Living in an Atomic Age
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The Space Race

Sputnik 1 was a metal sphere the size of large beach ball with four antennas that broadcast a simple pattern of signals.
Push the play button to hear the signal that changed the world.

In October, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite — named Sputnik — to be hurled into orbit around the Earth. Sputnik was actually no larger than a beach ball and sent meaningless signals back to earth, but it had a profound effect on the thinking of citizens and governments around the globe. It was a shiny steel sphere about 23 inches across with four antennas trailing behind it. Russian engineers wanted to make sure that people around the globe could both see and hear it. Sputnik was polished so it would reflect light that could be seen with the naked eye even from 175 miles up in the sky. And it broadcast a "beep-beep" pattern of signals that could be picked up by amateur radio operators around the world. You can hear that pattern by clicking the play button at right.

The reaction in the U.S. and around the world was astonishment and some measure of fear. All of a sudden, there was an "enemy satellite" streaking across the sky over the U.S. At the time, no one knew what it was capable of doing. What U.S. political leaders did know was that if the Soviet Union had rockets powerful enough to launch a satellite, they had rockets powerful enough to launch atomic bombs on the U.S.

Man in one of the space suits designed for the Mercury-Atlas 6 flight. [The man in front of the space suit is probably Alan B. Shepard, the first U.S. man to travel into space. Shepard walked on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission.] Source, NASA and NARA, RG NRFF-255-70-37(4)-SS1.
The "space race" between the Soviet Union and the United States was on. But our first attempts at catching up ended in spectacular explosions. You can see how newspapers reported both the Sputnik launch and a U.S. "Flopnik" launch when an early U.S. rocket blew up. NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was created in 1958 to bring competing military space programs into one effort. Soon, they developed the rockets, built the space capsules and satellites and hired astronauts to become space men.

The long term effects of the space race on Nebraska and other regions of the country came in the way the space race changed the educational system and the imaginations of our people. Shortly after Sputnik, lawmakers and the public began calling for a greater emphasis on math and science in the nation's schools. Governments put in more money, and the educational system responded. Students began to get more math and science courses.

In addition, we began to realize that there was a new frontier to be explored. Putting a man on the moon became an official governmental priority. On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to walk on another planetary body. (There is a NASA Web site about the moon missions here.)

Space flight became a real possibility and kids around the country and the globe could begin taking their own fantasy flights.

We have a number or documents relating to the space race:

  Red Menace