Historical Perspective

Intelligence Success or Failure
 Sputnik and US Intelligence: The Warning Record

Amy Ryan and Gary Keeley 

Editor’s Note: This article is a declassified, redacted version of an article published in the classified issue of the journal in September 2016. This version was prepared in concert with CIA’s official declassification and release of documents related to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial earth satellite, Sputnik-1, 60 years ago. Those documents can be found at


The soul-searching about US technological competence that enveloped the nation in the wake of the successful launching into space of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1, by the Soviet Union (USSR) on 4 October 1957 came as a psychological shock to the American public and engendered a period of reflection that reshaped US priorities and scientific programs in the 1960s.

Sputnik-1 was the first in a four-satellite program planned as the USSR’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY; July 1957 to December 1958). Sputnik (“traveling companion” in Russian) circled the earth every 100 minutes in an elliptical orbit of 215 kilometers (km) perigee and 939 km apogee. Slightly larger than a basketball, the satellite was an aluminum, 22-inch sphere packed with radio and telemetry equipment sprouting four long antennae. It weighed about 180 pounds and transmitted a periodic rhythmic signal—a “beep”—to ground controllers.

Sputnik’s sudden appearance, in addition to raising questions about the standing of US technological competence, also brought to the fore the critical question of whether the USSR had or would shortly have an intercontinental ballistic missile ca­pability. Once the Soviets paired the rockets with the atomic weapons they had developed unexpectedly quickly by 1949, the United States, it was thought, would be at a severe military disadvantage.  Americans panicked, and accusations of “intelligence failure” and “missile gap” spread across the nation like a virus.

That Sputnik’s ascent surprised the US public and press is now com­mon knowledge, but not everyone in the United States was surprised. US intelligence, the military, and the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower not only were fully in­formed of Soviet planning to launch an earth satellite but also knew a So­viet satellite would probably achieve orbit no later than the end of 1957. For intelligence and administration officials, there was no surprise and no intelligence failure, but the Soviets achieved a political and propaganda triumph because Eisenhower had believed a rush into space was unwarranted and that a Soviet arrival there first would have little meaning. For Eisenhower, there was no “space race.”

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Posted: Oct 02, 2017 02:42 PM
Last Updated: Oct 03, 2017 10:03 PM