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Soviet stamp depicting Sputnik's orbit around Earth

The Sputnik crisis was America's reaction to the success of the Sputnik program.[1] It was a key Cold War event that began on October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite.

The launch of Sputnik I and the failure of its first two Project Vanguard launch attempts rattled the American public; President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to it as the “Sputnik Crisis”. Although Sputnik was itself harmless, its orbiting greatly accentuated the continual threat the United States had perceived from the Soviet Union since the Cold War began after World War II. The same rocket that launched Sputnik could send a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes, breaching the oceanic moat that had successfully protected the continental United States from attack during both World Wars. The Soviets had demonstrated this capability on August 21 with a successful 6,000 km test flight of the R-7 booster; TASS announced it five days later and the event was widely reported in Aviation Week and other media.

Less than a year after the Sputnik launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The act was a four-year program that poured billions of dollars into the U.S. education system. In 1953 the government spent $153 million, and colleges took $10 million of that funding; however, by 1960 the combined funding grew almost sixfold because of the NDEA.[2]

After the initial public shock, the Space Race began, leading to the first human launched into space, Project Apollo and the first humans to land on the Moon in 1969.[1]

US responseEdit

The Sputnik spurred a series of U.S. initiatives:[3]

  • Within two days, calculation of the Sputnik orbit (joint work by UIUC Astronomy Dept. and Digital Computer Lab).
  • Increased emphasis on the Navy's existing Project Vanguard to launch an American satellite into orbit, and a revival of the Army's Explorer program that preceded Vanguard in launching the first American satellite into orbit on January 31, 1958.[4]
  • By February 1958, the political and defense communities had recognized the need for a high-level Department of Defense organization to execute R&D projects and created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA.
  • On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the creation of NASA.[3]
  • Education programs were initiated to foster a new generation strong in science and technology.[5]
  • Dramatically Increased support for scientific research. For 1959, Congress increased the National Science Foundation (NSF) appropriation to $134 million, almost $100 million higher than the year before. By 1968, the NSF budget would stand at nearly $500 million.
  • The Polaris missile program[citation needed]
  • The decision by President John F. Kennedy, who campaigned in 1960 on closing the "missile gap",[6] to deploy 1,000 Minuteman missiles, far more ICBMs than the Soviets had at the time.[7]

In Britain the Sputnik crisis was much less visible and reaction to the launch suggested an appreciation of the novelty of the space age, but became part of the Cold War narrative when the Soviets launched a dog into space in November 1957.[8]


  1. 1.0 1.1 DeNooyer (2007).
  2. Layman & Tompkins (1994), p. 190.
  3. 3.0 3.1 History Channel (2012a).
  4. Schefter (1999), pp. 25–26.
  6. Dickson (2003), pp. 5–6, 160—162.
  7. Dickson (2003), pp. 213–214.
  8. Barnett, Nicholas (2013). "Russia Wins Space Race: The British Press and the Sputnik Moment, 1957". pp. 182–195. 


  • Bruccoli, Matthew J.; Bondi, Victor; Baughman, Judith (1994). Layman, Richard; Tompkins, Vincent. eds. American Decades: 1950—1959. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research. ISBN 0-810-35727-5. 
  • Burrows, William E. (1999). This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age. New York: The Modern Library. ISBN 978-0-375-75485-2. 
  • Brzezinski, Matthew (2007). Red Moon Rising : Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age. New York: Times Books. ISBN 9780805081473. 
  • Cadbury, Deborah (2006). Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and The Soviet Union for Dominion of Space. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-084553-7. 
  • Chaikin, Andrew (1994). A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. New York: Viking. ISBN 0-670-81446-6. 
  • Crompton, Samuel (2007). Sputnik/Explorer 1 : The Race to Conquer Space. New York: Chelsea House. ISBN 9780791093573. 
  • Dickson, Paul (2003). Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group. ISBN 0-425-18843-4. 
  • Hardesty, Von; Eisman, Gene (2007). Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race. Forward by Sergei Krushchev. Washington, D.C: National Geographic. ISBN 9781426201196. 
  • Neufeld, Michael J. (2007). Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-307-26292-9. 
  • Ordway III, Frederick I.; Sharpe, Mitchell (2007). The Rocket Team. Burlington, Ontario: Apogee Books. ISBN 978-1-894959-82-7. 
  • Roman, Peter (1995). Eisenhower and the Missile Gap. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801427975. 
  • Schefter, James (1999). The Race: The Uncensored Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-49253-7. 
  • Siddiqi, Asif A. (2003). Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge. Gainsville: University of Florida Press. ISBN 0-8130-2627-X. 
  • Spitzmiller, Ted (2006). Astronautics: A Historical Perspective of Mankind's Efforts to Conquer the Cosmos. Book 1 — Dawn of the Space Age. Burlington, Ontario: Apogee Books. ISBN 978-1-894959-63-6. 
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