The Sputnik Effect
Why It Endures, 50 Years Later
On the evening of Oct. 4, 1957, at a party at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, Russian and American scientists celebrated what was considered to be “the greatest scientific research program ever undertaken,” the International Geophysical Year. As part of the IGY, both the Soviet Union and the United States were expected to orbit space vehicles. Everyone anticipated that the United States would do it first, and its Vanguard program called for orbital liftoff in November 1957. At about 6 p.m., word came that a Soviet R-7 rocket had pushed a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit.
According to journalist Paul Dickson, the author of Sputnik: The Shock of the Century , “The scientists and engineers assembled at the embassy party were thrilled. Cheers rang out. Within minutes, one of the most impenetrable buildings in Washington was putting out the welcome mat to reporters. …Vodka flowed.”
President Eisenhower was pleased. He wanted a system of spy satellites to monitor Soviet military activity and forewarn of a surprise attack. But overflights of a sovereign nation were forbidden, and no precedent existed that declared deep space to be international. Sputnik established that precedent. “We were certain,” Eisenhower wrote later, “that we could get a great deal more information of all kinds out of the free use of...
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