KATIE ALLISON, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS POLICY BOARD
On this day in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit, inciting panic into the American public and demanding a response from President Eisenhower. Ignoring what has been learned in the past fifty nine years, there were a variety of policy options available to President Eisenhower at the time of the launch. This post will evaluate the policy options available to the United States government and their effectiveness—as though it were still 1957. Following the policy recommendation is a brief analysis of how this significant event, 59 years ago, still impacts both foreign and space policy today.
Response Options to the Launch of Sputnik I
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union became the first nation to successfully launch an object into orbit with their satellite, Sputnik.[i] The United States now faces the issue of determining an appropriate response.
There will be psychological implications to this launch, especially in the United States and those countries currently fighting against Communism.[ii] Plans existed in both countries to put a satellite into orbit as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The United States is now second in this race which will, undoubtedly, damage the nation’s pride and incite some amount of fear in its citizens. The public response will unquestionably ask for an increase in funding for space programs to close any perceived gap in technology. Contrary to public perceptions of a technological gap, the Army’s Redstone program, in September of 1956, successfully launched a Jupiter-C missile to an altitude of 682 miles, and achieved sufficient speed to launch a satellite into orbit, had one been on board.[iii] Therefore, there is only a perceptual gap in technology . The current source of fear is in Soviet military applications of this new missile technology. The USSR has shown no signs of developing a viable reentry vehicle or shield for any warhead, so these fears are, for the moment, baseless.
The United States has multiple agencies tasked with Research and Development (R&D) of space launch and satellite technologies (the Air Force, Navy, Army and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) which are cooperatingcompeting with each other.
The USSR has established the precedent of the “Freedom of Space”, since their satellite went into orbit without backlash from the international community. Scientific satellite launches were agreed to as part of the IGY, therefore the United States will have no issue with the legality of future scientific satellite launches under this precedent. Intelligence gathering satellites may raise objections. Sputnik demonstrated that space is free to all countries because of the lack of objections from the international community over Sputnik’s radio signals differing from those agreed to under the IGY.[iv]
Here are the following policy options for consideration:
Option 1: The President will address the nation publicly and accelerate the planned launch date of the first US satellite by increasing funding to agencies involved in space/launcher R&D.
Option 2: The President should address the nation publicly and inform them that the United States will not be frightened by the actions of another nation, and will launch a scientific satellite by the end of the IGY. The President will create a new committee to increase information sharing between agencies involved in space R&D, so that these agencies begin cooperative efforts.
Option 3: The President will address the nation as he would in option two. He should then create a new government agency that would take over all space related R&D and instruct Congress to move all space-related funding to this agency. He will then instruct the agency to continue working on the Army’s Jupiter-C missile as a launcher.
Seeing that the President has a plan and is calm in the face of crises will have a psychologically beneficial effect on the American public. Addressing the nation is a crucial part of all these options. Options 2 and 3 are the most highly recommended, as the information sharing aspects they create have the greatest potential for increased efficiency of space technology without dramatically increasing the economic costs of these endeavors. Option 3 is preferable to Option 2, as it would concentrate space technology under one agency, making R&D economically feasible and faster in the future and utilize technology that has worked in the past.
Though the launch of Sputnik occurred 59 years ago, its implications are still visible in modern foreign and space policy.
Despite the criticism President Eisenhower received for apparent inaction in response to Sputnik, his ability to maintain a calm demeanor throughout the period of public panic that followed the launch of the satellite is an example of demeanor that future presidents facing crisis should follow. The President resisted pressure to immediately increase the budgets of those working on a launch vehicle for spaceflight (NACA (the predecessor to NASA), the Air Force, the Navy and the Army), despite public and Congressional outcry. He relied on his knowledge of the technical capabilities of the United States and counted on those working on the space programs to meet the set deadline for a United States satellite launch as part of the International Geophysical Year. In the end, everything went according to plan—the United States launched Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958, and Eisenhower set a lasting example of remaining composed under pressure.
The Soviet Union, unaware they incited panic throughout the public of the United States by its satellite launch, settled a legal argument that had been raging within the United States government for months about the freedom of space, which remains a key aspect of space policy to this day. Before the launch of Sputnik, international implications of spaceflight were and any negative repercussions of a satellite obritting above another sovereign nation was unknown. The Soviet Union set a precedent for the freedom of space that still exists today, and gives any sovereign nation the right to utilize outer space in a responsible manner. This precedent has allowed technologies that are now commonplace to be developed. Global Positioning Systems, advanced weather tracking, and satellite television, would be difficult to conceive if the freedom of space had not been established.
[i] Diamond Edwin and Stephen Bates. 1997. "SPUTNIK - Forty years ago this month the Soviet Union orbited a "man-made moon" whose derisive chirp persuaded Americans they'd already lost a race that had barely begun". American Heritage. 48 (6): 84.
[ii] Executive Secretary of the National Security Council. 1955. Note by the Executive Secretary to the National Security Council on U.S. Scientific Satellite Program.
[iii] McDougall, Walter A. 1985. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books.
[iv] Quarles, Donald. 1957. Memorandum of Conference with the President.
OUR OFFICIAL BLOG
The Roosevelt Reader is a space where RI@GW members discuss innovative policy solutions to the pressing political issues facing the District, the nation, and the world.
WRITE FOR US
Your ideas matter. And we want to help broadcast them to the world. Learn more how to become a blog contributor.