When Sputnik 1 launched 60 years ago — on Oct. 4, 1957 — LIFE Magazine’s audience had to get used to a new reality. In a very literal sense, there was a “dazzling new sight in the heavens,” as the magazine put it, and a Soviet device passed overhead several times a day. And figuratively, things were different too. The world had entered a new age of space exploration and, much to the shock of many in the U.S., it did not begin with American glory.
In an Oct. 21 cover package about the satellite, LIFE looked at the situation from a variety of angles.
An essay from guided-missile expert C.C. Furnas took the U.S. to task for not being the first to launch a satellite, arguing that the feat would have been entirely feasible if the nation had simply buckled down. “All too frequently it has been the view of our defense establishment that research not directly related to the development of military hardware is entitled to only secondary consideration,” he wrote. “It has been regarded as a sort of extracurricular scientific pastime to be indulged in only if money is left over from the ‘really important’ things.” Such an outlook was shortsighted, he explained, especially since many of the century’s most significant military advances had been the accidental result of scientific discovery, not the other way around.
Meanwhile, in the political world, President Eisenhower attempted to reassure Americans by promising that a U.S. satellite would launch, and that it would be even better than Sputnik. And culturally, though afraid of what the news could mean for the Cold War, many Americans showed their Sputnik spunk by embracing satellite-inspired cocktails, toys and clothing, all while looking ahead to the next step in the space race.
It was this can-do attitude, more than anything, that the magazine attempted to summon in an editorial on the subject.
“Sputnik should remind us of what we ourselves have proved many times from Lexington to the Manhattan Project: that any great human accomplishment demands a consecration of will and a concentration of effort,” the magazine proclaimed. “This is as true of the liberation of men and nations as it is of the conquest of space.”