This October 4th marks the 55th anniversary of the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, history’s first artificial satellite. It was a momentous occasion, to be sure. But at the time, the Soviet and U.S. responses couldn’t have been more different: While the Soviets patted themselves on the back for their technological feat, Americans descended into a state of complete hysteria.
Sputnik’s launch came during the International Geophysical Year, an internationally agreed upon series of geophysical scientific investigations coinciding with a period of maximum solar activity. Officially lasting the seventeen months between July 1957 and December 1958, both the US and Soviet Union planned to launch satellites as part of their IGY offerings. By the fall of 1957, it looked like the Soviets were pulling ahead of the U.S., aiming to launch on September 17 to commemorate the 100th birthday of Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The launch ended up delayed until early October, but the Soviets still held the lead.
October 4 was a Friday in 1957, and that evening there was a reception at the Soviet Union’s Embassy in Washington. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. A six-day conference run by the international Comité Speciale de l’Année Geophysique Internationale – CSAGI – at the National Academy of Sciences had just ended. The meeting had focused heavily on rocket and satellite research for the IGY, marked throughout with murmurs that the Soviet Union was “on the eve” of a satellite launch. Few Americans in attendance thought this was anything more than boastful and poetic rhetoric, but opinions changed a little before 6:00 in the evening.