Commentary Magazine

The Dawn of the Space Age

AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev

The world changed profoundly sixty years ago today. On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I into a low earth orbit, and the space age began.

It was a huge propaganda coup for the USSR. Indeed it was nothing but a propaganda coup as Sputnik did no science at all. Its radio merely beeped about once a second, a signal specifically designed to be picked up by any ham radio operator. Still millions went out at night to watch it pass overhead during its brief life. Its radio ran out of battery power after three weeks, and it burned up on January 4th, 1958.

At that point, the United States had not yet succeeded in launching a satellite of its own. The US had tried to develop a rocket for purely scientific purposes named Vanguard. But Vanguard kept blowing up on the launch pad or soon afterward, and President Eisenhower ordered that a satellite, Explorer I, be launched by any means available. Finally, on January 31st, 1958, a Juno I military rocket that had been developed by the Army Ballistic Missile Program successfully launched it. Explorer I did real science, including discovering the Van Allen belts.

The launch of Sputnik produced the “Sputnik crisis,” in which the U.S. feared that it was falling behind the Soviet Union in science education and missile technology. This led to greatly increased investment in science and technology education through the National Defense Education Act, the creation of NASA, DARPA, the “missile gap” issue in the 1960 presidential election, and the race to put a man on the moon.

Today, with all the planets explored at least once by space probes and rovers tootling about on the surface of Mars; with Voyager I, launched in 1977, now beyond the heliopause, where the solar wind dissipates and where true interstellar space begins; with myriad space-based technologies such as weather satellites and GPS taken for granted, the dawn of the space age seems very distant in time. But, along with the microprocessor, it created the world in which we now live.

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