Three test launches in September failed miserably, but by October, the crew believed they were ready to test (Green and Lomask, 41).
However, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the United States and the world by successfully launching Sputnik 1, into orbit around the Earth, becoming the first nation to launch an artificial satellite into orbit, and pushing them to the front of the now active Space Race (Green and Lomask, 22). Sputnik I circled the Earth once every 96 minutes, was 22 inches in diameter, and was made of aluminum alloys.
The reaction in the United States was tumultuous, at best.
Citizens of the United States, once certain American's were superior in all things technological and scientific, now began to doubt the superiority of their educational system, as the Russian technologies advanced beyond American capability (Hayes, 13F). The night of the launch, however, only amateur astronomers seemed genuinely interested in the Russian achievement. As the implications of such advanced technology spread, however, so did panic and alarm, even though the government had known for some time the Russian military had capabilities of launching such a satellite (Eisenhower, 206). Citizens, however, surprised at the achievement and entrenched in the Cold War, feared the implications of such technology (Witkin, 4).
While the American public was in fear of the Russian accomplishment, those scientists involved in the failed Vanguard project were anxious to track the Russian satellite. Within hours of the launch, most of the orbit computation experts working on Vanguard had assembled to convert the Sputnik frequency to calculate and predict the course of the satellite. However, as the tracking system came online, Sputnik ceased transmission (Smitherman, 362).
Citizens of the Soviet Union, however, were greatly interested and excited about the Sputnik project. Realizing the world-wide recognition of their achievement, the citizens rallied behind the space effort, seeing the launch as an important sign of scientific and engineering capability. Considering the country was recovering from massive devastation after World War II, the Soviet's considered the launch a major milestone in their history (Witkin, 18B).
The Soviet Union again surprised the world on November 11, 1957, when they launched Sputnik 2. Not only was Sputnik 2 more advanced than its predecessor, the spacecraft also carried the first biological creature to be monitored in space. Standing 4 meters high, with a diameter of 2 meters, Sputnik 2 contained several compartments for radio transmitters, scientific instruments, and a temperature control system. Another compartment carried the experimental dog Laika. Laika was a female Samoyed terrier, and was held in a pressurized, temperature controlled area with enough room to lie down or stand. The compartment also held an air regeneration unit, and food and water. Laika was fitted with a harness, a bag to collect waste, and electrodes to monitor health conditions, which were then sent to Earth every fifteen minutes of each orbit. Although Laika was expected to die, since there was no way to return the craft to Earth safely, the dog perished only two days into the mission. Core separation did not occur on the craft during orbit, damaging the temperature control system and tearing the thermal insulation in the craft. Laika died from heat exposure. However, the data transmitted was the first of a living mammal in space. The craft reentered Earth's atmosphere in April of 1958 (NASA, 1957-002A).
The successful launch of yet another Soviet satellite provided the incentive needed by the U.S. Vanguard group. On December 6, 1957, Vanguard TV-3, a rocket carrying a small aluminum satellite was launched, but exploded within seconds. Shortly thereafter, however, on January 31, 1958, a Redstone missile was used to launch the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, into space. The satellite carried with it instruments to study micrometeorites and cosmic rays. The satellite successfully showed radiation trapped in the Earth's magnetosphere, leading to the term the Van Allen Radiation Belt, named after the scientist studying the cosmic rays (NASA, 1958-001A).
While the Explorer launch was a success, the United States was still clearly losing the Space Race, as shown by several failed attempts shortly after Explorer. In an effort to improve the space program, President Eisenhower called for a civilian National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA, #10). Shortly thereafter, the NASA bill (S-3609) was introduced into the Senate and the House, with objectives listed of space exploration and manned space flights (NASA, #10).
While the concepts were certainly timely, their introduction was not. On May 15, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik III, a 2926 pound conical satellite capable of carrying a human being with food and equipment.(" Four Objects Reported in Sputnik Orbit," 28). According to scientists and the space community, the success of the launch showed clearly that the Soviets were well-organized, and consistently improving their space program, whereas the United States' continued failures showed the U.S. program was striving only for "international propaganda" ("Four Objects Reported in Sputnik Orbit," 29). Additionally, they noted, the Soviet Union was clearly not hindered by a lack of governmental support for a national space program.
With the new fuel for pushing a national space program, the House passed the NASA bill on June 2, while the Senate bill pushed through soon after on June 16th. Following a brief disagreement over the structure of administration of the group, it was decided NASA would be governed by a seven member policy board, with the President as chair (Wilson, 4). NASA was signed into law on July 29, 1958.
In December of the same year, the United States pulled to the forefront of the Space Race after several Vanguard failures by launching the first communications satellite. Known as Project SCORE, termed for the Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay Equipment company, the satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral using an Atlas B. missile. The orbit pattern of the satellite was low, and the life expectancy was short. To account for the difficulty this presented with real time communications, a 'store and forward' communication mode was added, allowing the satellite to communicate worldwide. President Eisenhower recorded a Christmas message to broadcast from the satellite. On December 19th, as the satellite passed over California, the message was broadcast. While of limited usefulness, the SCORE project showed clearly the future of a satellite radio system and intercontinental communications (U.S. Army Space Institute, 2-1).
While the government was clearly concerned about overtaking the Soviet Union in the space race, the United States was also concerned about meeting the needs of students in terms of educational goals in terms of science and mathematics. In 1958, the National Defense Education Act was passed, which provided funding to educational institutions at all levels. For higher education, NDEA provides capital funds for low interest loans to students, while for elementary and secondary educational institutions, NDEA provides direct federal aid (Department of Defense). Control of the NDEA funding is held by the federal government, and allows the curriculum, instruction, and administration of the program to be determined.
With new vigor, the United States began attempts to launch unmanned space probes before the Soviet Union, in a project called "Pioneer." These missions were designed to launch spacecraft that would escape the Earth's velocity to study the moon and other planets. From August 1958 to December of 1958, the United States launched three probes, Pioneer 0-3, all of which failed on launch (Powell, 221). The Soviet Union, determined to continue their advancements into space, also began a probe program, and on January 2, 1959, the Luna 1 probe launched and reached the escape velocity of the Earth, becoming the first spacecraft to do so (NASA, 1959-012A). The Soviet Union was again ahead in the Space Race.
Luna 1 traveled within 5995 km of the Moon on January 4th, and went into orbit around the sun. The craft was designed, in part, to study the behavior of gas in space, and as such, released a cloud of sodium gas on January 3rd. The glowing orange trail was viable from Earth, and allowed astronomers to track the spacecraft. Additionally, the release of gas made Luna 1 the first artificial comet. The craft contained radio equipment, tracking transmitters, a telemetry system, and other scientific devices that allowed the probe to study the Earth's radiation belt, as well as to discover the moon had no magnetic field, and the discovery of solar wind, the flow of ionized plasma coming from the sun and traveling through space (NASA, 1959-012A).
Two months later, on March 3, 1959, the U.S.'s Pioneer 4 achieved a lunar flyby. Designed to record radiation data from the moon, the probe was equipped with a photoelectric sensor with two photocells designed to be triggered by the light of the moon. This feature, however, did not function properly, so the only data retrieved was that of radiation levels near the moon NASA (1959-013A). The United States was again caught up in the Space Race.