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Fifty Years Ago, Sputnik Launched Space Age

October 3, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: October 4, 1957, the beginning of the space age and the start of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The decade-long contest was sparked by a shiny aluminum satellite measuring just 23 inches in diameter and weighing 184 pounds. Its name, Sputnik, means “fellow traveler.” For 92 days, it orbited the Earth once every 96 minutes, traveling 18,000 miles per hour.

Its beeping signals were picked up back on Earth by amateur radios. And from the ground, it looked like a bright light crossing the night sky. Marine aviator, soon-to-be astronaut, John Glenn reacted to the news.

JOHN GLENN, Astronaut and U.S. Senator: This is really quite an advancement for not only the Russians, but for international science. I think we all agree on that. It’s the first time anybody has ever been able to get anything out that far in space and keep it there for any length of time.

RAY SUAREZ: Coming while the Cold War got even chillier, the launch unnerved many Americans.

AMERICAN CITIZEN: It’s frightening. We should find out what they’re doing that we’re not doing, and we should do something about it very quickly.

RAY SUAREZ: Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. had been working independently to launch a satellite. Americans assumed theirs would be first. In a 1997 NewsHour interview, Sergei Khrushchev, son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, remembered his native country’s triumph.

SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV, Son of Former Soviet Premier: It was official and unofficial competition between our two countries. And the United States all the time were the technological and technical example for the Soviet Union.

It was also very pleasant, not only to my father and to the political elite there, but the ordinary people, all this reaction of the West, and especially the shock in United States that they really accepted this. It was first time in history that United States openly accepted that we’re ahead of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Sputnik was not only a show of Soviet scientific prowess; it was a military challenge. The fear: if the Soviets could send a satellite into space, they could also land ballistic missiles on U.S. soil.

On November 3rd, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier load and a dog named Laika. The U.S. rushed to send up its own satellite. But in December 1957, in front of a national television audience, the launch of the satellite Vanguard failed.

Success finally came in January 1958 with Explorer. Later that year, President Dwight Eisenhower called for the creation of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. And Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, providing more money for science programs so American children could compete with their Soviet counterparts.

A shock for many Americans

RAY SUAREZ: For a look at some of the many legacies of Sputnik, we turn to Roger Launius, former chief historian at NASA and now senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum. And Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University, and now editor-in-chief of Science magazine, Kennedy is also an advisor to the NewsHour's Science Unit.

And, Professor Kennedy, I guess during those days you were a young instructor in science. Do you remember the shock of hearing that Sputnik had successfully orbited the Earth?

DONALD KENNEDY, Editor-in-Chief, Science Magazine: Well, it was a terrific shock to many Americans who thought of Russia, not only in terms of a Cold War opponent, but in terms of a peasant culture. And all of a sudden, they had done something that we had thought only we could do.

The result was really explosive. It produced not only the congressional bonanza that you mentioned in the set-up piece, but also a really dramatic effect on our concern about science education, including science education at the K-12 levels.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Roger Launius, I guess it also kicked the Cold War into a higher gear.

ROGER LAUNIUS, Former Chief Historian, NASA: It certainly changed the nature of the Cold War. Previously, the Soviets had been viewed as a country that was technologically inferior to the United States. Now they had demonstrated something that the Americans had been unable to do thus far and had changed the dynamic of the cold war environment.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Sergei Khrushchev talking about the realization that they were ahead. They really were ahead.

ROGER LAUNIUS: They really were ahead; there's no question about it. They had accomplished something that the Americans had been working toward for a number of years and had not been successful in doing as yet.

Although it's important to understand that there were a whole series of military programs built around ballistic missile technology for nuclear weapons that were moving forward expeditiously and were kind of aside from this other effort that was a very public program to launch the Vanguard spacecraft that would actually fly ultimately in 1958.

Impact on science education

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Donald Kennedy, you already mentioned the shockwaves felt in the profession of teaching. Was there much federal government involvement in teaching before Sputnik?

DONALD KENNEDY: No, but there certainly was after, because not only did you get the National Defense Education Act for sort of upper-level scientists and others, but you also had a new attention being paid by the National Science Foundation, whose science education budget multiplied dramatically, and also programs that began to send university scientists and people from other science- rich institutions into high schools and into grade schools to kind of create a professional community about science among two groups of people that hadn't had much to say to one another before.

RAY SUAREZ: So you found yourself teaching young science teachers as a result?

DONALD KENNEDY: Yes, from time to time, and I visited high schools. I found out how hard it is to teach six science courses in a row. I had a wonderful chance to meet some high school teachers whose capacities and whose commitment I came to respect very greatly.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Roger Launius, we have a Sputnik with us in the studio today. And it's remarkable to see. This is one that never went into space but was built with the one that did orbit the Earth. What should people know when they see this humble sphere with the antennas on it? What should people know about what was going on inside it, for instance?

ROGER LAUNIUS: Well, there wasn't much to the spacecraft. It was a basic ball. It had inside it some batteries. It had a transmitter so that it could broadcast and people then could pick it up on the ground and track its orbit based upon that.

It's chrome. It's got these trailing antenna off of it so it kind of looks streamlined. But one of the things that's important to understand, it had no mechanism for maintaining it in a particular juxtaposition of orbit, so it tumbled. And it was just spinning around and around and doing its things in orbit for about 90-plus days before it finally decayed and came back to Earth.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the animations, you never saw it tumbling. It was always going bravely on through the new dark space.

ROGER LAUNIUS: It looks very aerodynamic in the animations, and that's not what happened in space.

Pushing America's space program

RAY SUAREZ: This really made the American space program possible in some accounts. Is that a fair description?

ROGER LAUNIUS: It certainly moved it to a new level. There was activities before this, no question. There were efforts inside of the Department of Defense, and there were efforts inside the various scientific organizations and communities to engage in space science. But the funding for that was very small.

And with the rise of Sputnik, and not just Sputnik I, but Sputnik II and the successes that the Soviets had later on, that it really was a kick in the pants for the Americans to put more money into this to create a special agency, NASA, to engage in these activities and put a funding stream associated with that into space science.

RAY SUAREZ: But before Sputnik, the kind of funding that would have made it possible to land a man on the moon just 12 years later, that wasn't in the cards?

ROGER LAUNIUS: There was no money to do those sorts of activities before the Sputnik event and, quite frankly, the Eisenhower administration was dead-set against that all along. They were really trying to hold down the line in terms of federal funding associated with space flight.

They wanted to do a few things, no question about that. But the kind of spending that they saw in the 1960s that made Apollo possible was something that Eisenhower always opposed and talked about it repeatedly up until the end of his life.

The shadow of Sputnik

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Donald Kennedy, we heard Sergei Khrushchev talking about the pleasure and surprise among regular Soviet people. And we heard an American man on the street talking about how shocked he was. The newspaper accounts at the time show something like a crisis of self-confidence almost.

DONALD KENNEDY: I think it was all of that. But in the education sector and among scientists, I think it was simply a wake-up call that got everybody focused on the issue of improving science education, and particularly about improving it at the pre-collegiate level.

Lots of us suddenly found ourselves called into some kind of service in that regard, and it was kind of an eye-opener for us. I think the real question for us now, at a time when we're really concerned about science and science education in the United States is, will it take another dramatic event to mobilize that kind of concern? Maybe climate change will do it. Who knows?

But the point is that we accomplished something in the aftermath of Sputnik that was really remarkable. We created a new kind of unification of the professional community of science; it would be really wonderful to see that happen again.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Roger Launius, in science, in research, in space, are we, as Donald Kennedy suggests, still living 50 years later in the shadow of Sputnik?

ROGER LAUNIUS: At some level, we are. There's no question. It was a kick-start to lots of activities that have continued on right to the present. There is concern in the current environment, in the aftermath of the Cold War, that we need that competition from another nation to spur our efforts in space flight, and that is a genuine concern.

But at some level, in the last 15 years, what we have found is that the cooperative nature of space activities have been very important in sustaining things like a space station in Earth orbit that's got numerous nations involved. And if we undertake major programs to go to other planets, either robotically or with humans, I think we're going to find a lot of those as a cooperative venture, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Roger Launius, Donald Kennedy, gentlemen, thank you both.