Sputnik and the Freedom of Space

24 Mar 2020

President Eisenhower had a problem: both the US and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and he needed information on what the Soviets were up to. The Russians found it easy to spy on the US, an open society where anyone could watch our rocket launches just by popping over to Port Canaveral and gawking with the rest of the tourists. The Soviet Union, however, was a closed society where human spies had extreme difficulty operating.

Eisenhower’s only chance to get useful information on the Soviet military was not through human spies but through photo reconnaissance. But spy planes caused problems: aircraft overflying another country could be shot down for violating its airspace and Soviet antiaircraft missiles were getting better by the year. In July 1955 at an arms control summit in Geneva, Eisenhower tried to get the Soviets to agree to an Open Skies proposal which would allow reconnaissance overflight of each other’s military installations. Nikita Khrushchev rejected it as an obvious attempt to “accumulate target information”.1

How about an orbiting satellite? It would be safe from missiles but would it be legal? Does a nation’s airspace extend all the way to orbit? If the US were to orbit a satellite under the pretext of a scientific mission, and if no country lodged a protest when it passed overhead then a precedent would be set: an orbiting satellite doesn’t broach a country’s airspace. On 29 July 1955 after the failed Open Skies resolution Eisenhower announced the US would launch a scientific satellite for the International Geophysical Year (IGY).2 Days later the Soviets announced the same.3

A Nazi rocket?

The Army, Navy, and Air Force submitted proposals for the IGY satellite. The Navy proposed a Vanguard rocket with a Viking booster. The Army proposed a Redstone missile as the booster, and the Air Force, an ICBM. Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quartes formed a committee chaired by Congressman Homer Stewart to review the proposals. After deliberating for about a month the Stewart Committee selected the Navy’s and submitted a report noting its advantages:4

  1. The Viking booster was smaller but with “better performance and more reserve margin” than the Redstone booster.
  2. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) had extensive experience with the Viking rocket and high-altitude research.
  3. The Viking was declassified which made it easier to share technical data.

There’s still some controversy about this decision. The Redstone team was led by Werner von Braun and staffed with several German V-2 engineers. It was said the Redstone was rejected because Eisenhower didn’t want the first satellite to be orbited by a variant of the dreaded V-2. But the V-2 and Redstone had nothing in common other than liquid oxygen and alcohol propellant,5 and carbon vanes for thrust vectoring.6

Garage rocket science

The Redstone team didn’t take rejection lightly. They were prohibited from building a satellite so they went ahead and built one anyway—in scientist Ernst Sturlinger’s garage.3 They consulted with scientist James Van Allen to add instrumentation so the satellite could perform real science.7 They also kept a spare Redstone booster laying around just in case. If anyone asked, it was for testing long-term storage viability of missile ordnance.3

Official Redstone testing continued but with limitations. On 20 September 1956 they launched a Jupiter-C missile: a Redstone topped with extra stages.7 The payload section was loaded with sand to keep it from achieving orbit.8 If they had replaced the ballast with a small satellite we would have been first to orbit a year before Sputnik.3

Freedom of Space achieved

On 4 October 1957 Sputnik was launched into orbit. It didn’t do much other than beep a radio signal detected by ham radio operators but it was a propaganda victory for international Communism. Four days later Quarles in a meeting with Eisenhower said “the Russians have in fact done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space.”9

Redstone to the rescue

On 6 December 1957, the Navy’s Vanguard rocket was launched. It rose a few feet in the air, lost power, and exploded. Exasperated, the Eisenhower administration gave the Redstone team the Go to launch their satellite—the Explorer satellite they built in Sturlinger’s garage. To loft it they used a Jupiter-C rocket with the same Redstone booster they kept for long-term storage tests. On 31 January 1958, Explorer entered orbit. Unlike Sputnik which just beeped a radio signal, Explorer did real science by detecting the Van Allen radiation belts circling the Earth.7


After Khrushchev rejected the US Open Skies proposal to allow reconnaissance overflights, Eisenhower’s priority was to orbit a reconnaissance satellite without violating international law, not to be the first to orbit a satellite. The Navy’s Vanguard rocket was chosen on its technical merits, not because the Redstone was tainted with Nazi technology. The Vanguard team gave it their best shot but in the end our first satellite, built in secret and against orders, was lofted into orbit on a “spare” Redstone the Von Braun team had lying around for that purpose.

Eisenhower got what he wanted: orbital spy satellites.

  1. Hall, R. Cargil. Origins of US Space Policy: Eisenhower, Open Skies, and Freedom of Space. Rand Corp, Washington D.C. 1 Jan 1992. 

  2. International Geophysical Year was a multinational research project from 1957 to 1958 where 67 nations studied the Earth’s aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determinations, meteorology, oceanography, seismology, and solar activity. 

  3. Sputnik Declassified. Dir. Rushmore DeNooyer. Nova, 2007. Film transcript. 

  4. Stewart, Homer J. Report to Donald A. Quarles, Assistant Secretary of Defense. 4 August 1955. Accessing Space. NASA, 1999. 38-43. 

  5. Williamson, Ray A. Access to Space: Steps to the Saturn V. Accessing Space. NASA, 1999. 3-5. 

  6. United States, Congress, House, Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration. Flight Path and Orientation Control. Space Handbook: Astronautics and its Applications. 24 Feb 1959. 

  7. Explorer-I and Jupiter-C. Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age, NASA. 

  8. McLaughlin Green, Constance and Milton Lomask. Vanguard A History. NASA, 1970. 199. 

  9. Goodpaster, A.J., Brigadier General. “Memorandum of Conference with the President”. 8 October 1957. Accessing Space. NASA, 1999. 52-53.