1957: The Year Sputnik I Shook America out of its Scientific Apathy

Pratul Chaturvedi

On 4th October 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, beckoning the birth of the Space Age. Being the greatest scientific breakthrough of humanity, the launch of Sputnik sent shock waves throughout the United States, for it broke the myth that the USA was technologically superior to the USSR. Set in the backdrop of the Cold War, I will use this space to argue that the launch of Sputnik I not only sent the USA into a state of frenzy, but also played a significant role in churning the wheels of American and global scientific progress.


At the time of the launch of Sputnik I, the Cold War had been a decade old. The USA and the USSR were engaged in an ideological struggle of communism versus capitalism, with an arms race brewing up rapidly. With the dawn of the nuclear age post-1945, both the countries realizing the unpredictable potential for destruction by the nuclear armaments, decided to instead bring science and technology to the forefront of competition.


Despite spearheading the development of atomic bombs under the Manhattan Project, the United States did not immediately emphasize 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. The American space program suffered from a lack of funds, resulting in inadequate rocket programs, along with duplication of effort, loss of time, and inefficient spending. 

The greatest instrument of American progress- its education system- substituted ‘life adjustment’ education for rigorous instruction in the teaching of mathematics and science. It focused on soft courses which resulted in underdeveloped skills and weak intellectual abilities. Even though schools failed to imbibe constructive holistic skills in the students, the parents were somehow satisfied with education, as reflected in the Roper survey in the Life Magazine in 1950. 

The American pride in being the most progressive of all soon translated into a deep sense of ignorance and apathy about just what the USA had to do to strengthen its grip on science and technology. They even found it comfortable to believe that the Soviet adversaries substituted propaganda for liberal education, that their technical schools were inferior, and they had only been able to develop the atomic bomb by stealing American secrets.


Fig 1: Soviet scientist Leonid Sedov, who created the Sputnik 1, helps to cut a rocket-shaped cake at the International Astronautical Conference in Barcelona a few days after the satellite launched in October of 1957. Source: Howard Sochurek, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty. https://www.space.com/17852-sputnik-space-race-first-satellite-photos.html

In the July of 1957, a global scientific project called the International Geophysical Year (IGY) brought together scientists from across 64 countries to cooperate in a 16-month long study of the structure of the Earth and its natural systems. Despite the preliminary hubbub around the IGY, most American national magazines and newspapers either did not cover it at all or only gave it passing attention in buried articles. This was a testament to the amount of apathy that existed in the United States with regard to science and technology. It was only when the Soviet Union declared its intention to launch Sputnik as part of its contribution to the IGY, that the global event became a political battleground for the two adversaries of the Cold War.


The launch of the USSR’s Sputnik I on 4th October 1957 produced a climate of near hysteria in the USA. 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. For the USA, Sputnik represented a potential nuclear attack from the Outer Space and provoked a fear that there was now an eye in the sky capable of looking down on the United States at will. This was a threat of weapons against which the country had neither the scientific nor the technological ability to defend itself. Adding to the frenzy was the secrecy maintained by the Soviets around their scientific achievement by not releasing photographs to the press. The perpetual state of suspicion that occupied the two camps most of the time during the Cold War took over the American scientists who even wondered if the transmissions being sent by the Sputnik might be coded signals.

Watching their communist adversaries beat them scientifically, many Americans were also concerned with a sense of symbolic weakness as the Sputnik launch shook the age-old idea that America was technologically superior. They grew on to think that not only was a communist system competitive with the western democracies in creativity and thought, but also that the Soviets demonstrated greater skills in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Engineering by successfully developing and launching rockets and satellites at a rapid rate.

The reaction to the launch of Sputnik also permeated American politics. According to a Gallup Poll, President Eisenhower’s approval rating dropped by twenty-two percentage points during this period, signaling that there was trouble in paradise. Most of the bureaucracy, members of the Congress, and especially Vice President Richard Nixon considered Sputnik as a matter of losing American prestige.

This feeling of the defeat reached its zenith with the unsuccessful launch of America’s satellite just two months after the launch of Sputnik. Having initiated the IGY itself and watching the Soviets marvel the world with its Sputnik, the USA felt compelled to launch its satellite. The then American President Dwight D. Eisenhower feared that without launching an “innocent little scientific grapefruit” (McDougall 22), America would not be able to establish the ‘freedom of space’, and thus orbit over the territories of other countries. It was in this context that the USA launched ‘Vanguard TV-3 on 6th December 1957, only for it to result in an unsuccessful launch. The failed American satellite launch was mockingly dubbed as ‘Dudnik,’ ‘Kaputnik’, and ‘Flopnik’ by the media.


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, he remained confident in both his press briefings and private meetings with the advisors. President Eisenhower finally spoke about the Sputnik in a White House Press Conference on October 9th, five days after its launch. This attitude of no-rush-to-make-a public-statement and responding to Sputnik as part of a normal routine of his presidency was made to reassure the American public that the US still maintained prestige and superiority over their Soviet adversaries. In his statement, President Eisenhower emphasized that missile and satellite development were separate issues- the former was related to defense, and the latter was purely a scientific endeavor. Thus, he dismissed that satellite launch presented a security concern for the United States. He also emphasized that he had been satisfied by the progress of Project Vanguard and expected a satellite to be launched by the end of 1957. He and his advisers believed that Sputnik benefitted the 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.


Grappling with the Sputnik debacle, President 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 instead undertake an active role in shaping future scientific research. With this in mind, 1958 became the year that 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). First of all, President Eisenhower appointed James R. Killian, the President of MIT, to become the first special advisor to the President on matters of science and technology. Killian’s appointment signaled the rise of science and technology to a new position of importance in the United States from its previous apathy. Universities were established as the primary means to conduct government-sponsored research. A system of national laboratories was also created to support 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 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 gave men unprecedented power in the realm of science and technology to impel the growth of mind and spirit.

Along with this, the USA set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defense (DoD). ARPA was established to prevent technological surprises like Sputnik, mainly by developing “innovative, high-risk research ideas that had the potential for significant technological payoffs.” (Neal, Smith and McCormick 3). Moreover, funding for scientific agencies increased to an exponential level post the Sputnik launch. In 1959, Congress increased the funding of the National Science Foundation from $34 million to $134 million.

The pinnacle was reached for the United States’ plan for long pull in scientific research with the replacement of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on 1st October 1958. NASA was charged with the responsibility of carrying out space programs 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 according 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).

Fig 2: NASA is born: On 29th July 1958, spurred by the launch of Sputnik, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The new space agency opened for business on 1 October 1958. Eisenhower (center) is shown here with NASA’s first administrator, Dr. T. Keith Glennan (right), and deputy administrator Dr. Hugh L. Dryden (left). Source: NASA https://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/mission-moon/cigarettes-and-rocket-fuel-podcast/article/Listen-Remembering-President-Eisenhower-the-13720248.php#photo-12421222

The Eisenhower administration also passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958. It was designed to encourage a new generation of students to pursue degrees in sciences and engineering. Congressional approval of the NDEA marked a major shift in the federal government’s educational policy. Initially avoiding infringing 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.

These growing scientific endeavors little but belied the persistence of the Cold War. To protect American omnipotence and the notion of invulnerability, President Eisenhower proposed a bigger defense budget to the US Congress than was required by the armed forces at the time. Besides politically and psychologically reassuring allies and deterring adversaries, a larger defense budget altered and advanced the defense doctrine that focused on the containment of communism.

Along with taking steps that brought an everlasting change in the US federal structure and the American public’s attitude toward science and technology, Eisenhower continued to maintain his belief that the launch of the Sputnik did not dwindle America’s national prestige.


In conclusion, the Sputnik crisis sparked a kind of soul searching for the Americans, with an extraordinarily broad range of consequences. Owing to its feeling of superiority over the Soviets and not-too-much-to-worry-about attitude, the USA perceived the Sputnik launch as all the more shocking. However, the atmosphere of tension that thus followed produced an everlasting impact and compelled the United States to acknowledge the world of science and technology with immense priority.

The subsequent American efforts to establish the ARPA, increase funding of existing scientific agencies, set up the NASA as a civilian agency for progress and peaceful discovery in aerospace research, create the NDEA to motivate students to pursue science and engineering not only reduced the American apathy towards science and technology but also allowed them to shape its future for the greater good of humanity. Thus, 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 today. It became a starting point of the Space Race, eventually won by the United States when it successfully landed the first human on the Moon. Thus, the launch of the Sputnik by the Soviet Union impeccably changed not only the United States on a domestic level, but also altered the geopolitical understanding of science for the better.

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5 thoughts on “1957: The Year Sputnik I Shook America out of its Scientific Apathy”

  1. Shashwat Agrawal

    Damn, This was an interesting read.
    The expression of the statements, and the facts associated with them, the article was overall really insightful.
    Way to go!

  2. Commendable write up!
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    Superb,simply superb!Commendable write up!
    a work of thorough research with amply supportive examples that bind the interest of the reader till the end.
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