Globalist Factsheet

A Look Back at the Original “Sputnik Moment”

How did the United States rise to meet the challenge posed by Sputnik?



More than five decades after its launch, Sputnik has had an enduring cultural impact, as illustrated by President Obama’s declaration that the economic challenges facing the United States constitute a new “Sputnik moment.” Our Globalist Factsheet explores how the United States rose to meet the challenge.

What was the original “Sputnik moment”?

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched an inaugural satellite into orbit. Sputnik was silver in color, about the size of two basketballs and weighed 184 pounds. It spurred a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for supremacy not just in outer space — but in science and technology in general.

In what way did the “Sputnik shock” reemerge recently?

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, U.S. President Barack Obama deemed the economic challenges facing the United States a new “Sputnik moment.” In particular, the president called for society-wide investments in science, technology, infrastructure and education to help revive the U.S. economy and ensure it remains competitive against rising economic rivals, most notably China.

(Washington Post)

What was Sputnik’s scientific significance?

Orbiting the earth at a speed of 18,000 miles per hour, Sputnik transmitted meaningless radio blips, lasting three-tenths-of-a-second, followed by a three-tenths-of-a-second pause, repeating over and over again.

Why was Sputnik then of such concern to the United States?

Prior to Sputnik’s launch, U.S. airspace had never been penetrated — even during two world wars. Sputnik, while not an enemy aircraft, was controlled by a hostile power and could be seen and heard directly overhead, contributing to its dramatic effect.

How did the United States initially respond?

On October 10, 1057, six days after Sputnik’s launch, there was a special meeting of the U.S. National Security Council, held to address the implications of Sputnik for U.S. security.

How did other U.S. government institutions respond?

Following Sputnik’s launch, the U.S. Defense Department stepped up missile development, and the U.S. Congress established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — NASA — on July 29, 1958.

(International Herald Tribune)

What technological developments can be attributed to Sputnik?

Following the launch of Sputnik, the U.S. government reworked how it funded research in science, technology and engineering. This led to the development of microelectronics — the technology used in today’s laptop, personal and handheld computers.

How did U.S. scientific and educational institutions react to Sputnik’s launch?

The emergence of the Sputnik satellite worried the U.S. scientific establishment, which led to the inclusion of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution in high school classrooms in late 1957.

Did the United States propose any additional education initiatives?

Less than a year after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the United States created the National Defense Education Act, which intended to use brain power rather than weaponry to win the Cold War. In particular, the act provided incentives for universities to develop skilled speakers of strategic languages — especially Russian.

(New York Times)

Was Sputnik really a surprise?

CIA director Allen Dulles acknowledged that the actual launching of the earth satellite was not a surprise to the U.S. intelligence community — predicting that there would be an additional six to 13 Sputniks.

How did the Soviet Union counter the world’s response?

The world’s reaction to the launch of Sputnik was so great that Nikita Khrushchev ordered its chief designer, Sergei Korolev, to put another satellite into orbit for the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution. On November 3, 1957, Sputnik 2 carried a dog, Laika, into space — surviving just hours.

(Sydney Morning Herald)

How long did it take the United States to launch its own satellite?

On January 31, 1958, just four months following Sputnik’s launch, the first U.S. satellite was launched. It discovered the belts of electrically charged particles that surround the earth.

(Christian Science Monitor)

What were eventual space race pioneers doing at the time of Sputnik’s launch?

At the time of Sputnik’s launch, John F. Kennedy was the junior senator from Massachusetts with no particular interest in space, Yuri Gagarin was an unheralded Russian military pilot — and Neil Armstrong was testing high-performance aircraft in the California desert.

(International Herald Tribune)

Did Sputnik have a lasting impact on the space race?

By the end of 1972, the last of the 12 U.S. astronauts to walk on the moon, as a result of the space race beginning with Sputnik’s launch, had returned home. No one has been there since.

(International Herald Tribune)

What about the influence of Sputnik on the global image of the United States?

Directly following Sputnik’s launch, a Gallup poll discovered that U.S. prestige had eroded in six of the seven foreign cities included in the survey. And a few weeks later, there was a decline in public enthusiasm for “siding with the United States” and NATO in allied countries, such as Germany, France and Italy.

And finally, what did this mean for the United States and Great Britain?

Diplomatically, Sputnik contributed to the reunification of the United States and Great Britain as allies. They had grown apart over the Suez crisis in July 1956, which erupted when Egypt decided to nationalize the Suez Canal following the withdrawal of an offer for funds from the United States and Great Britain to build the Aswan Dam.

Editor’s note: Unless otherwise noted, the facts presented in this fact sheet are drawn from Paul Dickson’s Sputnik: The Shock of the Century (Walker Publishing, 2001).

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