ON THIS DAY: The Sputnik Response

It would be hard to overstate the effect the Sputnik launch had on the United States. By 1957, the alliance between the US and the Soviet Union during the Second World War was history and both societies were competing to see how could deliver the best results much as the United States competes today with China.

Each country had developed powerful rockets that could deliver bombs over long distances far better than vulnerable aircraft could. With each passing year, these rockets grew larger and their ability to lift weight became greater and greater. A rocket launched from one country could be loaded with a nuclear weapon and sent to the other country in a way that fundamentally could not be stopped. So, Washington and Moscow were both able to be utterly destroyed, in theory, at any moment. Rocketry made this possible.

It was in this atmosphere that the Soviets launched Sputnik in October of 1957. The Sputnik satellite was a ball that weighed only 180 pounds and had radio antennas poking out in several directions. After it achieved obit, radio operators around the world heard it’s steady and oddly terrifying “beep beep” it transmitted.

The American reaction to Sputnik was not slow in coming. The next year, President Eisenhower launched the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, forever known as NASA, which was tasked with developing an American space presence and program. On May 5, 1961, American Alan Sheppard became the second man to enter space when he flew the Freedom 7 rocket to 101 miles over the earth and stayed for 15 minutes. The Soviets had put Yuri Gagarin in space first, but now, the Americans were not far behind them. By 1969, American dominance in space would be complete when one of Sheppard’s fellow astronauts would step on to the surface of the moon. From the first American to orbit the earth to landing on the moon were only 8 years and a few months.