Fellow Traveler

Fifty years ago this month, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik 1, the world's first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite. Shocked into action, the U.S. ramped up its space program—and its science education.

Strong words. Strong motives. Enough to spook any adversary into action.

Meanwhile, in mid-July the British weekly New Scientist had told readers about the Soviet Union's growing primacy in the space race and described the orbit of an impending Soviet satellite. But America took little notice.

In mid-September Korolev told an assembly of scientists about the imminent launches of both Soviet and American "artificial satellites of the Earth with scientific goals." Still America took little notice.

Then came October 4.

Sputnik 1 kicked many heads out of the sand. Some people in power went, well, ballistic. Lyndon B. Johnson, at the time the Senate majority leader, warned, "Soon [the Soviets] will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses." Others were anxious to downplay both the geopolitical implications of the satellite and the Soviet Union's capabilities. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wrote that the importance of Sputnik 1 "should not be exaggerated" and rationalized America's nonperformance thus: "Despotic societies which can command the activities and resources of all their people can often produce spectacular accomplishments. These, however, do not prove that freedom is not the best way."

On October 5, under a page-one banner headline (and alongside coverage of a flu epidemic in New York City and the showdown in Little Rock with the segregationist Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus), The New York Times ran an article that included the following reassurances:

Military experts have said that the satellites would have no practicable military application in the foreseeable future.… Their real significance would be in providing scientists with important new information concerning the nature of the sun, cosmic radiation, solar radio interference and static-producing phenomena.

What? No military applications? Satellites were simply about monitoring the Sun? Behind-the-scenes strategists thought otherwise. According to the summary of an October 10 meeting between President Eisenhower and his National Security Council, the U.S. had "always been aware of the cold war implications of the launching of the first earth satellite." Even America's best allies "require assurance that we have not been surpassed scientifically and militarily by the U.S.S.R."

Eisenhower didn't have to worry about ordinary Americans, though. Most remained unperturbed. Or maybe the spin campaign worked its magic. In any case, plenty of ham radio operators ignored the beeps, plenty of newspapers ran their satellite articles on page three or five, and a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of people questioned in Washington and Chicago expected that the U.S. would make the next big splash in space.

America's cold warriors, now fully awake to the military potential of space, understood that U.S. postwar prestige and power had been challenged. Within a year, money to help restore them would be pumped into science education, the education of college teachers, and research useful to the military.

Back in 1947, the President's Commission on Higher Education had proposed as a goal that a third of America's youth should graduate from a four-year college. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 was a key, if modest, push in that direction. It provided low-interest student loans for undergraduates as well as three-year National Defense Fellowships for several thousand graduate students. Funding for the National Science Foundation tripled right after Sputnik; by 1968 it was a dozen times the pre-Sputnik appropriation. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 hatched a new, full-service civilian agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, was born the same year (and so was I).