Delanie Tarvin: Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age

For this week’s blog, I explored NASA’s description of Sputnik, reading its brief historical timeline titled “Sputnik and The Dawn of the Space Age”. This website describes the launch of Sputnik as causing developments in various fields like technology and science, starting the Space Age and the Space Race, and resulting in the creation of NASA. NASA’s webpage offers a brief background to the launch of Sputnik, noting the establishment of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) by the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1952. It also explains that the council called “for artificial satellites to be launched during the IGY to map the Earth’s surface” (“Sputnik”). It then notes that the White House had plans to launch a satellite for the IGY, funding research for such developments; however, the launch of Sputnik caught them off-guard and changed everything. The webpage notes that “the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S” (“Sputnik”).

The information on NASA’s webpage offers a brief account of the launching of Sputnik. The history here is mostly the standard narrative; however, it does describe the existence of an international scientific community that planned for years to launch a satellite, which is often left out of orthodox accounts. NASA is associated with the U.S. government, so it is important to note the perspective here is probably skewed in favor of the U.S. This is evident in the diction, as the webpage describes Sputnik ushering in new developments and prompting the creation of NASA; however, it does not mention more negative impacts such as the public’s criticism of President Eisenhower or the general notion that America’s reputation of superiority was being questioned. Rather than noting a general hysteria of the U.S. public at this time, the website only mentions that the US public feared the threat of Soviet missiles being launched. This is not really a historiographical article. Rather, it is a general timeline of events pre- and post- Sputnik.

This is an informative site for the general history of Sputnik, but its brevity leaves out much of the actual history. As it was a short account, it was easy to read; but it lacks any in-depth account on the impact of Sputnik. It left me with many questions – namely: How did the different U.S. administrations (Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson) handle the launch of Sputnik? How did the US and Soviet economies change after the launch? As the launch frightened the US public, how would one characterize the USSR’s general mentality of the time?

 

Source: “Sputnik and The Dawn of the Space Age.” Edited by Steve Garber, NASA, NASA, 10 Oct. 2007, history.nasa.gov/sputnik/.

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