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Diplomacy and Conflict • The Arms Race

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first man-made satellite into earth's orbit. Weighing 183 pounds—it was about the size of a basketball—and making an elliptical orbit of the planet every 98 minutes, it is hard for the present-day reader to grasp this simple object's profound impact. The potential scientific significance of the event was overshadowed by its political and military ramifications. Rockets might carry satellites into orbit but, more important for Cold War strategy, they could also carry intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The Cold War and the Space Race

By the time Sputnik 1 started to send its repetitive "bleep, bleep" out, the Cold War had been going on for more than a decade. The war was an ideological conflict, fought indirectly through proxy states, diplomacy, economic assistance programs, and alliances. The main antagonists were the capitalist West, led by the United States, and the communist East, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Both sides played against each other for any form of advantage, be it tangible or not. The final card to be played in this new form of war was the nuclear weapon, which had the potential for unlimited destruction. As a result, both sides tried to find the most direct and reliable delivery system for their nuclear arsenal. The system was missile- or rocket-based, and if the USSR had the ability to launch a satellite into orbit with it, it was safe to assume they could hit any planetary target with a nuclear-tipped rocket. Strategic realities changed that day.

One of the main reasons that Sputnik made such an impact was that it had been launched by the Soviets, not the United States. Everyone had assumed that the apparently technologically superior West would be first in the "space race," as it had been with nearly everything else. Unfortunately for the United States, the Soviets had been working at length on the problem. In 1903, the genius Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had shown mathematically that a device launched at a specific velocity could orbit the earth. Roughly 45 years later, Soviet scientist Mikhail Tikhonravov made a case for such a device before a meeting of the Academy of Artillery Sciences. The head of the academy, against the advice of his colleagues, gave Tikhonravov the go ahead to study the possibility for launching a satellite. Joining Tikhonravov would be unofficial future father of the Soviet space program, the single-minded and brilliant Sergei Korolev.

The evolution of a state-sponsored Soviet space program was secondary to the needs of the military. All work on rockets was geared to the construction of weapons delivery, their use for anything else being a weak second. Unlike the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which operated in public after it was founded in 1958, all Soviet launches, work, and personnel were a state secret. New ideas like launching a satellite had to be pushed through a vast bureaucracy, as evidenced by Korolev's first proposal for a satellite-capable rocket starting in 1953. That rocket, the R-7, was the best of the Soviet rockets and had been designed and built to carry nuclear missiles. It was not until early 1956 that Korolev was able to assemble a team of scientists, many of whom had been at the ominous-sounding "Special Design Bureau #385" in the Ural Mountains, that work began in earnest. The struggle to make Sputnik a reality for the Soviets was both political and scientific.

While the ability to lift a satellite into orbit had real military potential, it also had other possibilities as well. Most important was the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union were participating in the International Geophysical Year (IGY, 1957–1958), a much-heralded effort to create a noncompetitive world scientific community. Both sides had talked of launching a satellite in that time frame. Everyone was certain that the United States would be first. The Soviets had actually planned three Sputniks, the first to transmit, the second to carry a dog, and the third a far larger and more sophisticated satellite. But even this depended on a successful launch of their R-7 rocket, which had failed on its first five tries. Finally, in August 1957, the sixth R-7 took a mock warhead nearly 6,000 kilometers. With the rocket a success, Korolev now made the pitch that he could beat the Americans into orbit. Approved, Korolev drove his scientists and workers to have the actual satellite ready in a month, a major achievement in itself. Despite the rush, and the fact that everything had been done in secret, the launch on October 4 was a clear success. The second and third Sputniks were also modestly successful in their own rights. The second showed the possibility of launching and sustaining a living creature, albeit a dog. The third was useful because of its weight, although it failed in its scientific mission.

Impact on United States and Soviet Union

The impact of Sputnik on the United States was twofold. The first great impact was to ignite a generation of young Americans with a keen interest in the potential of space exploration. There are multiple stories of young people across the United States plastered to their radios to hear the Sputnik signal as it passed overhead or craning their necks at the night sky to see if they could catch a glimpse of the satellite. The second impact was strategic and political. The strategic reality was that America was now truly vulnerable to Soviet nuclear attack, and this would only get worse. The political fallout often is seen in the labeling of Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration as "do-nothing" (the president was playing golf that day) and the defeat of Richard Nixon by the more dynamic and energetic John F. Kennedy (who then promised that America would put the first man on the moon).

The impact on the Soviet Union, a totalitarian state, is far less clear. The first day the national paper Pravda made very little of the story. When, however, the propaganda effect of the event was realized, the next day's headline read, "World's First Artificial Satellite of Earth Created in Soviet Nation." For the USSR, the real value was seeing the launch of Sputnik as a scientific and industrial defeat for its archrival in the Cold War, the United States. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev milked the Sputnik success, playing the event into a vast arsenal of military and space rockets at the ready. The success of the R-7 rocket gave the Soviets real ICBMs, but their targeting and reliability remained poor. The United States still retained a sizable advantage in numbers and delivery systems for their nuclear weapons.

Lee W. Eysturlid
786047 - EysturlidBio Dr. Lee W. Eysturlid is a history/social science instructor at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Dr. Eysturlid has a PhD in history from Purdue University and is a member of the Citadel Historical Association. He has published on numerous military history topics and is an ABC-CLIO History Fellow.

MLA Citation

Eysturlid, Lee W. "Cold War and the Space Race." American History, ABC-CLIO, 2020, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1224485. Accessed 18 Feb. 2020.

Entry ID: 2174297

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