antarctic Treaty, the World Data Center system, the discovery of the Van Allen belts, and the monitoring of atmospheric carbon dioxide and glacial dynamics,” wrote Fae Korsmo, a Senior Advisor at the National Science Foundation, in her article “The Genesis of the International Geophysical Year” published in the July 2007 issue of Physics Today. “The IGY also led to the establishment of Earth sciences programs in many developing countries.”   

Space Race
After successfully launching and orbiting satellites, the U.S. and Soviet Union rapidly advanced their space programs throughout and beyond the IGY. Russia achieved many firsts on its way to the space race finish line, including first live animals in space, first man and woman in space, first unmanned moon landing. The U.S. took the first (very grainy) photograph of Earth from space, launched communications, spy, and weather satellites into orbit, and sent astronauts around the moon for the first time. America effectively took space race gold when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon in July 1969, a feat Russia has never matched.  

Graphing Climate Change
Climate scientist Charles Keeling started graphing monthly measurements of CO2 concentrations from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii during the IGY. The “Keeling Curve” shows CO2 rising rapidly over the past 60 years, from about 315 parts per million to 380 ppm. (Currently CO2 is at more than 400 ppm.) Until the Industrial Age began in the 1850s, CO2 remained around 280 ppm for hundreds of thousands of years. The Keeling Curve demonstrates “the seriousness of the global warming problem,” according to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which has operated Keeling’s CO2  monitoring program since the IGY.  

Antarctica Preserved for Peace
In 1959, the 12 countries that had conducted Antarctic research during the IGY – including the U.S. and Soviet Union – signed the Antarctic Treaty, which specifies that “Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” The Treaty prohibits military bases, maneuvers, and weapons testing, but allows military personnel and equipment for scientific research and “any other peaceful purpose.” An additional 38 countries have signed the Treaty since its inception.

Van Allen Radiation Belts
Explorer 1 carried experiments designed by physicist James Van Allen that helped detect two huge doughnut-shaped radiation bubbles surrounding Earth. Held in place by Earth’s giant magnetic shield, the Van Allen radiation belts protect Earth from most solar radiation but also pose occasional risks to satellites and space craft such as the International Space Station. NASA’s two Van Allen Probes have flown through the belts for five years, collecting data that could lead to more protective craft for human-piloted space missions and predict space weather events such as geomagnetic storms.

World Data Centers
One condition of IGY participation was the open sharing of data collected during the event through World Data Centers in the U.S., Soviet Union, Japan, and throughout Europe. The International Council for Science now oversees the World Data System, which archives research and data across dozens of scientific disciplines at sites hosted by more than 100 international member organizations. Everyone, not just scientists, can access the data.

The Spirit of Borderless Science
Today’s cell phones, e-mail, and Skype enable worldwide science research in ways unimaginable 60 years ago. Yet thousands of scientists carried out a huge international collaboration in an analog era during an event few people have heard of or remember. Politics may have lurked beneath the surface, but as microbiologist Louis Pasteur is quoted as saying, “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity.”

“The planning and execution of the International Geophysical Year was marked by a most cooperative and harmonious spirit among the scientists of the 67 nations associated with it,” wrote Dr. Chapman in his 1960 book. “Their common interest in its subject and purposes made it possible for them to work together despite differences of race, creed, or political organization.”

This is the first in a series of articles about the IGY.

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...