President Eisenhower and Harold Stasson








President Dwight D. Eisenhower meets with
Harold Stasson, a special assistant who was
largely responsible for drafting the "Open Skies" proposal, in the Oval Office on March 22, 1955.

NASA's Origins & the Dawn of the Space Age

 Monographs in Aerospace History # 10

Sputnik Night: October 4–5, 1957

The world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, lifted off from Soviet Central Asia at 10:26 p.m. Moscow time on Friday, October 4, 1957. At 1:22 a.m. the next morning, Radio Moscow announced that Earth had a new, Soviet-made moon. By then the 83.6-kilogram (184.3-pound) aluminum alloy sphere had twice passed unnoticed over the United States, where it was then mid-afternoon on October 4.

One of the first Americans to learn of the launch was Dr. Lloyd Berkner, the geophysicist who, in 1950, had suggested that the time was ripe for an international program of global geophysical research. Berkner's suggestion grew into the eighteen-month International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–58.1 He soon became coordinator for IGY rocket and satellite plans.

At about 6:15 p.m. U.S. Eastern time on October 4, 1957, Berkner was at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., for a reception wrapping up the week-long IGY Rockets and Satellites Conference. The news from Moscow came by telephone to Walter Sullivan, senior science correspondent for the New York Times, and made its way to Berkner, who called for quiet and announced: "I have just been informed by the New York Times that a Russian satellite is in orbit at an elevation of 900 kilometers. I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement."2

Half a world away, in Barcelona, Spain, many delegates to the 8th International Astronautical Congress had gone to their hotel rooms, after a busy day of presentations, by the time the news broke. Some, such as British author Arthur C. Clarke, first learned of Sputnik when they were awakened by reporters seeking authoritative comment on the Soviet achievement.3 The aerospace industry magazine Aviation Week reported that the Barcelona Congress became an impromptu international forum for "much animated informal discussion about what the U.S. could do to recoup some of its scientific prestige. Manned space flight or hitting the moon were the two most common suggestions, but even those were tinged with doubt that there still existed an American lead in these categories." The magazine quoted an unnamed U.S. military official at the Congress as saying, "if it weighs 18 pounds they're ahead of us—if it weighs 180 pounds, I'm scared!" An unnamed European delegate, the magazine also reported, pointed to the twenty-three U.S. and five Soviet papers at the Congress and pointedly concluded that "Americans talk about [spaceflight] and the Russians do it."4

Over the next few weeks. the Sputnik launch emerged as a watershed in the history of the cold war. The twelve-month period beginning with Sputnik's launch ended with the birth of the U.S. civilian space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The agency's creation was a product of post-Sputnik fears, but it was shaped also by cautious Eisenhower administration space policies established in the early 1950s, soon after launching a satellite first emerged as a serious possibility.