How big an impact did Sputnik have on the Cold War?

Resource Type: Investigate Activity | Time Period: World War II and the Cold War Era, 1939-1960
Educator Guide | Investigate Activity
ABC-CLIO Database: American History
Time Period: World War II and the Cold War Era, 1939-1960
Topic: The Sky is the Limit
Skill: Summarize
Process: Collect and Organize Information
Inquiry Question: How big an impact did Sputnik have on the Cold War?

Objectives: Students will read the scholars' commentaries and then summarize the impact Sputnik had on the Cold War for both the United States and the Soviet Union.

What students will discover in the sources: In the first commentary "Sputnik: A Boost to U.S. Fears and the Space Program," students will be introduced to a few of the key ways that Sputnik affected the United States. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 helped create greater fears of nuclear power by the American public, despite the development of the Gaither Committee by President Eisenhower. Eisenhower was skeptical of Soviet nuclear and scientific authority and refused to fund an immediate military buidup. A positive byproduct of Sputnik was the development of NASA and also STEM areas of study in the United States. On the other hand, in the second commentary "Sputnik Reshaped the Image of the Soviet Union," the author argues that Sputnik did not have great scientific or military merits overall. Sputnik simply served as a way for the Soviet Union to bolster its position as superpower and fueled its propaganda in the U.S.S.R.

From the American History Database

"Dwight D. Eisenhower: U-2 Incident Speech (1960),"

President Eisenhower's address to the nation on May 25, 1960 explaining how the American U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down by the Soviet Union and his meeting in Paris with Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

"First Being in Space,"

Image of the dog Laika, a passenger on the Soviet space craft Sputnik 2 and the first life form in space.

"John F. Kennedy: Urgent National Needs on Space (1961),"

A 1961 message to Congress in which President John F. Kennedy proposes a program to send a man to the moon.

"Memorandum of Sputnik Conference (1957),"

Memorandum of a U.S. government meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and many top government scientists to discuss Sputnik on October 8, 1957.


Image of Soviet scientist making the final adjustments to the Sputnik 1 satellite before its launch in 1957.

"Sputnik Stamp, 1967,"

Soviet stamp commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 1957 Sputnik launch.

Professional Resources

"Talking History: Diplomacy and Conflict, Cold War Leadership," American History Educator Support,

In this series of lectures for educators, scholars Chris Mullin and Lee Eysturlid discuss significant topics and themes relating to teaching the Cold War period.

"The Sky is the Limit," Research List, American History Educator Support,

This research list is a collection of articles and images relevant to the rise in scientific research and space exploration in the late 1950s.

"The Space Race: Project Mercury," DocsTeach, National Archives,

Activity for grades 8–12, where students analyze a memorandum from the Mercury astronauts to the Mercury director encouraging an exchange with astronauts from the Soviet Union.

Reference Books

Hendricks, Nancy. Daily Life in 1950s America. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2019.

This reference book looks at the domestic, economic, intellectual, material, political, recreational, and religious life of Americans during the 1950s.

Johnson, Stephen B. Space Exploration and Humanity: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

This two-volume encyclopedia is a complete history of human endeavors in space, moving beyond the traditional topics of human spaceflight, space technology, and space science to include political, social, cultural, and economic issues.

Walker, William T. America in the Cold War: A Reference Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014.

This book covers the entire scope of the Cold War, from its background and origins before and after World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991, providing coverage of key events and concepts, such as the containment policy, McCarthyism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, détente, and nuclear arms policies.

Nonfiction for Students (6-12)

Brinkely, Douglas. American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race: Young Readers Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Historian Douglas Brinkley delivers a young readers edition of his New York Times Bestseller about the history of the U.S. space program, President John F. Kennedy, and America's race to the moon.

Hickman, Homer H. Rocket Boys. New York, NY: Random House, 1986.

This memoir is a coming-of-age story set in the 1960s that explores the effects of the space race on small town America.

McMahon, Robert J. The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

This title provides a clear and concise overview of the significant events and players of the Cold War.

Wood, Brenden M., and Samuel Carbaugh. The Space Race: How the Cold War Put Humans on the Moon. White River Junction, VT: Nomad Press, 2018.

This book for middle-school students explores the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that fueled the science and research that led to the first man on the moon.

Literature & Film for Students

Abadzis, Nick. Laika. New York: First Second Books, 2007.

This graphic novel tells the journey of Laika, the dog that became the first space traveler, by weaving Laika's story with that of Korolev, an engineer in the Soviet space program, and Yelena, the lab technician that cared for Laika.

Johnston, Joe. October Sky. Universal City, CA: Universal Studios, 1999. DVD.

This film based on the memoir Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickman, follows the story of a young boy growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia during the 1950s, who dreams of building rockets.

Peet, Mal. Life: an Exploded Diagram. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2011.

This coming-of-age story by Carnegie Medalist Mal Peet takes place during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis and interweaves the stories of three generations and the wartime conflicts that define them.

Literature & Film for Educators

Brzezinski, Matthew. Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age. New York: Times Books, 2007.

This book describes the tensions that developed between the Soviet Union and the United Sates with the launch of Sputnik, and how their ideological rivalry ignited space exploration and technological development.

Fishman, Charles. One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

The author provides a behind-the-scenes account of the decade-long race that led to the first moon landing—starting with President John F. Kennedy's announcement to Congress in 1961 and through the stories of the scientists, engineers, and factory workers who worked to take the first man to the moon.

Follet, Ken. Code to Zero. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Set in 1958 as the United States is about to launch its first satellite in response to the Soviet Sputnik, this novel follows a man with amnesia as he discovers his past and future are bound up with the U.S. rocket.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

This account traces the birth and rise of the U.S. space program, taking an especially personal look at the lives of the scientists and astronauts who made it succeed.

Wolverton, Mark. Burning the Sky: Operation Argus and the Untold Story of the Cold War Nuclear Tests in Outer Space. New York: The Overlook Press, 2018.

This narrative tells the controversial story of the secret experiment launched by the United States in the aftermath of Sputnik, Operation Argus.

Websites & Mobile Apps

Space Race, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum,

Through images, documents, and contextualizing text, this online exhibit tells the story of the space race that grew out of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Moonrise podcast, The Washington Post,

Hosted by Lillian Cunningham, this podcast explores how the nuclear arms race of the Cold War fueled the space race, and how the era transformed American society and politics.

MLA Citation

"Investigate: How Big an Impact Did Sputnik Have on the Cold War?" ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2020, Accessed 1 June 2020.