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MIT under a Russian Moon

Sputnik beeps and the Institute responds.

Fifty years ago this October, the Soviet Union blasted a beeping, 183-pound aluminum ball into orbit around Earth. The launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first satellite, frightened Americans into believing that the Soviets had achieved complete technologi­cal superiority and sparked an era of one-upmanship that culminated in the Apollo moon landing. Yet even as ­Sputnik passed overhead every 96 minutes in the fall of 1957, many at MIT knew their school would play a key role in the burgeoning space race.

The Soviets released this photo of Sputnik I, which launched on October 4, 1957.

“It was big news, of course,” recalls professor and MIT president emeritus Paul Gray ‘54, SM ‘55, ScD ‘60. “It even reached the graduate students down in their dungeons as they worked on their theses–which is what I was doing at the time.”

Three days after the launch, Kresge Auditorium filled to capacity with students and others eager to hear about the “Russian moon.” The chief of the U.S. satellite program, John Hagen, had been scheduled to speak on the state of his team’s effort. But when Sputnik began beeping, he had to cancel. His colleague N. Whitney Mathews was left to explain to reporters and students why the U.S. project had lagged so far behind.

“How far ahead are the Russians?” someone asked.

“They have a satellite–we don’t,” Mathews answered.

Mathews could shed no light on Sputnik’s ominous beeping; if it was sending information, “we wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance trying to decode it,” he admitted. (In fact, the beeps were part of a telemetry system used to verify locations on Earth’s surface.)

“An air of watchful waiting … prevailed throughout the labs and offices of those here at MIT for whom there is still only one objective–find the orbit of the satellite,” wrote freshman Joseph Harrington in the Tech. Nine days after Sputnik’s launch, sophomore Justin Kreuzer snapped MIT’s first picture of its booster rocket–which was also in orbit, trailing the satellite–from an East Campus dorm rooftop. But MIT Lincoln Lab researchers were already on the case; they’d been tracking Sputnik’s orbit since the day after its launch, using a new UHF radar in Westford, MA.

Still, public confidence in American science and technology had evaporated almost overnight. Robert Seamans, SM ‘42, ScD ‘51, who had recently left the MIT faculty to work on missile and rocket guidance for RCA, recalls that Boston-area college students he spoke to that October “were wondering if we’d ever be able to catch up with the Soviets.” He says, “Of course, that was really absurd. The Soviets weren’t at all ahead of us in all science and technology. But that’s the way it got interpreted, thanks to very clever propaganda on the part of the Soviets.”

To reassure the nation, President Eisenhower turned to MIT president James R. Killian ‘29, appointing him special assistant to the president for science and technology on November 7. A skilled manager with inside knowledge of U.S. space technology, Killian recruited and led a staff of scientists in an effort to formulate a national space policy and revitalize American science education. Over the next year and a half, the group would oversee the creation of NASA, corralling and centralizing the most important U.S. civilian space projects as well as many military projects.

Sputnik was a benefit to MIT,” says Gray. “Up through the 1960s, the federal sponsorship of research at the Institute was increasing in the double digits.” The push to overcome the Soviets led to reform of the high-school science curriculum; science and engineering were promoted as useful careers important to the nation. “The best-prepared classes ever admitted to MIT came in during the mid-1960s,” he says.

A first-grader at Sputnik’s launch, President Susan Hockfield recalls being awed by all that its beep represented. “Sputnik was a wake-up call,” she told the MIT News Office in one of her first interviews as president. “It raised a sense of enthusiasm for science and math and gave Americans a compelling interest, a survival interest, in competing with the Russians. I think our nation could use some of that sense of urgency today.”

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