Sputnik’s 50th

America woke up on October 4, 1957.

Sputnik, model hanging in Smithsonian Air & Space Museum

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) launched the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit. After successfully putting the shiny ball into orbit, the Soviets trumpeted the news that Sputnik traced the skies over the entire planet, to the shock of most people in the U.S. (Photo of the model in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.)

New Scientist magazine’s website provides significant details about how awake America became, including very good coverage of the Moon landings that were nearly a direct result of Sputnik’s launch — without Sputnik, the U.S. probably wouldn’t have jump started its own space program so, with the creation of NASA and the drive for manned space flight, and without the space race President John F. Kennedy probably wouldn’t have made his dramatic 1961 proposal to put humans on the Moon inside a decade.

Sputnik really did change the world.

Much of the progress to the 1969 Moon landing could not have occurred without the reform of education and science prompted by the Soviets’ triumph. With apathetic parents and the No Child Left Behind Act vexing U.S. education and educators from both sides, more than nostalgia makes one misty-eyed for the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), a direct product of Sputnik-inspired national ambition. Coupled with the GI Bill for veterans of World War II and Korea, NDEA drove U.S. education to be the envy of the world, best in overall achievement (and also drove creationists to try to block such improvements).

(Today NDEA gets little more than a footnote in real historyWikipedia’s entry is short and frustrating, the U.S. Department of Education gives little more. Educators, you have got to tell your history.)

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) lists 1957 as among the dozen dates students need to know in U.S. history, for Sputnik. It is the only date Texas officials list for U.S. history that is really an accomplishment by another nation. (The first time I encountered this requirement was in a meeting of social studies teachers gearing up for classes starting the following week. The standards mention the years, but not the events; I asked what the event was in 1957 that we were supposed to teach, noting that if it was the Little Rock school integration attempt, there were probably other more memorable events in civil rights. No one mentioned Sputnik. It was more than two weeks before I got confirmation through our district that Sputnik was the historic event intended. Ouch, ouch, ouch!)

Sputnik was big enough news to drive Elvis Presley off the radio, at least briefly, in southern Idaho. My older brothers headed out after dinner to catch a glimpse of the satellite crossing the sky. In those darker times — literally — rural skies offered a couple of meteoroids before anyone spotted Sputnik. But there it was, slowly painting a path across our skies, over the potato fields, over the Snake River, over America.

Sputnik’s launch changed our lives, mostly for the better.


Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy provides a series of links teachers can rely on for good information, especially if you’re composing a lesson plan quickly.

New Scientist’s broad range of coverage of the space race, up to the current drive to go to Mars, is well worth bookmarking.


Google’s anniversary logo, in use today only, gets you to a good compilation of sources.

Fifty nano-satellites launched in honor of the 50th anniversary of Sputnik.

NASA’s history of the event. You can listen to a .wav recording of the telemetry signal from the satellite there, too.

How will you mark the anniversary?

[More links below the fold.]

More resources:

14 Responses to Sputnik’s 50th

  1. […] Sputnik’s 52nd anniversary Posted on October 5, 2009 by Ed Darrell Encore post from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, 2007: […]


  2. […] Sputnik at 52 Encore post from 2007: […]


  3. Tina K. says:

    Great collection of Sputnik links. I was searching for a lesson plan & this helps a lot.
    FYI, Manitowoc, WI will be hosting the first annual Sputnikfest in September 2008. A chunk of debris from Sputnik 4 landed right in the middle of downtown Manitowoc…


  4. mpb says:


    This 1958 Japanese tin toy features Laika, Sputnik 2’s brave cosmo-dog. Poor Laika. Link (Thanks, Erin!)
    See also: Laika – graphic novel tells the sweet and sad story of the first space-dog

    [OK, mutts have been valuable contributors to science and their companion scientists.]


  5. mpb says:

    via http://www.boingboing.net/2008/04/11/laica-the-space-dog.html [misspelled]

    Laika the space dog gets a statue
    Everybody’s favorite space dog Laika now has a statue near Moscow’s Military Medicine Institute!



  6. […] we keep up with the Russians Indians, Chinese, Europeans, Japanese, Saudis? Sputnik’s launch by the Soviet Union just over 50 years ago prompted a review of American science, foreign policy, […]


  7. Pam says:

    For those unaware of the Why Files, the newsletter from the Univ of Wisconsin should be on every person’s subscriptions.

    The little satellite that changed everything. Posted September 11, 1997


  8. Pam says:

    Well, the Cold War isn’t over yet, evidently–


    The Mountain View, Calif., company bathes its logo in stars and stripes every Independence Day, but last week’s decision to honor the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch — the second “g” in Google was replaced with a drawing of the Soviet satellite — is being blasted by some conservatives.

    “It’s a kick to your belly,” said conservative blogger Giovanni Gallucci, 39, a social media consultant from Dallas. “I understand these guys are scientists and engineers and they have their quirks and want to make sure people are recognized who might not normally be recognized . . . but why not celebrate the struggles that we’ve come through as a people?” […]


  9. Part of the USSR’s motivation for the developing of powerful booster rockets was the constant violation of Soviet airspace by the US military. They complained to the UN with no results. We seem to regularly take advantage of such inequalities with unintended consequences being the result. That same mentality is in play today.


  10. Hi,

    In one way we owe so much to Sputnik (the Spatial race) that brought us:
    – satellite TV
    – mobile phones
    – GPS
    – weather forecasts
    & much more.

    Who tought this launch will have so such applications in the future?



  11. Great post. I noted the 50th anniversary of the launch as well back at the ranch, but in more modest form. There’s been really comprehensive media coverage of the event today, capped by Google’s commemorative logo. Good to see. It’s interesting that most pieces take the angle that the appearance of Sputnik in the sky sparked the space race. This is, of course, true. But it was as much of a testament to the dramatic transformations in the Russian economy under the Soviet system. The long commitment of Russian science to space travel and exploration is a central aspect of 20th century world history.


  12. Josh says:

    Another interesting resource is IEEE Spectrum’s coverage which includes a couple Q&A’s (one features Sir Arthur C. Clarke). The link is


  13. Pam says:

    There was an AP set of interviews with the remaining scientists from that time that indicate just how unlikely Sputnik was; not even the Soviets were interested, it was all focussed on ballistic missiles.

    Thank goodness for Sputnik which broadened the pre-college science and math (BSCS biology, SMSG math, set theory for 6th graders). Then, by late 70s, we were back to science as a business and the short-term bottom-line. The legacy of “Star Wars” is still unfortunately with us.

    Sputnik 2 was a memorable flight for a little kid because of Laika
    it made a wonderful film theme,


  14. Davin says:

    Sputnik started the race to space in which United Sates won. However, let’s not forget that sputnik was the first artificial satellite to be put in space.

    Watch Sputnik’s historical launch video


Please play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes. While your e-mail will not show with comments, note that it is our policy not to allow false e-mail addresses. Comments with non-working e-mail addresses may be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: