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The 1950s brought a number of booms to America. The post-war baby boom led to a suburban housing boom. A technology boom created microwave ovens, pocket-sized transistor radios and the TV remote.
Scientific research boomed, resulting in the polio vaccine, pacemaker, antihistamines, oral contraceptives, and the DNA double helix. Consumer goods boomed, bringing us Saran Wrap, White Out, Super Glue, Teflon pans, Fender guitars, the Hula Hoop and Mr. Potato Head.
We also got the roars and booms of rockets blasting satellites into space during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY). This was the 18-month worldwide scientific research effort that gave rise to the space age and triggered the ensuing space race.
After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October 1957 and the United States launched Explorer 1 the following January, both countries put more than a dozen satellites – often referred to as artificial moons – and spacecraft into orbit by decade’s end. Some flew around the planet and landed again, some remained in orbit, and one crashed into the moon (on purpose). Earthlings buzzed with wonder and curiosity about this new frontier, as they peered up into the night trying to spot a satellite traveling across the sky.
A World Caught Up in the ‘Space Craze’
“Sputnik and Explorer generated lots of excitement about space exploration and our future in space,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, Ph.D., Curator of the Space History Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “For space exploration that was so new and seemed for many years just part of the imagination in science fiction, it was this incredible thing.”
Following popular response to the satellite launches, American and Soviet government officials saw spaceflight as a way to demonstrate their power, technological capability and national values, according to Dr. Muir-Harmony. When humans flew into space a few years after the IGY, the United States promoted their technological prowess through space exploration exhibitions they sent around the world, with films, lectures and actual space craft displays.
One of those traveling shows featured Friendship 7, the space capsule in which astronaut John Glenn, Jr. became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. (Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first person ever to orbit Earth in April 1961.)
“People would wait in line on average of three hours just to walk by a space capsule,” says Dr. Muir-Harmony. In Bombay, India, at least 50,000 people showed up to see Friendship 7, waiting up to four hours for a viewing. In Madrid, exhibition lines were sometimes a mile long, and spectators in London had to be turned away. In Japan people waited up to eight hours, with more than 500,000 viewing Friendship 7 over four days.
Mr. Glenn himself received thousands of letters from fans around the world, most notably from young girls and women who imagined themselves as astronauts one day, according to Roshanna Sylvester, Ph.D., a historian who is developing a project called “A Sky Full of Stars: Girls and Space-Age Cultures in Cold War America and the Soviet Union.” Dr. Sylvester writes that the initial human space flights “unleashed the imaginations of a generation of children swept up in the ‘space craze.’”
The Dark Side of Artificial Moons
Amid the awe and wonder of spacecraft escaping earth’s gravity, many Americans worried the Soviets would start spying on us from space, or worse: that they would use their rockets to drop bombs on the United States.
“There were people saying this is a glorious time for humanity, but the specter of the bomb was overwhelming,” says David DeVorkin, Senior Curator for the History of Astronomy at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
The enthusiasm about sending rockets into orbit was closely aligned to Cold War fears about nuclear weapons, says Dr. Muir-Harmony, who adds that a lot of space technology, even when used for civilian purposes, is rooted in the military. The initial public response to Sputnik, especially in the U.S., had to do with war.
“After Sputnik there’s this huge global response, and a big part of that was fear of military capability,” Dr. Muir-Harmony explains. “If the Soviet Union could get a satellite into orbit, what’s next? Can they bomb us?”
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev heightened those fears when he boasted that any war between the United States and the Soviet Union would be “fought on the American continent, which can be reached by our rockets.”
The public and press criticized President Dwight Eisenhower for giving the strong impression America would be first in space, according to historian Ryan Boyle in his 2008 paper “A Red Moon over the Mall: The Sputnik Panic and Domestic America.” The fear, frustration and embarrassment reflected a “total crisis of confidence in the American way of life,” Boyle wrote. Before Sputnik, Americans believed inflation was the number one problem in the United States, according to a Life magazine poll at the time; after Sputnik, Americans said it was “catching the Russians in the defense race.”
Bombs and Spies in the Sky
Well before Explorer 1 went up, the United States prepared to spot and track satellites through a network of twelve enormous cameras situated around the world and a citizen science project called Operation Moonwatch. Satellites could tell us about space and our planet, which was scientifically important, explains Mr. Devorkin. But there was a tactical benefit as well: tracking their movement could help us understand how missiles would move through space.
“Using the satellites as test vehicles to better understand the atmosphere and shape of the earth was absolutely critical for ballistics,” he explains. “It revealed important information about the nature of the upper atmosphere and how it would affect a ballistic missile.”
While the United States and Russia have not yet sent bombs to each other on rockets (commonly known as intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs), both countries began test launching spy satellites in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Early spy satellites took photos, then ejected the film canisters attached to a parachute. The canisters could be recovered in mid-air by plane or at sea, although one famously fell onto a Venezuelan farm in 1964.
Today, an estimated 160 satellites perform communications, electronic intelligence, radar imaging and surveillance operations for the U.S. military, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Satellite Database.
Sputnik Boosts American Education
Despite America’s best efforts, the Soviet Union did just about everything first in space except land astronauts on the moon. People were in disbelief that the Soviets appeared more advanced than the U.S., and after Sputnik a cry went up to improve science education.
“It was an extraordinarily embarrassing opportunity, but it led to the National Defense Education Act – better education for defense,” explains Mr. DeVorkin. “That brought money into science education like you couldn’t believe. There was a huge rush of support in the early ’60s, and it helped more scientists graduate.”
Enacted by Congress in September 1958, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) would “insure trained manpower of sufficient quality and quantity to meet the national defense needs of the United States,” according to the House of Representatives’ historical archive. Grants and low-interest loans would help encourage science, math and modern foreign language study, build new schools and purchase equipment.
A billion dollars was appropriated to the NDEA over seven years starting in 1958, with notable results. In 1960 there were 3.6 million students in college, according to the U.S. Senate archives, and by 1970 there were 7.5 million. “Many of them got their college education only because of the availability of NDEA loans, thanks to Sputnik,” the archive states.
One Little Satellite Changes the World
When shiny, spiky little Sputnik beeped its way around the heavens, it inspired curiosity, excitement, paranoia and change on a global scale. It roused suspicions of spy operations and war waged from space. It accelerated America’s entry into the space race, galvanized science education, and motivated us to land a man on the moon. Sputnik’s launch stole the IGY spotlight and took everyone by surprise, with surprising results.
“Everybody knew the Russians were going to do something, but they didn’t announce when they would do it,” Mr. Devorkin says. “That was politically a big shock. But it was also the best thing that ever happened – it energized our space program. That’s where NASA came from.”
As Explorer 1 settled into orbit on Jan. 31, 1958, American citizens may have felt more secure in the knowledge that the nation was catching up to the Soviet Union. The U.S. and Soviets continued blasting spacecraft up to the skies in a race to the ultimate finish, when American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon in July 1969.
Next: In anticipation of the first International Geophysical Year satellite orbits, thousands of eager citizen scientists around the world learned to spot satellites through Project Moonwatch.