The Sputnik crisis was a period of public fear and anxiety in Western nations about the perceived technological gap between the United States and Soviet Union caused by the Soviets' launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. The crisis was a significant event in the Cold War that triggered the creation of NASA and the Space Race between the two superpowers. The satellite was launched on October 4, 1957, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. This created a crisis reaction in national newspapers such as the New York Times, which mentioned the satellite in 279 articles between October 6, 1957, and October 31, 1957 (more than 11 articles per day).
The US was the dominant world power in the early 1950s. Lockheed U-2 spy plane flights over the Soviet Union provided intelligence that the US held the advantage in nuclear capability. However, an education gap was identified when studies conducted between 1955 and 1961 reported that the Soviet Union was training two to three times as many scientists per year as the US. The launch and orbit of Sputnik 1 suggested that the Soviet Union had made a substantial leap forward in technology, which was interpreted as a serious threat to US national security, which spurred the US to make considerable federal investments in research and development, education, and national security. The Juno I rocket that carried the first US satellite Explorer 1 had been ready to launch in 1956, but the fact was classified and unknown to the public. The Army's PGM-19 Jupiter from which Juno was derived had been mothballed on the orders of Defense Secretary Charles Erwin Wilson amid interservice rivalry with the US Air Force's PGM-17 Thor.
The Soviets used ICBM technology to launch Sputnik into space, which gave them two propaganda advantages over the US at once: the capability to send the satellite into orbit and proof of the distance capabilities of their missiles. That proved that the Soviets had rockets capable of sending nuclear weapons to Western Europe and even North America. That was the most immediate threat that Sputnik 1 posed. The United States, a land with a history of geographical security from European wars because of its distance, suddenly seemed vulnerable.
A contributing factor to the Sputnik crisis was that the Soviets had not released a photograph of the satellite for five days after the launch. Until then, its appearance remained a mystery to Americans. Another factor was its weight of 184 pounds (83 kg), compared to US plans to launch a satellite of 21.5 pounds (9.8 kg). The Soviet claim seemed outrageous to many American officials, who doubted its accuracy. US rockets then produced 150,000 pounds-force (670,000 N) of thrust, and US officials presumed that the Soviet rocket that launched Sputnik into space must have produced 200,000 pounds-force (890,000 N) of thrust. In fact, the R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik 1 into space produced almost 1,000,000 pounds-force (4,400,000 N) of thrust. All of those factors contributed to the Americans' perception that they were greatly behind the Soviets in the development of space technologies.
Hours after the launch, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Astronomy Department rigged an ad hoc interferometer to measure signals from the satellite. Donald B. Gillies and Jim Snyder programmed the ILLIAC I computer to calculate the satellite orbit from this data. The programming and calculation was completed in less than two days. The rapid publication of the ephemeris (orbit) in the journal Nature within a month of the satellite launch helped to dispel some of the fears created by the Sputnik launch. It also lent credence to the spurious idea that the Sputnik launch was part of an organized effort to dominate space.
The successful launch of Sputnik 1 and then the subsequent failure of the first two Project Vanguard launch attempts greatly accentuated the US perception of a threat from the Soviet Union that had persisted since the Cold War had begun after World War II. The same rocket that launched Sputnik could send a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes, which would strip the Continental United States of its oceanic defenses. The Soviets had demonstrated that capability on 21 August by a 6,000-kilometer (3,700 mi) test flight of the R-7 booster. The event was announced by TASS five days later and was widely reported in other media.
Five days after the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, US President Dwight Eisenhower addressed the American people. After being asked by a reporter on security concerns about the Soviet satellite, Eisenhower said, "Now, so far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota."
Eisenhower made the argument that Sputnik was only a scientific achievement and not a military threat or change in world power. He believed that Sputnik's weight "was not commensurate with anything of great military significance, and that was also a factor in putting it in [proper] perspective".
In 1958, Eisenhower declared three "stark facts" the United States needed to confront:
- The Soviets had surpassed America and the rest of the free world in scientific and technological advancements in outer space.
- If the Soviets maintained that superiority, they might use it as a means to undermine America's prestige and leadership.
- If the Soviets became the first to achieve significantly superior military capability in outer space and created an imbalance of power, they could pose a direct military threat to the US.
Eisenhower followed this statement by saying that the United States needed to meet these challenges with "resourcefulness and vigor". His ability to project confidence about the situation was limited because his confidence was based on clandestine reconnaissance and so he failed to quell the fears that there was a shift in power between the Americans and Soviets. The perception of the Soviets being more modern than the Americans was reinforced by Eisenhower's old-fashioned style. The launch of Sputnik 1 also impacted Eisenhower's ratings in his polls, but he eventually recovered.
Media and political influences
Soviet stamp depicting Sputnik's orbit around Earth
The media stirred a moral panic by writing sensational pieces on the event. In the first and second days following the event, The New York Times wrote that the launch of Sputnik 1 was a major global propaganda and prestige triumph for Russian communism. Further, Fred Hechinger a noted American journalist and education editor, reported, “hardly a week passed without several television programs examining education". It was after the people of the United States were exposed to a multitude of news reports that it become a "nation in shock". The media not only reported public concern but also created the hysteria. Journalists greatly exaggerated the danger of the Soviet satellite for their own benefit. On October 9, 1957, the notable science fiction writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke said that the day that Sputnik orbited around the Earth, the US became a second-rate power.
Politicians used the event to bolster their ratings in polls. Research and development was used as a propaganda tool, and Congress spent large sums of money on the perceived problem of US technological deficiency. After the launch of Sputnik 1 national security advisers overestimated the Soviets' current and potential rocket strength, which alarmed portions of Congress and the executive branch. When these estimations were released, Eisenhower was forced into an accelerated missile race to appease those concerned with America's safety. Sputnik provoked Congress into taking action on improving the US standing in the fields of science.
Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, reflected on the event by saying, "It always sounded good to say in public speeches that we could hit a fly at any distance with our missiles. Despite the wide radius of destruction caused by our nuclear warheads, pinpoint accuracy was still necessary – and it was difficult to achieve." At the time, Khrushchev stated that "our potential enemies cringe in fright". The political analyst Samuel Lubell conducted research on public opinion about Sputnik and found "no evidence at all of any panic or hysteria in the public's reaction", which confirmed that it was an elite, not a popular, panic.
Time Magazine portrayal of Soviet education in the post-Sputnik 1 era (1957-1963)
The launching of Sputnik 1 brought Soviet science to the forefront of American media; research methodologies, funding, and education were frequently sources of comparisons between the Soviet Union and the United States. One prominent example of this phenomenon was a series of articles published in Time Magazine between October 1957 and December 1963 that focused on Soviet education. These articles pushed four main narratives about the Soviet education system: that it was a political success, that it fostered a sense of collectivity, that it promoted a new image of the Soviet citizen, but at the same time, that it was uncreative and repressive.
1. Soviet scientific training as a political success
At different points during the Cold War, the portrayal of Soviet science by American media sources changed in response to the state of the Space Race. After the launching of Sputnik 1, Time Magazine articles unsurprisingly deemed Soviet scientific education a political success. One commentary from June 1958 stated that "[the U.S. was] simply not prepared for the degree to which the U.S.S.R., as a nation, [was] committed to education as a means of national advancement". In this context, "national advancement" referred to the scientific output of the Soviet Union relative to the U.S. Thus, Time Magazine contributed to the sensationalism of the Space Race, which sometimes manifested in more aggressive rhetoric. For instance, one November 1957 article stated, "Now the U.S. has to live with the uncomfortable realization that Russia is racing with clinched-teeth determination to surpass the West in science" and that "the Russians can conquer [Americans] without fighting, through growing scientific and technological preponderance". Later articles perpetuated the idea that science was being used by the Soviet Union as a mechanism of conquest: "There must be no misunderstanding or underestimation of the Soviet scientific and technical manpower buildup. It has become the principal source of Communist strength."
2. Soviet education fostered a sense of collectivity
A second narrative that Time Magazine articles from this period put forward was that Soviet education focused on the development of collectivity as opposed to individuality. One facet of the Soviet system that contributed to this narrative was the quantity of government resources allocated to education. A 1958 article stated that "Russia has no teacher shortage. Only one out of six young people who want to become teachers is chosen. Salaries are comparable to those of doctors and engineers. Working conditions are good." Time Magazine also highlighted the ways in which the Soviet government promoted economic inclusivity in the education system by stratifying school tuition rates by income; a January 1960 article discussed a boarding school in which low-income families paid $3 a month and the wealthiest families paid $50 a month. The headmaster, Alexander Andreyevich Petrov, stated that this was an example of how the Soviet government "[did] not economize on [children]". The claims that the education system in the Soviet Union was ideologically consistent with collectivism occurred in the context both of hysteria around the Space Race (narrative 1) and also criticisms of Soviet pedagogical method (narrative 4). Therefore, the supposed consistency between Soviet education and collectivist ideology elicited a two-sided response by Time Magazine: the magazine suggested that the relation supported the development of an integrated state-industry apparatus, while positing that it repressed individual creativity in the schooling system.
3. Soviet education as promoting a new image of the Soviet citizen
While Time Magazine articles from this period focused on the consistency of the Soviet education system with the ideology of collectivism, they also discussed the new "culture" that emerged out of the education system and its effect on the image of the Soviet individual. Time Magazine’s portrayal of this "culture" was akin to what Susan Buck-Morss refers to as "machine culture". One January 1960 article discussed the educational program in boarding schools, which were becoming more commonplace in the early 1960s. This article emphasized the highly regimented daily routines that children followed in boarding schools: "Students hit the deck every morning at 7 for calisthenics and a day-long schedule that keeps them hopping until lights out at 9 or 9:30 P.M. There is no time for mental slouching." The same article claimed that a key feature of the rigor of Soviet schools was the diversity of subjects that were taught; in primary and secondary Soviet boarding schools, students were exposed to a diverse curriculum which featured physical activity, driving, foreign language learning, music, ballroom dancing, radio, photography, and chemistry. This depiction of Soviet boarding schools suggests that the work ethic fostered by the Soviet education system extended to all facets of the educated individual's life.
One March 1958 article described the social studies class at Winter Park Glenridge Junior High School in Florida, in which the teacher, Hugh Ansley, decided to experiment with Soviet-style teaching. The article described a newfound work ethic among the students: "though the pupils clearly dislike the bowing, and being punished by time-consuming chores, they took to their new life with surprising enthusiasm. Classroom silence, they found, made paying attention a breeze; required note-taking and constant review made exams a snap." Not only did academic performances improve, but students began to see learning as a form of self-improvement: "they actually began asking why they should not have classes on Saturday ... Exclaimed Pupil Sylvia Schaffer, 14, last week: 'I would do this all year long. It’s lots of fun.'" While this article did not deal with education in the Soviet Union, its rhetoric suggests that Time Magazine wanted to put forward a narrative that the Soviet education system was transformative in its impact on individual psychology – that it forged a drive to work for work’s sake.
4. Soviet education as uncreative and repressive
Despite depicting Soviet education as an integral part of the political successes and social transformations of the Cold War era, much of the rhetoric in Time Magazine articles at the time focused on how repressive it was in comparison to American education. In fact, most of the commentaries from Time Magazine referred to Soviet education as "training" rather than education, implying that it aimed simply to mold a particular type of worker instead of facilitating the development of intellectual creativity: "When we talk about the vast Soviet efforts in the schools, colleges and universities, are we talking about education as we and the other free peoples conceive of education? Or are we talking about training – a far narrower concept?".
Time Magazine commentaries from this period considered Soviet education overly restrictive from two perspectives: first, in terms of the teaching material and the method of instruction, and second, in terms of the range of possible educational trajectories. One December 1957 article claimed that the Soviet education system was uncreative by nature of its pedagogical method: "Though the level of secondary school mathematics and science is high, teaching in general is unimaginative and suffocating ... in a typical class lesson, the teacher would start the class by calling on two or three students to repeat the material of the previous lesson almost verbatim, and [the] second half of the hour would be occupied by the teacher delivering the next section of the textbook". In contrast, the American education system was framed as more general and therefore more amenable to intellectual exploration: "The ground-swell trend in U.S. education is not only greater opportunity, but also less narrow specialization. Russian universities cannot match the efforts M.I.T. and Caltech aimed at preventing graduates from becoming technologically obsolete almost overnight ... if, as the West believes, the aim is to develop a creative intellect critical of society and its values, then Soviet higher education is an obvious failure."
A separate set of criticisms focused on the early transition from general education to specialized, industry-oriented education in the Soviet Union. One 1962 article stated, "the number of Russian youngsters aged eight to 14 was 36% lower in 1959 than in 1939 ... threatening a critical shortage of skilled labor. Sweeping reforms of the Soviet school system now send most of these youngsters into industry after eight years of schooling." Those that continued on to higher education predominantly specialized in industrial degrees like applied science and engineering: as of 1962, 57% of Russian bachelor’s degrees were in science, engineering, medicine, and agriculture, which comprised just 25% of bachelor’s degrees in the United States in the same year.
Together, the articles on Soviet education published in Time Magazine following the launching of Sputnik 1 contributed to American hysteria about the scientific advancement of the Soviet Union. However, they also aimed to reassure the American public that the American education system was superior by producing a narrative that Soviet education was unimaginative and restrictive. In the middle of these competing aims, the articles produced new conceptions of the educated individual and the promotion of collectivist ideology through education in the Soviet Union.
The launch spurred a series of US initiatives ranging from defense to education. Increased emphasis was placed on the US Navy's Project Vanguard to launch an American satellite into orbit. There was a renewed interest in the existing Explorer program, which launched the first American satellite into orbit on January 31, 1958. In February 1958, Eisenhower authorized formation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was later renamed to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), within the Department of Defense (DoD) to develop emerging technologies for the US military. On July 29, 1958, he signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the creation of NASA.
Less than a year after the Sputnik launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). It was a four-year program that poured billions of dollars into the US education system. In 1953, the government spent $153 million, and colleges took $10 million of that funding, but by 1960, the combined funding grew almost six-fold because of the NDEA. After the initial public shock, the Space Race began, which led to the first human launched into space, Project Apollo, and the first humans to land on the Moon in 1969.
Campaigning in 1960 on closing the "missile gap", Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy, promised to deploy 1,000 Minuteman missiles. That was many more ICBMs than the Soviets had at the time. Though Kennedy did not favor a massive US manned space program when he was in the US Senate during Eisenhower's term, public reaction to the Soviet's launch of the first human into orbit, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961 led Kennedy to raise the stakes of the Space Race by setting the goal of landing men on the Moon. Kennedy claimed, "If the Soviets control space they can control the earth, as in past centuries the nation that controlled the seas dominated the continents." Eisenhower disagreed with Kennedy's goal and referred to it as a "stunt". Kennedy had privately acknowledged that the space race was a waste of money, but he knew there were benefits from a frightened electorate. The Space Race was less about its intrinsic importance and more about prestige and calming the public.
The Sputnik crisis sparked the American drive to retake the lead in space exploration from the Soviets, and it fueled its drive to land men on the Moon. American officials had a variety of opinions at the time, some registering alarm and others dismissing the satellite. Gerald Ford, a Republican US representative from Michigan, had stated, "We Middle Westerners are sometimes called isolationists. I don't agree with the label; but there can be no isolationists anywhere when a thermonuclear warhead can flash down from space at hypersonic speed to reach any spot on Earth minutes after its launching." Former US Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett, chief of naval operations, stated that Sputnik was a "hunk of iron almost anybody could launch".
The Sputnik crisis also spurred substantial transformation in the US science policy, which provided much of the basis for modern academic scientific research. By the mid-1960s, NASA was providing almost 10% of the federal funds for academic research.
Further expansion was made in the funding and research of space weapons and missile defense in the form of anti-ballistic missile proposals. Education programs were initiated to foster a new generation of engineers and support was dramatically increased for scientific research. Congress increased the National Science Foundation (NSF) appropriation for 1959 to $134 million, almost $100 million higher than the year before. By 1968, the NSF budget stood at nearly $500 million.
According to Marie Thorsten, Americans experienced a "techno-other void" after the Sputnik crisis and still express longing for "another Sputnik" to boost education and innovation. In the 1980s, the rise of Japan (both its car industry and its 5th generation computing project) served to fan the fears of a "technology gap" with Japan. After the Sputnik crisis, leaders exploited an "awe doctrine" to organize learning "around a single model of educational national security, with math and science serving for supremacy in science and engineering, foreign languages and cultures for potential espionage, and history and humanities for national self-definition". US leaders were not able to exploit the image of Japan as effectively, despite its representations of super-smart students and a strong economy.
In Britain, the launch of the first Sputnik provoked surprise, combined with elation at experiencing the dawn of the Space Age. It was also a reminder of the nation's decline on the world stage. The crisis soon became part of the broader Cold War narrative. Much of the public nervousness that did exist was dispelled when the Soviets launched Laika (one of several space dogs sent into space during the 1950s and 1960s) into space in November 1957 aboard Sputnik 2, which was seen less as a threat and more as a propaganda maneuver to cause turmoil.
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Other online resources