International Geophysical YearBased on a suggestion by National Academy of Sciences (NAS) member Lloyd Berkner, in 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) established July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). It was timed to coincide with the high point of the eleven-year cycle of sunspot activity. A comprehensive series of global geophysical activities were planned for this time.
In March of the following year, the NAS created a US National Committee to oversee US IGY projects. Included in these projects were investigations of auroras aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, the ionosphere, determinations of longitude and latitude, meteorology, oceanography, seismology, solar activity, and the upper atmosphere. Along with the upper atmosphere research, the US began to plan an orbiting satellite program hoping to launch the first artificial satellite.
In October of 1954, the ICSU adopted a resolution calling for the first artificial satellites to be launched during the IGY to map the Earth's surface. The following July, the White House announced plans to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite for the IGY and solicited proposals from various Government research agencies to undertake development. In September 1955, the Naval Research Laboratory's Vanguard proposal was chosen.
The World in ShockThe world, especially the US, was shocked, when on October 4, 1957, the USSR launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.
The name comes from a Russian word for "traveling companion of the world." Weighing just 83 kg (184 lbs.), Sputnik 1 was lofted into space by an R7 rocket. It carried a thermometer and two radio transmitters. Circling the earth once every 96.2 minutes it transmitted atmospheric information by radio, but its two transmitters only functioned for 21 days. After 57 days in orbit, it was destroyed while reentering the atmosphere.
The US RespondsResponding to the political backlash created over the launching of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in Earth orbit, the U.S. Defense Department immediately began providing funding for another U.S. satellite project. As a parallel project to Vanguard, Wernher von Braun and his Army Redstone Arsenal team began work on the Explorer project.
The Sputnik launch also led directly to the creation of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In July 1958, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the "Space Act"), which created NASA as of October 1, 1958 from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other government agencies.