Reaction to Sputnik under the Eisenhower Administration — Brett Swaney


On October 4, 1957, the first artificial satellite was launched into orbit. The 58cm silver sphere, Sputnik, or “fellow traveler,” ushered in the space age and ignited a wave of panic in the United States. This singular event would precipitate a fundamental restructuring of U.S. science, aeronautics and space programs. The 1958 Space Act established a civilian agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), unifying the efforts of multiple government agencies. The legislation that created NASA also formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to temper the severe interservice rivalry that had plagued the Armed Services’ research programs. Washington’s successful response to the Sputnik challenge would ultimately vault the United States past the Soviet Union in the resultant race for superior space technology and prestige.

Pre-Sputnik science and space strategy was dominated by redundant efforts in Intercontinental Ballistic Missile development and general interservice rivalry over program development. Initially, the civilian element of the space program was necessary only to establish the legal right of overflight, which would allow satellites to traverse the space above any country on earth. This gave little regard to the prestige or propaganda value of a potential “space race.” However, with the help of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), Eisenhower was able to develop effective, reasoned, and rational strategies to ensure U.S. national security after the launch of Sputnik. This was achieved through the introduction and passage of the Space Act, which created NASA and ARPA, as well as an enhanced emphasis on science and mathematics in public education.

Severe interservice rivalries plagued the U.S. space and missile programs prior to the launch of Sputnik. This antagonistic dynamic continued in the midst of Eisenhower’s effort to allay the nation’s fears in the wake of Soviet space successes and to implement the Space Act. The intense debate regarding the militarization of space and the utility of a prestige-oriented space race also complicated Eisenhower’s response to the crisis.

The PSAC was crucial to the successful conceptualization and implementation of Eisenhower’s response to Sputnik, the Space Act. This was due to the President’s trust in Science Advisor James R. Killian, the impartial advice the committee provided, and the unrestricted access to government programs and information granted to PSAC. Eisenhower’s leadership also was a key factor, even if somewhat of a double-edged sword. While his calm and rational approach facilitated the development of the Space Act, it also proved slow in easing public fears exacerbated by the heavily politicized Senate Preparedness Subcommittee hearings investigating U.S. space efforts.

Successes of the Space Act included the creation of a civilian space agency to encapsulate the fragments of the U.S. space program, as well as the eventual evolution of ARPA into the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These organizations have furthered U.S. national security objectives and helped temper interservice rivalry in research and development projects and funding. The PSAC would also play a crucial role in future nuclear weapons strategy, particularly by beginning the first mutual nuclear test banning negotiations with the Soviet Union. In addition, subsequent presidents, such as Kennedy, would utilize the space program infrastructure to re-assert U.S. technological prowess by initiating the “moon race.”

The case of the Sputnik crisis clearly depicts the contributions that rational, impartial scientific advice can make to U.S. national security. However, it also illustrates the challenges that must be faced in the wake of the public hysteria that often accompanies national crises. In analyzing the U.S. government’s post-Sputnik activities under Eisenhower, most authors note the vital and positive role played by the PSAC and Killian in the development and integration of the government’s formation of a highly capable and proficient space program. This represented an immense change from the earlier ineffectiveness of U.S. efforts to enter and exploit space.