On October 4, 1957, at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit around the Earth. This surprise achievement created a crisis in the states that eventually lead to the creation of NASA and the Apollo program to put a man on the moon before the end of the sixties.
"People the world over speak of the 'Space Age' as beginning with the launching of the Russian Sputnik on 4 October 1957. Yet Americans might well set the date hack at least to July 1955 when the White House, through President Eisenhower's press secretary, announced that the United States planned to launch a man-made earth satellite as an American contribution to the International Geophysical Year." Visit this NASA Sputnik anniversary site to learn about Sputnik, International Geophysical Year (July 1957-December 1958), Vanguard, and the Explorer.
After World War II, the Space Race was one component of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, as scientists tried to demonstrate their superiority through emerging rocketry and spaceflight technologies. The Smithsonian National Air and Science Museum chronicles the importance of the Sputnik satellite (click on The Race Begins.) "During the early years of the Space Race, success was marked by headline-making "firsts": the first satellite, first robotic spacecraft to the Moon, first man in space, first woman in space, first spacewalk. To the dismay of the United States, each of these early feats was achieved by the Soviet Union. These events triggered a drive to catch up with--and surpass--the Soviets."
Based on recently declassified documents from the Soviet Union and the United States, this National Geographic television special (from 2006) adds new insight into why the two superpowers were racing into space. "The greatest race in our history, also held the greatest secrets." Best reason to visit is the Space Race Interactive timeline. Click on any year from 1937 to 1968 to view a video clip from the film, and read a short annotation.
"It's difficult to recapture the sense of paranoia and self-doubt that Sputnik created in the U.S., but The New York Times' coverage of that week helps a bit." Step back in time, and read the Time's reporting of Sputnik's 1957 launch. Because the Soviets released limited information, much of the coverage was speculation, but the political and military importance of the feat was apparent. Be sure to see the October 4, 1957 front page image.
Don Mitchell is a retired research scientist with an interest in Soviet spacecraft. In honor of Sputnik's fiftieth anniversary, Mitchell created a site about the early days of the Soviet space program. His story starts in 1931 with the formation of a research bureau to study rocketry (GRID) and continues onto the development of the R7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM.) Next came Sputnik I, which was followed shortly by Sputnik 2, " famous for carrying the space dog Laika."