Lentis/Education and the Space Race in the United States

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union swelled in the years after World War II. When the Soviets successfully launched the small Sputnik I satellite in 1957, they gained a high ground. Fears of spy satellites and space weapons swam through the minds of Americans. Attention was turned to American schools in an effort to prepare for the future. Federal education reforms and funding brought new life to many struggling schools, with a particular focus on science and math education.

Sputnik 1


World War II (WWII) left the world devastated and susceptible to influence from the powerful victors, namely Russia (USSR) and the United States (U.S.). The U.S. and USSR were governed by different ideologies, capitalism and communism respectively. Tensions from their different ideologies, in addition to political and economical differences between these two countries, led to the Cold War. These differences included America's long wait to enter WWII while 20 million Russians died, America's use of the atomic bomb, and USSR's forceful territorial gains after the war.[1]

Because of the aforementioned tensions, Russia and the U.S. went into fierce competition to spread communism and capitalism in order gain allies for monetary and military reasons. Both of these countries used display in the form of technological advancement in order to gain influence with various countries across the world. Russia demonstrated their first working atomic warhead in 1949, making them the second country in history to reach this capability. During the next decade these two countries started developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Each country attempted to outdo the other by increasing the explosive force and range of these missiles.[2]

Starting in 1949 and continuing for on decades, Americans were afraid and nervous for a potential nuclear attack. To combat this fear, the government established the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) to educate and reassure the country that there were ways to survive an atomic attack from the Soviet Union. This organization encouraged schools to conduct air raid drills and other exercises in expectation of an attack. Teachers would yell "Drop!" and students were expected to take cover under their desks with their hands around their heads. According to Bill Ganzel, writer for livinghistoryfarm.org, some schools issued military dog tags so that bodies of student could be identified after an attack. Eventually a short film was made called "Duck and Cover," that was shown to young children to educate and prepare them for an attack.[3]

Education in America in the Late 1950'sEdit

After WWII, a baby boom led to overcrowding of many American public schools. Some schools were so ill-equipped for growing numbers of students that they resorted to implementing classroom shifts, shortening the time that children were in school.[4] During the 1950's, few public schools emphasized science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. In 1957-58, a reported average of 42% of high school students had taken more than 2 years of math, and teachers observed that the most gifted students "could have carried heavier programs."[5] Very few schools had advanced classes or other special programs for academically able students.[6]

The Sputnik CrisisEdit

On October 4th, 1957 Americans thought their worst fear had come true. Russia launched the R-7 rocket that launched an unknown object into space that started orbiting the earth.[4] The Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik 1, a weather satellite; however, the type of satellite was unbeknownst to the United States. The world's first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball (58 cm or 22.8 inches in diameter), weighed only 83.6 kg or 183.9 pounds, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. [7] That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments in a period of fear known as Sputnik crisis. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R Space Race.[7]

Media and Public ReactionEdit

Not only had America's worst fear come true, but the Soviets had proclaimed themselves the victor of science. This scientific feat of strength made American citizens question their country's greatness that they had become accustomed to following WWII. Magazines and newspaper articles suggest that Americans were asking themselves why they didn't get to space first.[8] The U.S. Department of Defense immediately responded to the public's outcry by funding several U.S. satellite projects.

On January 31, 1958, the U.S. successfully launched Explorer I. The satellite completed its science mission objectives, including discovering the Van Allen radiation belts that encase the Earth. The Explorer program continued to launch several more lightweight science missions.[7]

The National Defense Education ActEdit

Wikipedia Article on the National Defense Education Act

President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) into law on September 2nd, 1958. The act stipulated federal funds to strengthen STEM instruction in secondary schools, improve educational diagnostics for gifted students, support vocational schools, and provide loans and fellowships for students seeking higher education, especially in STEM majors.

Opposition to Federal AidEdit

Many conservative congressmen, of which senator Strom Thurmond was the most vocal, intensely opposed federal initiatives to provide aid for public education and feared that by funding academic programs, the federal government would gain more control over school curricula.

The NDEA succeeded in Congress where previous acts to increase federal aid for education had failed because it was branded as a defense act to combat perceived Soviet technological dominance over the United States and a matter of national security, necessitating federal action. By providing categorical aid for STEM and foreign language education, the NDEA distanced itself from failed acts to provide general federal aid for the American education system.[9]


The NDEA was renewed until 1965 when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, its successor, was passed. Total federal aid for elementary and secondary education tripled from $2.1 billion in 1959 to $5.7 billion in 1965.[10] Over 4 years, $1 billion went to 40,000 loans, 40,000 scholarships, and 1,500 graduate fellowships.[11] It led to unprecedented increases in federal involvement in education in the United States, including instituting the first national student loan program and programs for gifted students. In addition, by the mid-1960's nearly all students in public schools took standardized aptitude tests, compared to the few tested before Sputnik. Overall, the NDEA lead to more rigorous science and math courses, improved teacher-student ratios in American schools, and general upward trends in education.[12]

Changes in Engineering EducationEdit

A major shift in engineering education in the U.S. occurred between 1935 and 1965 as engineering higher education programs began changing their curricula from hands-on to theory-based courses. Machine shops, surveying, and drawing classes were replaced by engineering science and math. World War II accelerated this shift as physicists were often observed to be better prepared than engineers in solving unusual problems. Engineers were often ignorant of the science behind electronics and atomic weapons. In 1955, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASAA) published the Grinter report, recommending that future engineering curricula emphasize a background in science and math.[13]

Professional OrganizationsEdit

The establishment of and support for professional organizations began to shift in the late 1950s and 1960s. These organizations can finance institutions of higher education, start interest clubs, and promote general public knowledge to influence STEM education.

National Aeronautics and Space AdministrationEdit

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded in October 1958 as a direct result of the Sputnik crisis. A ragtag team of scientists and engineers put the first American into space in 1961 and went on to effectively win the Space Race by landing on the Moon in 1969. These innovations inspired the nation.[14] Today, education, including "attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines," is still a major component of NASA.[15]

National Science FoundationEdit

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was founded prior to the Space Race in 1950, but experienced a surge of support immediately following Sputnik. In 1958, NSF appropriations more than doubled, supporting the educational objectives of the organization. Furthermore, in 1959, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10807 which tasked the NSF with increasing access to scientific information.[16] This included translating foreign work, storing knowledge, and promoting cooperative data sharing.[17]

Popular CultureEdit

A plethora of science fiction television shows, movies, and books was present in the 1960s. Star Trek debuted in 1966 and spawned many movies and spin-off series. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) imagined what the world might be like in a short two-and-a-half decades. Lost in Space (1965-68) chronicles the story of a 1997 family that volunteers to leave Earth to help America colonize deep space.

These imaginative shows drew from the energy of the Space Race. In the late 1960s, as America marched steadily towards a Moon landing, possibilities of space travel in the coming decades seemed endless. These cultural icons served to inspire young students, as they related to characters and hoped to following their footsteps by exploring foreign galaxies or saving the day in a space ship.


Soviet technological advances, epitomized by the Sputnik launch, spurred social fear and political action in America. For the first time, education was seen as a means of national security. It became apparent that if the U.S. expected to remain a major world power, time and money needed to be invested in the nation's future, particularly in science and technology fields. Social pressures led Congress to act, leading STEM education to grow. The fate of technological advancement in America was intertwined with the social implications of another country's technology, indicating the inextricable link between society and technology.

Further research might classify how male and female students of different races were affected by national policies, as well as the causes and effects of later education policies such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Modern Day ParallelsEdit

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) every three years on 15-years-old students in more than 60 countries.[18] In 2012, U.S. students placed 27th in math and 20th in science out of 34 OECD member countries, a dismal result to many Americans. The job market is starved for STEM employees: overall, there are 3.6 unemployed people for 1 job posting, but STEM job postings outnumber unemployed people 1.9 to 1.[19] STEM jobs also take longer for employers to fill.[20]

Fear that the U.S. will not be economically competitive on a global scale is rising. The 2008 documentary 2 Million Minutes examines students from the U.S., China, and India in an effort to compare and contrast how they spend their high school years. The film claims the U.S. has reached another critical "Sputnik moment," and questions if the education standards are doing enough to prepare the country.[21] The Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century published a report called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" in 2007. The detailed report analyzes trends that suggested the U.S. will not be able to compete globally in the near future. The writers make numerous recommendations to ensure the children and grandchildren of America do not face “poorer prospects” than their predecessors.[22]

Some claim that the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks provoked a similar response as Sputnik.[23] Others say the moment has not yet arrived, but will creep up on the country slowly.[22]


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  5. STANDARDS BEFORE SPUTNIK. (1962, Oct 14). New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/116249922?accountid=14678
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  16. Peters, G. & Woolley, J.T. (2015). "Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Order 10807 - Federal Council for Science and Technology" http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=106503
  17. The National Science Foundation (2015). "A Timeline of NSF History" https://www.nsf.gov/about/history/overview-50.jsp
  18. OECD (2015) "About PISA" http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/
  19. Change the Equation. "STEM Help Wanted" http://changetheequation.org/stemdemand
  20. Rothwell, J. (2014). Still Searching: Job Vacancies and STEM Skills. http://www.brookings.edu/research/interactives/2014/job-vacancies-and-stem-skills#/M10420
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  22. a b Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century (2007). Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future
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