MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Sputnik, MIT’s James R. Killian, and the
 US Response to Soviet Space Science, 1957

Sputnik 1 mockup - NASA image

In 1957 the United States was slowly but surely developing capabilities for launching a satellite into orbit in the spring of 1958 as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The US government knew much more about Soviet progress in space technology than the man in the street, but government officials as well as the general public were shocked on 4 October 1957 when news flashed that the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth had been successfully launched by the USSR. The satellite weighed 184 pounds, was twice the size of a basketball, and completed each elliptical orbit in 96 minutes. Americans could view Sputnik (Russian for “traveling companion of the Earth”) in the night sky and could hear its beeping on short wave radios, signals that were recorded and broadcast to a wider audience on radio and TV.

“The real significance of the news for me,” wrote MIT’s James R. Killian (SB, 1926; President, 1948-1959), “lay in two key words: ‘Russian’ and ‘184-pound.’ [W]hat I felt most keenly was the affront to my national pride.” Nearly everyone in the western world had assumed that US technology was so far advanced that it had no serious rival. National security, as well as international prestige, was apparently at stake. The satellite itself did not pose a tangible threat. But Sputnik’s surprisingly hefty weight meant that the rocket used to launch it had sufficient thrust to propel a nuclear bomb into the upper atmosphere, putting possible American targets at risk.

Science Advisory Committee, 1960
James R. Killian, center

President Dwight D. Eisenhower strove to calm public fears by enlisting scientists to advise the White House directly on space and defense programs and to recommend ways for bolstering American science and technology. In November 1957 he announced that Killian would become the first Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. Killian’s new responsibilities in Washington included organizing and chairing the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), with direct access to the highest levels of government. The 11 December 1957 message reproduced here, regarding the newly created Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) reflects the urgency felt by scientists and officials involved in organizing against the perceived Soviet threat. The nervous excitement engendered by Sputnik resulted in a major push to improve science education in the US.

MIT has remained involved in space technology, including, for example, the development of an interplanetary laser communication link between Mars-based robotic spacecraft and controllers stationed on Earth. James R. Killian’s Papers (MC 423) are available for research in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, as well as his memoir, Sputnik, Scientists, and Eisenhower: A Memoir of the First Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977). Other space-related collections include the Robert C. Seamans, Jr. Papers (MC 247) and the Records of the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AC 43).

Object of the Month: October 2007

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