Not only had the Soviets been first in orbit, but Sputnik 1 weighed nearly 200 pounds, compared to the intended 3.5 pounds for the first US satellite to be launched in Project Vanguard. In the Cold War environment of the late 1950s, this order-of-magnitude disparity of capability portended menacing implications. (Image Credit: NASA)
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History changed 60 years ago today, on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1. The world's first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball -- about 23 inches diameter -- and weighed less than 190 pounds. It took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That single launch ushered in a whole array of new political, military, technological, and scientific developments in the years that followed. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the Space Age and the US - USSR space race.
Like the Soviet Union, the United States was planning to launch a satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year. Caught off-guard, the American public felt echoes of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor less than 16 years before. Americans feared that the Soviets, whom they believed were behind the US technologically after the devastation of World War II, could launch ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons at the United States.
Sputnik's launch led the US government to focus and consolidate space exploration programs in different agencies, and on January 31, 1958, the US Army launched Explorer I. This satellite carried a small scientific payload that discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth, later named after principal investigator James Van Allen. That summer, Congress and President Eisenhower created NASA, which came into being October 1, 2018.
Sputnik's launch created a rivalry that lasted decades and eventually resulted in Americans landing on the Moon, but which ultimately gave way to cooperation and collaboration. Today, sixty years later, Americans and Russians work alongside each other with astronauts from many other countries aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
According to historian Roger D. Launius, Sputnik 1, launched on October 4, 1957 from the Soviet Union's rocket testing facility in the desert near Tyuratam in the Kazakh Republic, proved to be a decidedly unspectacular satellite that probably should not have elicited the horrific reaction it wrought. An aluminum 23 inch sphere with four spring-loaded whip antennae trailing, it weighed only 183 pounds and traveled an elliptical orbit that took it around the Earth every 96 minutes. It carried a small radio beacon that beeped at regular intervals and could by means of telemetry verify exact locations on the earth's surface. Some US cold warriors at the time feared that this was a way for the Soviets to obtain targeting information for their ballistic missiles, but that was certainly not the case. The satellite itself fell from orbit three months after launch on January 4, 1958.
While President Eisenhower and other leaders of his administration congratulated the Soviets and tried to downplay the importance of the accomplishment, they misjudged the public reaction to the event. The launch of Sputnik 1 had a "Pearl Harbor-like" effect on American public opinion. It was a shock, introducing the average citizen to the space age in a crisis setting. The event created an illusion of a technological gap and provided the impetus for increased spending for aerospace endeavors, technical and scientific educational programs, and the chartering of new federal agencies to manage air and space research and development.
Not only had the Soviets been first in orbit, but Sputnik 1 weighed nearly 200 pounds, compared to the intended 3.5 pounds for the first US satellite to be launched in Project Vanguard. In the Cold War environment of the late 1950s, this order-of-magnitude disparity of capability portended menacing implications.
Even before the effects of Sputnik 1 had worn off, the Soviet Union struck again. On November 3, 1957, less than a month later, it launched Sputnik 2 carrying a dog, Laika. While the first satellite had weighed less than 200 pounds, this spacecraft weighed 1,120 pounds and stayed in orbit for almost 200 days -- approaching nearly a two-order-of-magnitude advantage in payload weight.
Dr. Eilene Galloway, often called "the grand matriarch of space law," played vital roles in the drafting of NASA's founding legislation while working for Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. She also worked to create the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).
In August 2007, Galloway wrote an essay that tells how, as a congressional researcher, she came to work for Johnson and helped him bring NASA into existence. Portions of her writings, which follow, captures the thinking of the US at the time of the first Sputnik launch.
"The orbiting of Sputnik by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957 created worldwide fear of weapons of mass destruction. Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) who was then chairman of the Senate Preparedness Investigation Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, worried that the Soviet Union was surpassing the United States in missile technology. He decided to hold hearings on how to cope with the problem. He telephoned me to request my assistance with the investigation. I was National Defense Analyst and later Senior Specialist in International Relations (National Defense) with the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress."
"On Nov. 3, 1957 the Soviet Union launched a second heavier Sputnik carrying a dog, Laika (Barker) evidence of an advanced capability to use the outer space environment. As satellites circled the earth in 90 minutes, nations were united in fear."
"On Nov. 25, 1957, LBJ began the "Inquiry into Satellite and Missile Programs." The initial assumption was that we faced a military problem. By Jan. 23, 1958, we had recorded 1,377 pages of testimony by preparedness experts. But it was the testimony of scientists and engineers from many sectors, including the International Geophysical Year (IGY) that helped change our perception of the problem. These witnesses discussed the important practical applications of space that NASA could facilitate, including long-term meteorological forecasts and rapid long-range radio communications. The exploration of Mars and Venus was foreseen. Manned satellites were predicted, even the landing of a man on the Moon and his safe return to Earth. The solution to the problem of opening the outer space environment would have been incomplete without the input of scientists and engineers."
"While our first reaction was that we faced a military problem of technology inferiority, the testimony from scientists and engineers convinced us that outer space had been opened as a new environment and that it could be used worldwide for peaceful uses of benefit to all humankind, for communications, navigation, meteorology, and other purposes. Use of space was not confined to military activities. It was remarkable that this possibility became evident so soon after Sputnik and its significance cannot be understated. The problem became one of maintaining peace rather than preparing the United States to meet the threat of using outer space for war. Fear of war changed to hope for peace."
"My contributions to the formation of NASA, which followed nine months after Sputnik were 1) recommending that NASA be an administration instead of an agency and 2) providing NASA international authority under section 205 of the Space Act. In April, 1958, President Eisenhower sent the text of the proposed bill creating the National Aeronautics and Space Agency to House majority leader John McCormack of Massachusetts, who subsequently sought my advice. The orginial draft bill's assumption was that a total US space program could result from dividing projects between agencies. The bill's language declared that the agencies should voluntarily cooperate with each other, thus providing no provision for an overall coordinating mechanism. I told Congressman McCormack, I did not like the institution to be called an agency with a director, because the organization of US space activities required the coordination and cooperation of a number of agencies in the federal government, and NASA needed enough stature to work effectively with them to coordinate space projects."
"I believe creating NASA as an administration was the best solution to the problem of coordinating under centralized guidance the programs of the new space institution and other executive agencies already engaged in space-related activities. NASA later identified to the Congress those organizations having a role in space activities. The list illustrates why it was so important that NASA become an administration."
"When the bill came to the Senate Special Committee on Space and Astronautics, chaired by LBJ, the administration status of NASA was approved. Just before the committee adjourned, however, Sen. Theodore Green of Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said NASA's international agreements must be approved by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. I told LBJ that such a requirement would hamper NASA's authority to make international agreements. The United States has a variety of methods for accomplishing its international cooperation objectives including treaties, executive agreements, agency-to-agency agreements, memoranda of understanding, and letter agreements. It would have been counterproductive to restrict the means by which the agreed goal could be reached. LBJ gave me permission to discuss the matter with the State Department. This resulted in President Eisenhower's adding to the law by a signing statement."
"Therefore, NASA retained its authority to conduct programs of international cooperation by using less formal arrangements under the foreign policy guidance of the president. Among the earliest agreements were those covering tracking and telemetry stations, data from satellites and probes, exchange of scientific and technical information, training programs, and exchanges with foreign scientists.
"Another important aspect of our national response involved coordination with other nations. In a remarkable show of bipartisan and executive - legislative branch unity, Eisenhower invited LBJ, who was the Senate's Democratic leader, to go to the United Nations to propose the creation of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) with its Legal Subcommittee and the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee. I happened to be in San Antonio attending a space conference and was invited to the Johnson ranch to assist with the UN speech and accompany the LBJ staff to the UN. The role of COPUOS was to safeguard the right of people of all nations to beneficial results from space exploration by providing assistance for research, exchange and dissemination of information, encouraging national research programs and studying legal problems arising from space exploration. Both fear and hope brought countries together in cooperation."
LBJ addressed the UN Committee, in November 1958, on behalf of the president and said "Initially, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Poland refused to participate in COPUOS which was created as an ad hoc committee based on majority voting. However, they became members a year later when it was decided that all COPUOS decisions would be made by consensus. COPUOS developed a number of space law treaties, including the "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies," which recognized the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes. Although consensus decision making takes time, it provides a very strong basis for the signatory nations to comply with the treaties."
"After the creation of the COPUOS committee, the Senate Special Committee on Space and Astronautics published a space law symposium in December 1958. This document included 58 articles by lawyers, scientists, engineers, and government officials identifying problems of air, sea, and space law."
"In looking back on those early accomplishments, I am awed by the speed of the legislative process. It was incredible and thorough. Sputnik was launched on Oct. 4, 1957, and by July 29, 1958 -- approximately nine months later -- the Congress had already identified all aspects of the problem taking into account the executive and legislative functions, national and international elements, and military and civilian roles, and established NASA. NASA's organic statute provided a solid basis for the space administration's future success and United States technological leadership. The United States took the initiative, and five months later the UN created COPUOS. Space exploration became the beacon for our hope [and] the symbol of national and international achievement.
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