International Geophysical Year and the Cold War (Part 2)

You may want to start with Part 1 of our piece about the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and the Cold War. To do that, click HERE.

In last week’s post, we gave an overview of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a globally organized and implement scientific program, which took place from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958.  As we have learned more about the IGY, it’s become obvious that, despite the stated goals of looking at the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun with the best available scientific minds and tools, IGY’s research program was not unrelated to the increasing of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.


As early as 1955, the United States made public its intentions to launch an orbiting satellite as a part of the IGY. President Dwight D. Eisenhower unveiled Project Vanguard to the world in July of that year. Shortly afterward, the Soviet Union announced they too would launch a satellite. Although the design and development of Project Vanguard was overseen by the Naval Research Laboratory, it was crafted as a tool of civilian science. President Eisenhower was particularly uncomfortable with the notion of military hardware orbiting (or flying) over the heads of the Russian people. (This same fear led to the development of the U-2 spy plane by the CIA, a “civilian” agency). In the end, the Soviet Union managed to reach Earth orbit first, in October 1957 with the successful launching of Sputnik.

Quaintly called “new moons” and “artificial planets” in the era of the first launches, the terminology almost leads one to believe that scientists of the time believed that they would need a only few to meet the science needs these satellites could serve. (That assumption strikes us as reminiscent of the 1943 quote from Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”) Instead, satellites have proven to be manifestly useful, with nearly 7,000 launched since October 4, 1957.

Explorer I, first United States satellite, was launched by ABMA on 31 January 1958. (NASA)

The Soviet Union launched three Sputnik satellites during the IGY, but very little IGY data was collected explicitly by the satellites themselves. However, lots of useful information about the mass and shape of the Earth was inferred from the orbits of the satellites. Both the United States and the Soviet Union lobbied international scientific bodies for the continuation of the IGY for another year. This resulted in the Year of International Geophysical Cooperation in 1959, which was the year that the Soviet Union launched its second series of satellites, the Luniks. As we follow the current GRAIL mission (see recent posts HERE and HERE on that), Luniks were intended to observed the Moon. In fact, the October 1959 mission of Lunik III captured the first images of the dark side of the Moon.

Principals at White House press conference, 28 July 1955, announcing United States participation in the IGY satellite program. (NASA)

Having watched the Soviet Union successfully launch the first satellite with the use of military (yes, military, not civilian) hardware, the R-7 ICBM, the Eisenhower administration backtracked to reignite the previously cancelled Explorer Program, which used the Army’s Redstone surface-to-surface missile, restarted. Less than three months after the program was restarted, it launched the Explorer I satellite on February 1, 1958. That success couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Soviet Union had already launched two Sputniks by this point, and Project Vanguard had suffered a dramatic failure—an explosion—on national television in December 1957. If one of the pleasures of old age is having the last laugh, Vanguard I has clearly won in this respect. It is still orbiting the earth long after the fiery demise of the Sputniks and the Explorers. In fact, with its present orbital decay, Vanguard I should continue to circle the globe for almost two hundred more years.

The Explorer series of satellites did produce one of, if not the most, dramatic discovery of the IGY program: the Van Allen radiation belts. (We mentioned Iowan Dr. James Van Allen in last Wednesday’s post; see the link at the start of this post for that.) As Van Allen and his team analyzed the data from Explorer I, they noticed that radiation counts were varying with the satellite’s height. Data collected by Explorer III (launched March 26, 1958) confirmed that our planet is encircled by two distinct bands of charged particles.

Courtesy of amanico, moderator of Jaeger-Lecoultre forum at PuristsPro (

Not all of the IGY/Cold War drama was played out in outer space. One particularly noteworthy event took place in the ocean, in Santa’s backyard under the ice of the North Pole. During the summer of 1958, the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, took part in Operation Sunshine, a mission to navigate to the North Pole underneath the Arctic Ocean ice. Nautilus reached 90 North on August 3, 1958. Her contribution to the IGY program was the first continuous bathymetric survey (depth measurement) of the Arctic Ocean. The USS Skate, the third nuclear submarine, also participated in the mission, reaching the North Pole on August 11th and surfacing through the ice.

amanico, moderator of Jaeger-Lecoultre forum at PuristsPro

Interest in the IGY transcended the political and scientific realm and made its way into the public consciousness. The Swiss watch company Jaeger-LeCoultre produced a special model—the Geophysic—to celebrate the IGY. In an unusual event that ties this week’s post into a neat little bow, Jaeger-LeCoultre presented the captains of the USS Nautilus, Commander William R. Anderson, and the USS Skate, Commander James F. Calvert, each with a Geophysic. What made the gift slightly unusual were the presentation cases, replicas of Sputnik. One wonders how the Navy officers felt about the reminder that the Soviet Union beat the United States to launching the world’s first manmade satellite.


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