| October 1957|
The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first spacecraft, on October 4, 1957. Two months earlier the Soviet Union had fired the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (An ICBM can be launched from one continent, pass through the atmosphere into space, and then re-enter the atmosphere over its target on another continent.) Both events shocked Americans because the Soviets had surpassed the United States in missile technology. The British Ambassador to the United States reported, "The Russian success in launching the satellite has been something equivalent to Pearl Harbor. The American cocksuredness is shaken." The Soviet Union launched Sputnik II in November 1957.
Although the United States still led the Soviets in other weapons, Americans began to speak of a "missile gap." The Gaither Report, a Ford Foundation Commission Study, fed popular fears that the United States was behind the Soviet Union and urged a large military buildup.
The United States launched its first satellite, Explorer I, in January 1958. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed in July 1958 to continue development of spacecraft.
Sputnik also jolted the American education system. The United States felt Soviet students must have been getting a better science and math education than were American students. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in September 1958 to fund new science, math, and foreign language programs in American schools. One college president in the 1960's declared that colleges and universities had become "bastions of our defense, as essential as ... supersonic bombers."
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was formed to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to provide international safeguards and an inspection system to ensure nuclear materials aren't diverted from peaceful to military uses. IAEA is authorized to buy and sell nuclear materials and provide its member nations with technical assistance for non-military uses of nuclear energy. The IAEA also administers the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In signing the treaty, nations agree to certain safeguards, including IAEA inspections to monitor the flow of weapons-grade nuclear fuel. The inspections make sure that the fuel is not used for nuclear weapons.
Radiation was released when the graphite core of the Windscale Nuclear Reactor in England caught fire. The first British plutonium production reactor, Windscale's Number 1 Pile began operating in October 1950; Windscale's second reactor began eight months later. On October 8, 1957, a physicist operating Number 1 Pile accidentally let the core temperature rise to a point where the fuel began to melt. Forty-two hours later, instruments showed that radiation was being released. The reactor core was on fire. The fire was put out by flooding the reactor with water and sealing it off. The fire released a large amount of radioactive iodine and polonium, with half-lives of 8.05 days and 138.4 days respectively, into the atmosphere. (A half-life is the time it takes a radioactive substance to lose half of its radioactivity.) Approximately 528,000 gallons of milk from farms within 200 miles of Windscale were destroyed. The extent of the radiation's effect on residents is still not fully known. A 1983 study by the Radiological Protection Board of Great Britain concluded two hundred and sixty cases of thyroid cancer were attributable to the release of radioactive iodine. Other forms of cancer, such as leukemia, have also been reported in the vicinity.