Every few years, and seemingly more often these days, an event will happen that various pundits and commentators declare to be a “Sputnik Moment.” Usually it is tied to the announcement of a country other than the United States reaching some sort of technological milestone or developing a new capability that somehow shows America is “falling behind” or “losing its leadership.” Even when people say something is not a “Sputnik Moment,” the declaration almost always comes with an incorrect understanding of what the original “Sputnik Moment” actually was. Calling something a “Sputnik Moment” without understanding what really happened during the original Sputnik crisis is a bad idea.
The popular myth surrounding the launch of Sputnik is that it was a total surprise and demonstrated that the Soviet space program was pulling ahead of America’s. But the opposite scenario is much closer to the truth. Thanks to the efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), President Dwight Eisenhower and his top advisors had a relatively good idea of what the Soviets were up to, based largely on highly classified overflights of the U-2 program. As early as 1955, the CIA provided a series of finished intelligence products, including two separate National Intelligence Estimates, on the Soviet “artificial satellite program.” These estimates included an assessment that a Soviet satellite would probably achieve orbit no later than the end of 1957.
At that time, America’s efforts to launch a satellite were on par with, not behind, the Soviet’s. President Eisenhower had a strong desire to push the satellite program under a scientific, peaceful context separate from the military’s highly classified work on intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver nuclear warheads. In 1955, President Eisenhower chose the U.S. Navy’s Vanguard program to lead the satellite effort instead of the more advanced U.S. Army Redstone program, knowing that Vanguard would take a year longer because the program was less mature. (Mixed up in this was also the interservice rivalry between the Army, Navy, and Air Force over who would first get to the lucrative missile and satellite development programs.) The CIA, among other agencies, argued strongly that there could be significant psychological value and prestige in being the first country to launch a satellite, but President Eisenhower stood firm in his belief that it would have little meaning.
Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s judgment on the psychological value and prestige of orbiting the first satellite was wrong. It turns out that the public and the media, not having much forewarning of where the U.S. and Soviet space programs stood, drew the incorrect conclusion that the Soviets were much further ahead than they actually were. Notably, the Soviets were also caught off guard by the reaction in the U.S. and thus did not have a propaganda campaign ready to go immediately after the launch. Sputnik wasn’t “above the fold” in Pravda the following day, although this was soon corrected after the Soviets saw the hysteria in the United States.
A similar “Sputnik Moment” played out a few years later during the debates about the so-called “missile gap.” A combination of existing fears about Sputnik, an over-hyped Congressional report on the Soviet development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and opportunistic Democratic candidates in an election year manufactured the myth that the Soviets were ahead of the United States in deploying ICBMs. In reality, it was the United States that had an early lead in ICBM development through the end of the 1960s.
If anything, the lesson from Sputnik should be more about how secrecy imposes challenges on managing the public’s perception. If the public had access to the information that Eisenhower had, it would have been far more difficult to push the narrative that the U.S. space program was far behind that of the Soviets. Of course, releasing such sensitive intelligence would have come with its own challenges that may have caused other, potentially more serious, complications. There always needs to be a balance struck between how much information is disclosed to manage expectations and how much is kept private to protect sources and methods.
The other lesson is the power of extensive media coverage, or what today we would call “going viral.” Even if the Eisenhower administration had provided more public information, it is unlikely any announcement would have gotten as much widespread coverage as the launch of Sputnik. The launch of the first satellite was the biggest news story of the time and was bound to receive far more coverage than any story about potential progress in the satellite program. The New York Times alone mentioned “Sputnik” in an average of eleven articles per day during the month of October 1957.
Of course, the overreaction to Sputnik also had its (eventual) positive effects. As a result of the massive public outcry, the United States put in place several steps to ensure that it would never be caught by technological surprise again. These included the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Defense Education Act, which poured billions of dollars into the U.S. education system and billions more in broad federal investment in research and development. Sputnik also led to the creation of the National Reconnaissance Office, which has pioneered the use of space for intelligence collection since the early 1960s. These, along with other measures, laid the foundation for an era of American technological superiority, particularly in space, that lasted for decades.
In the future, if we insist on declaring a “Sputnik Moment,” let us do so in recognition of what really happened. It should either be used to refer to a situation where the United States is actually ahead in an area of technology but conceals that information from the public, or where the need to create a sensational story will cause the public to overreact and will likely enable the creation of effective public policies and spending programs.