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The Race for Space

How Sputnik spurred Americans 50 years ago to aim for the moon

By Karen Fanning | null null , null
Expanded view of Russian satellite <i>Sputnik</i>.  (Photo: courtesy NASA)
Expanded view of Russian satellite Sputnik.  (Photo: courtesy NASA)

It was not much bigger than a soccer ball and weighed less than 185 pounds. But 50 years ago, when the Russian satellite Sputnik successfully orbited the Earth, it made headlines around the world and marked the beginning of the race for space.

The October 4, 1957, launch of the world's first artificial satellite ignited an intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia). That rivalry would continue for years, as the two nations competed to send humans into space and to land on the moon.

A Russian Victory

Prior to Sputnik’s launch, the U.S. had plans to send its own satellites into space to study cosmic rays and gravity, among other things. But the Russians struck first, leaving U.S. scientists and ordinary citizens in shock.

To make matters worse, the Russians successfully launched a second satellite less than one month later. This one also was much larger, at 1,120 pounds. The Americans were more eager than ever to make their mark in space.

Americans thought their time had finally come on December 6. But what was supposed to be a day to remember quickly turned into a fiasco to forget. The U.S. satellite Vanguard rose just four feet off the ground before its engine failed and it burst into flames.

Finally, on January 31, 1958, the Americans had reason to celebrate. The U.S. satellite Explorer 1 blasted into space. During its voyage, it made one of the most significant scientific finds to date—the discovery of magnetic radiation belts around the Earth.

Sputnik Fallout

In the aftermath of Sputnik, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The act was aimed at improving education in science, mathematics, and foreign languages.

As fears mounted that the Soviet Union would surpass the U.S. in the race to conquer space, Congress also passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29, 1958. The federal legislation created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, most commonly known as NASA.

Today, the United States and Russia are no longer in competition. In fact, NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts are working together and making important scientific discoveries aboard the International Space Station.

Critical Thinking Question

Read today’s story and answer the following question.

What do you think the U.S. should do next in space? Put another person on the moon? Send astronauts to Mars? Continue to build the International Space Station? What are your ideas?

Join a discussion of this question on our bulletin board.

About the Author

Karen Fanning is a contributing writer for Scholastic News Online.

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