Changes In The United States In Response To The Sputnik Crisis

by Pratul Chaturvedi

On October 4th, 1957 the erstwhile USSR or the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. Russian for "travel companion," Sputnik weighed 184 pounds (83.5 kilograms) and took ninety-eight minutes to circle the Earth while transmitting radio signals beckoning the birth of the Space Age.

Despite it being the greatest scientific breakthrough of humanity, Sputnik not only launched a highly competitive Space Race between the USSR and the USA to determine whose civilization is greatest but also sent shock waves through the entire United States as it broke the myth of the USA being technologically superior to the USSR which transformed into an impetus for change in the mid-20th century America. Thus, this article will explore the changes that transformed the United States in response to the Sputnik Crisis.

At the time of the launch of Sputnik, the struggle between the USSR and the USA was beyond a chess game, an ideological struggle between Communism and Capitalism with science and technology at the forefront.

With the launch of Sputnik I, at stake was the takeover by a Communist regime. Coming at the time of Senator McCarthy era, Sputnik produced a climate of near-hysteria. Sputnik presented a potential nuclear attack from the Outer Space, provoked a sense that there was now an eye in the sky capable of looking down on the United States at will. There was a threat of weapons against which the country had neither the scientific nor the technological ability to defend itself.

In the shadow of this Soviet superiority in technology, many Americans were concerned with symbolic weakness and questioned how the United States allowed their sworn adversaries to beat them to this marvelous achievement, relying on their age-old belief that America was technologically superior to its Soviet competitors.

The atmosphere of tension that followed produced an everlasting impact that compelled the United States to adopt science and technology as the primary agenda that led to an alteration in the existing defense doctrines and formulation of new education initiatives. Instead of investing large portions of their R&D to specific industrial objectives, the United States built a system-through National Defense Education Act,1958 and by setting up National Aeronautics and Space Administration-post-Sputnik aimed at generating new fundamental knowledge and ideas in support of the core missions of federal agencies and broader societal needs on the basis of scientific excellence.

This choice of decentralized approach by the United States in response to the Sputnik Crisis has blossomed the growth of multi-agency or pluralistic US system which has not only attracted and helped to retain the best scientific talent around the country for over half a century but also has been a major driver of American innovation and economic growth.

President Eisenhower

Moreover, to protect the American omnipotence and the notion of invulnerability paralleled by a deep allied concern of the American security guarantee by means of extended deterrence culminated in severe criticism of the United States defense policy which led erstwhile US President Dwight D. Eisenhower to propose a bigger defense budget to the US Congress than was required by the armed forces. Besides politically and psychologically reassuring allies and deterring adversaries, a larger defense budget altered and advanced, respectively, the defense doctrine focused on the containment of Communism.

But before we dive into depths of the long-ranging developments in the United States post the launch of Sputnik I, I would like to discuss the policies that existed, developments that led to the launch of Sputnik I and early response of the Americans to the hysteria that followed the launch.

At the time of the launch of Sputnik I, the Cold War had been a decade old, with the arms race brewing up rapidly. The United States and the USSR had been deeply engaged in the arms race to prepare themselves against a perceived threat of attack by the other. With the dawn of the nuclear age post-1945, both the countries realizing the unpredictable potential for destruction by the nuclear armaments, decided to rely upon science to get rid of their problems of national defense.

Despite spearheading the development of atomic bombs under the Manhattan Project, the United States did not immediately place emphasis on the development of long-range weapons systems after the end of World War II. Instead, they stalled it till 1954 with no effective plan in place for their development and implementation and thus, denying the US capability to deliver payload beyond the realm of the Earth into outer space. Moreover, the fight between two wings of the armed forces, the Army and the Air Force over the development of such weapon systems added fuel to the fire.

While a stalemate developed, a proposal for the International Geophysical Year compelled the United States to pursue launching a satellite into orbit without adequate means required for such a gigantic achievement. The International Geophysical Year called for scientists from various fields from 64 countries to cooperate in a 16 months study of the structure of the Earth and the functioning of its natural systems.

The Eisenhower administration was determined to let the proposed satellite remain a civilian endeavor, separate from any military projects. President Eisenhower had various reasons for this policy. The IGY required that any discoveries made or technologies used to be shared with the rest of the world. This presented a grave security risk if the US used a military missile to deliver the payload, which would mean sharing military technology with other nations.

Moreover, Eisenhower had this innate fear that not launching an “innocent little scientific grapefruit” (McDougall 22) would hinder the establishment of the freedom of space which was an utmost priority for the US as it would have enabled it to carry reconnaissance flights and orbit satellites respectively over territories of other countries. Lastly, he wanted to maintain the friendly nature of the IGY and, thus, decided to gift the entire scientific community with a satellite originating out of a peaceful endeavor.

To meet the aims of the Eisenhower Administration and the IGY, Vanguard was declared as the USA's satellite. Although Vanguard was a civil effort, it was much advanced and complicated technology when compared to the development and operation of a long-ranging weapons system on which the military was working at that point in time. In spite of knowing these technical difficulties, the decision to keep military involvement to minimum became an important source of criticism and ineffectiveness of Eisenhower after the launch of Sputnik satellites and the failure of Vanguard. Around the same time, at a meeting of the IGY in Barcelona from 10th-16th September 1956, the USSR declared its intention to launch a satellite as a part of its contribution to the IGY.

The IGY began on July 1st, 1957 and despite the preliminary hubbub around it as time passed most of the national magazines or newspapers either did not cover it at all or only give it passing attention in buried articles aptly denoting the amount of apathy that existed in the United States when it came to science and technology. It wasn’t until the launch of Sputnik when the IGY came to the fore as it became a political battleground for the two adversaries during the Cold War. Meanwhile, there was a prolonged dispute between the lack of interest of scientists working on Vanguard and President Eisenhower upon the extra military aid requested, leading to budgetary concerns addressed to the Congress. Both these issues point out that there was no rush for Vanguard's development, and none expected the shock that the Soviets had in store for them in October 1957.

After the satellite launch, the Americans had been inhibited from physically spotting the Sputnik as after every time the satellite completed an orbit due to Earth's rotation, it shifted about 1200 miles westward. Adding to the tension was the secrecy maintained by the Soviets around their magnificent achievement by not releasing photographs to the press. The suspicion-that occupied the two camps most of the time during the Cold War-took over the American scientists who believed that the transmissions being sent by the Sputnik might actually be coded signals.

As a crisis brewed up between the two superpowers and their allied camps, not every nation looked the launch with near-hysteria; instead, non-aligned nations such as Egypt expressed hope that Sputnik would help achieve the neutrality and the cooperation that was a necessity to bring tranquillity back to a divided geopolitical scenario.

In such a tense atmosphere, President Eisenhower emerged as "the calm at the center of this whirlwind" (Dickson 111). Even after the setback and constant criticism in the press after Sputnik debacle, Eisenhower continued to maintain a spirit of confidence in both his press briefings and private meetings with the advisors and did not see the launch of Sputnik as a matter of the US losing its national prestige and superiority to their Soviet adversaries.

President Eisenhower finally spoke about the Sputnik on October 9th, five days after the launch of the satellite in a White House Press Conference. This no rush to make a public statement and his response to Sputnik as part of a normal routine of his presidency was made to reassure the American public that it was not something too much to worry about, and the US still maintained prestige and superiority over their Soviet adversaries.

In this statement, President Eisenhower emphasized that missile and satellite development respectively were separate issues, where the former was related to defense, and the latter one was purely a scientific endeavor, and thus, he dismissed that satellite launch presented a security concern for the United States. The President clearly emphasized that he had been satisfied by the direction and progress of the Project Vanguard and expected a satellite to be launched by the end of 1957. In fact, he and his advisers believed that Sputnik benefitted American propaganda as it established the freedom of space. If the Soviets could launch a satellite that could travel in orbit over the territories of different nations, then the same could be done by the US.

This ‘not too much to worry’ attitude projected by Eisenhower strain on the American economy and taxpayers respectively could not last for long. According to a Gallup Poll, Eisenhower's approval rating dropped by twenty-two percentage points, signaling that there was trouble in paradise. There was a lack of confidence that many Americans faced. It established the idea into the minds of the public that not only was a communist system competitive with the western democracies in creativity and thought but also the Soviets demonstrated greater skills in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Engineering by successfully developing and launching rockets and satellites at a rapid rate. This reached its zenith with the failure of Vanguard TV-3 on December 6th,1957, with the unsuccessful launch being dubbed 'Dudnik,' 'Kaputnik' and 'Flopnik.'

Then, the year 1958 became a milestone as the United States took a series of actions that "cemented a foundation for more than half a century for national science policy." (Neal, Smith and McCormick 3). President Eisenhower appointed James R. Killian, the President of MIT, to be the first special assistant to the President on matters of science and technology.

James Killian, the 10th President of MIT

Killian's appointment signaled the rise of science and technology to a new position of importance in the United States from its previous apathy. The building blocks put in place in response to Sputnik established the general structure in which science is perceived and conducted in the United States as of today. Universities were established, which as served as the primary means through which government-sponsored research is conducted, created a system of national laboratories for the support of advancing national interest and other needs, and inspired a generation of students to study and pursue degrees in science and engineering.

Even though he still did not consider it as a matter of lost prestige as reflected by President Eisenhower's State of the Union address, he did believe that science as an endeavor and as a discipline that deserved greater recognition and support from the American public. This commitment came to be reflected by Eisenhower’s Atom for Peace initiative, a proposal that went back to his first term of presidency, where nations possessing nuclear capability would contribute nuclear materials for peaceful research, and the results of such research would be shared with the world. While elaborating on this proposal, Eisenhower said that the rapid growth of science then gave men unprecedented power in the realm of science and technology to impel the growth of mind and spirit.

Eisenhower wanted to tackle the laid-back approach that Americans had developed based on the premise that they were superior to their Soviet adversaries and watched the unfolding of the events rather than taking an active role in shaping future scientific research. On the other hand, the Soviets placed a special emphasis on scientific research as they wanted to cement their place as a superpower among the nations of the world. To ensure this, he took a series of steps. He set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defense (DoD). ARPA was established to prevent technological surprises like Sputnik, mainly developing "innovative, high-risk research ideas that had the potential for significant technological payoffs." (Neal, Smith and McCormick 3).

Moreover, funding for agencies already in place increased to an exponential level post-Sputnik debacle. In the year 1959, Congress increased the funding of the National Science Foundation to $134 million from $34 million in 1958. The pinnacle was reached for the United States’ plan for long pull in scientific research, development, and investment in greater scientific education with the passage of the Space Act that led to the establishment of the NASA and the National Defense Education Act respectively in 1958.

On October 1st,1958, NASA was formed, replacing the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). NASA was charged with carrying out the space program and aerospace research for civilian purposes. Among its eight official objectives, cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof was of most essential importance as it highlighted that it was “a step forward toward progress and peaceful discovery and not done to intimidate the USSR.” (Johnson 35).

Now talking about the NDEA, it was designed to encourage a new generation of students to pursue degrees in sciences and engineering. The act concerned itself with science, mathematics, and foreign language instruction at all levels, from elementary through graduate school and vocational training. It also provided limited funding for work in area studies, geography, English as a second language, counseling and guidance, and school libraries and librarianship, and for the support of educational media centers.

Congressional approval of the NDEA marked a major shift in the federal government's educational policy. Initially avoiding to infringe state autonomy, the passage of the NDEA passed by Congress provided federal support to both the industry and academia by utilizing a significant share of the funds allocated for new scientific research equipment, low-interest college loans, and improvement in elementary and secondary science education.

Despite taking steps that brought an everlasting change in the US federal structure and increased American public’s attitude toward science and technology, Eisenhower continued to maintain his belief that the launch of the Sputnik was not a matter of national prestige and tried to ensure balance with other American issues to maintain a stable economy. Unlike him, most of the bureaucracy, members of the Congress, and his administration, especially Vice President, Richard Nixon considered the launch of Sputnik as a matter of the losing prestige of the United States and, thus, demanded an increase in the defense budget.

Under pressure from cornerstones of the US politics and administration, President Eisenhower implemented the recommendations of the Gaither Report, which proposed $19 billion to strengthen offensive capabilities during 1959-1963 and an additional $25 billion for improving active and passive defenses during the same period. In implementing these recommendations, the defense budget for the fiscal year 1959 exceeded the planned ceiling of $38 billion by $1.44 billion.

In conclusion, Sputnik Crisis sparked a national soul searching with an extraordinarily broad range of consequences. Americans' feelings of superiority over the Soviets and ‘not too much to worry’ attitude increased the severity of shocks. The establishment of ARPA, increasing funding of existing agencies, setting up the NASA as a civilian agency responsible for progress and peaceful discovery in aerospace research, the passage of the NDEA to pursue and engage students into science and engineering not only did force Americans to leave aside their laid back attitude and apathy towards science and technology and thus, compelled them to join in shaping the future of science and technology for the greater good of the humanity but also if these steps had not been taken the US would be in a much poorer shape today. But it also became a starting point of the Space Race-eventually won by the United States when they successfully landed the first man on the Moon-which led to an increase in the defense budget of the United States to ensure the containment of Communism in the world.

Thus, the launch of the Sputnik by the Soviet Union impeccably changed not only the United States on a domestic level but also changed the geopolitical scenario at that point in time and, in turn, became an event which was essential for the progress of mankind.

The Sputnik Crisis and the launch of Sputnik I by the erstwhile USSR is crucial in understanding the realm of Outer Space as it is responsible for the advent of the Space Age. It brought extra-terrestrial within the grasp of humanity. Moreover, it firmly establishes that scientific education, the need for constant innovation, and curiosity for progress are the prime factors of achieving economic growth and might, the only requisites for a nation-state to truly emerge as a superpower in the dynamic system of international relations.

Works Cited

  • Neal, Homer Alfred., et al. Beyond Sputnik: US Science Policy in the Twenty-First Century. University of Michigan Press, 2010.

  • Johnson, Jordan. Sputnik and the Space Race. Cavendish Square Publishing, 2018.

  • Wenger, Andreas. “Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Missile Gap: Determinants of Us Military Expenditure in the Wake of the Sputnik Shock.” Taylor & Francis, 1997,

  • McDougall, Walter A. “Sputnik, the Space Race, and the Cold War.” Taylor & Francis, 1985,

  • “Paul Dickson. Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. 364 Pp., Illus., Notes, Bibl., Index. New York: Walker & Company, 2001. $20 (Paper).” Isis, vol. 94, no. 4, 2003, pp. 766–767., DOI:10.1086/386485.

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