Sputnik’s 60th Anniversary

Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery, National Museum of the United States Air Force. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, a stark demonstration of another nation’s growing scientific and technological capabilities that elicited deep American anxieties over national security. Just days after the satellite attained orbit, Alan Waterman, the first director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), delivered a report to President Eisenhower that had been in development long before the launch: “Basic Research: A National Resource.”

The report surveyed the U.S. science and engineering landscape and firmly asserted the importance of basic research, describing it as “an activity that is so indispensable to the Nation that the Federal Government cannot avoid responsibility for its encouragement and support.”

Established in 1950 to support basic research across all fields of science and education, NSF served as a crucial resource for the nation in the wake of Sputnik. The agency coordinated invaluable studies of the state of Soviet science, managed the financial aspects of the U.S. satellite program, and provided the research and programming that formed the cornerstone of a federal overhaul of American science education.