— The Soviet Union’s launch of
aboard a modified R-7 ICBM from Tyuratam in Kazakhstan (later called BaikonurCosmodrome)
The satellite’s transmissions from low Earth orbit,
did not even last through the month, but it led to
the Space Race that
ultimately ended the Cold War, says Howard McCurdy, chair of public administration and policy at American University in Washington.
Both the Soviet Union and the United States had stated in 1955 they would launch an artificial satellite during the International Geophysical Year, which ran from mid-1957 to the end of 1958.
Korolev got his wish. The Soviet
launched the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit
ahead of the United States.
team started designing a satellite in January 1956, originally intending to make Sputnik 3 the first Soviet satellite to be launched.
An RCA Communications station in Long Island, N.Y., was the first U.S. observer
to notice the shiny metal ball. The U.S. press was hyperbolic and frantic, especially compared to the modest initial coverage Sputnik 1 received in Soviet newspapers.
Unlike most of the rest of the world, the Soviet Union expected they would be first to launch an artificial satellite.
Until Sputnik, few doubted the technological preeminence of the United States. And U.S. citizens believed it was their superior technology that inevitably would win the Cold War.
The next few months consisted of a series of successful Soviet launches, including the first living organism to be sent to and returned from space. Meanwhile the first attempt to launch a U.S. satellite ended up in an explosion seen
on national television.
Those few months reduced public confidence in the United States and changed the world’s perception of Soviet technology.
Space technology became a symbol for overall technological capability, including military might,
The Soviet successes had a positive global effect.
Some nations not allied to either superpower began associating themselves with the Soviet Union, having demonstrated their apparently superior space technology, McCurdy says.
Another sort of reassessment was happening in the United States.
Roger Launius, chair of the space history division at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, questions the commonly held belief that the U.S. public was shocked by the launch. He notes that some U.S. “opinion-makers” feared the Soviets’ ability to launch a satellite into orbit meant they could launch a nuclear missile to the United States. The Soviets lacked the tracking capability to do so, but that was unknown at the time, and
many U.S. politicians seized
In a speech
Senate Majority Leader
Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat already thinking about the 1960 presidential election, chided
the administration of President
Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, Launius says.
The day before, Launius said Johnson had received a letter from Democratic strategist George Reedy, which said:
“The issue is one which if handled properly would blast the Republicans out of the water, unify the Democratic Party, and elect you president
Even with partisan politics in full swing the launch of Sputnik had set the stage for an “American master narrative,” Launius says.
After the initial surprise of finding out just how capable Soviet space technology was, the United States redoubled its efforts – creating NASA and passing the National Defense Education Act both in 1958. Eventually, the United States trumped the Russians in space with the Apollo Moon landings.
A generally unheralded effect of the Sputnik launch is that it set into motion a series of events that would end the Cold War, McCurdy says.
The use of reconnaissance satellites crippled the Soviet Union’s primary source of military power: secrecy. “By beating us into space, they gave up their ability to hide warlike preparations,” McCurdy says. By sending Sputnik over parts of the United States the Soviet Union also jumpstarted a policy of “open skies” and “free overflight” for orbiting devices, McCurdy says.
That right still does
not exist for
aircraft and nations have always been
free to shoot down planes violating their airspace. Since the Soviets were first, the United States did not have to wrangle over the policy; it simply accepted and followed the Soviet precedent.
As the catalyst for the Space Race, Sputnik provided an alternative form of competition for the Cold War players. “Space provided a surrogate for military conflict,” McCurdy says. It allowed both to size the other up “without having to engage in a direct conflict.”
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev did not like the open sky policy. He believed it alerted the United States to the vulnerability of the Soviet Union, Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Soviet leader and a fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said in a Sept. 28 telephone phone interview.
In the end, Sputnik “changed all of us,”
says, referring not just to the Soviet people but all of humanity
. “It changed our feeling of [ourselves].”