Article by Ben Cheyney. Edited and researched by Rob Russell.
On the 4th October 1957, at precisely 22:28 hours, a small aluminium sphere weighing just 184 pounds was launched into the night by the Soviet Union, marking mankind’s first tentative steps into space. In Sputnik, the world’s first earth-orbiting artificial satellite, science fiction became science fact, and humanity’s conquest of exploration and discovery reached exciting new levels of possibility and promise. Despite the relative simplicity of the satellite, which had no practical utility, Sputnik represented an outstanding technological and scientific breakthrough, which brought with it the dawn of a new era in which the frontiers of space could at last be more closely examined.
Communist newspapers were quick to laud the ‘new epoch in world history’ represented by the satellite. For much of the western world however, ‘the impulse to applaud a mighty scientific achievement soon froze in the rigors of the Cold War.’ This struggle between the ideologically polarised superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union was characterised not by open conflict, but through total struggles embracing all forms of power, such as economic development, technological competition, and exhibitions of military prowess. In this climate, Sputnik represented a compelling display of Soviet advances in science and engineering, dealing a devastating blow to the western world in their symbolic combat against Communism.
Given the context of the Cold War, it is unsurprising that the strongest response to Sputnik came from America. Historians have pointed towards a ‘total crisis of confidence’ following the announcement of the launch, claiming that ‘never before had so small and harmless an object created such consternation.’ The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which marked the advent of the Nuclear Age, had not only confirmed the important relationship between science and National Security, but had also cemented America’s position as world leaders in this field. In previous times of national crisis, for example during the Korean War, Americans had been able to fall back on their assumed scientific and technological superiority as a source of security. The very nature of the Sputnik launch however seemingly shattered this comforting belief of technological leadership, resulting in an unprecedented sense of vulnerability within America.
The hysteria which Sputnik is said to have caused was the preeminent catalyst of numerous sweeping policy changes within America. Most notable of these was the transformation of America’s education system. Indeed the most significant response to the satellite came from proponents of educational reform, who upon hearing the satellite’s iconic ‘beep beep’, leapt forward ‘like heavy drinkers hearing a cork pop.’ Whilst the American education system’s ‘retreat from learning’ had been subject to criticism for many years, educational reform had been obstructed by an unlikely coalition of Catholics, conservatives, southerners and fundamentalists. By challenging U.S. pretensions of scientific and technological superiority however, Sputnik transformed education into an issue of national security, the only issue capable of trumping the psychological and political barriers which had previously impeded the advocates of federal aid and curriculum reform.
There was a general consensus that America’s ‘second rate’ education system was responsible for America falling behind in technological development and that the nation needed to ‘wake up to the dangers of educational neglect.’ These concerns were codified less than a year later, with the passing of the National Defence Education Act (NDEA) on September 2, 1958. This was to be the cornerstone of the Eisenhower Administration’s response to Sputnik, an attempt to unshackle the ‘nation’s brainpower in the struggle for survival’ against the Soviet Union. The NDEA committed an unprecedented $890 million of federal aid to education. Whilst this equates to just over $7 billion today, the NDEA marked a watershed in attitudes in America towards state involvement in education.
In schools, money was poured into providing greatly improved facilities and equipment to aid those subjects (Science, Mathematics and Modern Foreign Languages) deemed vital to national security. At the same time, the increasing influence of the National Science Foundation over education transformed the style of education in school, with an increased focus on practical application rather than memorisation. The Cold War priorities sparked by the satellite were also evident in the money provided to students studying ‘essential’, Cold War orientated, subjects at university. Sputnik can also be seen to have prompted a ‘Golden Age’ for universities, as vast sums were also provided for scientific research, a practice which resonates to this day.
The launching of Sputnik shook the western world, particularly America, into action. By passing the NDEA, the U.S. government made an unprecedented commitment to improving America’s education system. At the same time, science and scientists were elevated to a position of authority and importance which they had not enjoyed for decades. The Soviet rockets in Sputnik ignited the Space Race, which would dominate Cold War rivalries throughout the 1960s. Despite American efforts to catch up with the Soviet Union however, the little satellite, which caused such consternation in the west, was only the first episode in a series of defeats in this new realm of discovery. In the race for ‘firsts’, the Soviets triumphed with a number of victories, the first animal, man and woman in space. It was not until the successful Moon landing in 1969 that American pride was restored. Whilst Neil Armstrong’s iconic claims of a ‘giant leap’ for mankind were met with cries of jubilation, underneath the euphoria, the nation almost certainly breathed a deep sigh relief.