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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

A photograph of testing of a communications satellite at the NASA Langley Research Centre, 1960.

Testing of a communications satellite at the NASA Langley Research Centre, 1960.

Image courtesy of the Truman Presidential Museum and Library (photo reference: 97–722).

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The Cold War and the early space race

Matthew Godwin, Department of Science & Technology Studies, University College London

Churchill called it 'the balance of terror' – the central characteristic of the Cold War, which became more widely known as Mutually Assured Destruction. This concept reflected the fact that the two superpowers could not engage each other militarily without the inevitable escalation to a nuclear exchange which would have led to the annihilation of both sides. As a consequence the Cold War had to be played out in other ways. An obvious example of this is the sponsorship of different sides in regional conflicts, notably in the third world, i.e. in the periphery, a position that put third world countries in an important strategic position. (1) However, in this article I intend to look at another form of periphery, namely space, and in particular at recent new studies of the early space race. The space race during the Cold War provided another means through which the superpowers could compete without direct military conflict. In this sense space constituted another form of periphery, with scientists and technocrats assuming the position of importance.

The main events in the early space race are seemingly well established. The Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit in October 1957. (2) This was quickly followed by Sputnik II (famously containing a canine passenger), and was then dramatically surpassed by the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. The USA, in contrast, failed to respond effectively, and it took several attempts and several months before launching its own satellite, Explorer I, in January 1958. (3) Much has been made of the Sputnik 'shock' in the USA, and rightly so. But as Bulkeley has so effectively illustrated, this has led to an oversight in the historiography which has omitted the much earlier American interest in space and satellites. As a result most people have heard of Sputnik, but few are familiar with the pre-history to Sputnik and commonly assume that the Americans were simply caught unprepared and as a result were outwitted by the Soviets. (4)

However, several recent studies have now considerably expanded our understanding of the early space race centring on early US space policy and the importance of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). (5) The IGY was a co-operative international science programme in which 67 countries (including NATO and Warsaw pact countries) came together to study different aspects of the earth's structure. This comprised a whole range of activities including the study of the oceans, of Antarctica, geology, as well as space. (6) The fact that people recall Sputnik, which was launched as the Russian contribution to the IGY, and not the IGY itself, indicate how the broader science programme of the IGY was in large part overtaken by the Soviet satellite and by the birth of the space race.

The IGY of 1957–8 followed on from earlier International Polar Years which had taken place in 1882–3 and 1932–3 to study the polar regions. Because 1957–8 was highlighted by scientists as a period of intense solar activity, it was considered a good time to consider having another Polar Year but on a wider scale, hence the Geophysical Year, which was to look at a variety of aspects of the earth and not just the polar regions. (7) Scientists began planning the IGY in the early 1950s, and there was to be a particular emphasis on the emerging field of space research. (8)

However, we now know, thanks to recent scholarship, that in the United States policymakers were alive to the wider importance and possibilities that the IGY could offer from an early stage. To start with, the establishment of the IGY itself was largely down to American scientists. In 1950 a meeting of US atmosphere physicists, including noted figures like James Van Allen, decided to establish the IGY, significantly at a time when the programme of atmospheric research they were then working on was beginning to run low on state funding. The idea was taken up, and soon planning on an international scale took place in order to prepare for the IGY. (9)

American scientists involved in the IGY were interested in the prospects that satellites could offer in scientific terms. The US government soon became involved as a number of these scientists had government links, and it is clear that officials then began to consider what satellites could offer in the IGY context. (10) The US government therefore announced in 1954 that it would launch a satellite during the IGY – before the Soviets had even signed up as IGY participants. (11)

This early announcement of an intention to launch a satellite reflects the recognition by technocrats in the American administration that satellites could form an important new technology, with considerable espionage as well as propaganda potential. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contributed significantly to the US IGY programme, primarily for 'psychological warfare value'. (12) This reflected the CIA's interest in the US being the first country to launch a satellite. Indeed, the CIA advised that 'the nation that first accomplishes this feat will gain incalculable prestige and recognition throughout the world'. (13) Launching during the IGY provided the ideal stage for maximum propaganda benefit, but equally, given the co-operative scientific character of the IGY, also gave the impression of not overtly seeking propaganda advantage. (14)

There is even the further suggestion, or rather a conspiracy theory, that in addition to the American motives outlined above, the US authorities had actually colluded with scientists from the beginning in order to conceive the original IGY idea as an excuse to launch an American satellite and thereby gain 'international acceptance for American satellites'. (15)

Given all this early US planning and obvious interest in what a satellite launch could achieve, the question arises of how the Soviets beat the US into space. The Soviet success with Sputnik brought to the Soviet Union the very propaganda benefits the US had sought for itself. What, then, went wrong? This is a difficult question to answer. One suggestion is that the Americans may simply have thought their technology was superior and incapable of being beaten by the Soviets. However, in large part it would seem that the Americans were beaten because they were so preoccupied with the presentation of their satellite launch. The prestige and propaganda aspect was considered so important that they were delayed – in particular because they wanted a satellite that contained a scientific experiment in order to prove its ostensible scientific purpose. (16) This is a rather different picture to the long-standing historiography which has often considered the US to have been caught unaware of the important technological and propaganda potential of being the first nation to successfully orbit a satellite. Furthermore, recent studies have also indicated other important strands of American space and science policy formulated in the 1950s. Such work has demonstrated the importance of America in sponsoring the space ambitions of several Western countries and indeed Europe as a whole, as successive US administrations sought to ensure that only 'free world' countries gained access to space. (17) All this has its roots in the early American space policy of the 1950s.

  1. For details of third world aid and the Cold War see, for example, G. Cumming, Aid to Africa: French and British Policies from the Cold War to the New Millennium (Aldershot, 2001), pp. 39–45. Back to (1)
  2. For details of what Britain was doing in space at this time see Skylark Sounding Rockets, 1957–1972, ed. M. Godwin and M. D. Kandiah (Centre for Contemporary British History, Witness Seminar, 2005). Back to (2)
  3. W. E. Burrows, This New Ocean (New York, 1999), pp. 208–9. Back to (3)
  4. See R. Bulkeley, The Sputniks Crisis and Early United States Space Policy (Bloomington, Ind., 1991); also K. Osgood, 'Before Sputnik: national security and the formation of US outer space policy', in Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite, ed. R. D. Launius and others (Amsterdam, 2000), pp. 197–231. Back to (4)
  5. See, for example, Bulkeley, Sputniks Crisis; and Bulkeley, 'The Sputniks and the IGY', Osgood 'Before Sputnik', and Dwayne Day, 'Cover stories and hidden agendas' all in Launius, Reconsidering Sputnik. Back to (5)
  6. Bulkeley, 'The Sputniks and the IGY', p. 125. Back to (6)
  7. H. Massey and M. Robins, History of British Space Science (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 34–5; the next Polar Year is planned for 2007. Back to (7)
  8. For a contemporary account of the IGY see J. Wordie, Guide to I.G.Y.: International Geophysical Year 1957–8 (1957). Back to (8)
  9. Bulkeley, Sputniks Crisis, pp. 89–97. Back to (9)
  10. Bulkeley, Sputniks Crisis, pp. 95–6. Back to (10)
  11. Bulkeley 'The Sputniks and the IGY', pp. 126–7. Back to (11)
  12. Osgood, 'Before Sputnik', p. 205. Back to (12)
  13. Osgood, 'Before Sputnik', p. 205. Back to (13)
  14. Osgood, 'Before Sputnik', p. 209. Back to (14)
  15. Bulkeley, Sputniks Crisis, p. 98. Back to (15)
  16. Osgood, 'Before Sputnik', pp. 211–12. Back to (16)
  17. For details of European space activities, see J. Krige and A. Russo, A History of the European Space Agency, 1958–1987 (2 vols., Noordwijk, 2000), in particular the sections on the American post-Apollo programme. John Krige is also currently looking at what he has referred to as 'American hegemony' in relation to science and technology, and the desire of the US to sponsor science and technology in Europe for political and strategic reasons. Back to (17)

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