July 29, 1958: Ike Inks Space Law, NASA Born in Wake of Russ Moon

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1958: President Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The plot had thickened months before.
Beep … beep … beep …
They were steady, almost metronomic, signals coming from a tiny radio beacon orbiting the Earth every 96 minutes aboard an aluminum sphere measuring a mere 22-inches across. In an instant, everything changed.

It was Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet news agency Tass announced to a stunned world that the Soviet Union had successfully placed Elementary Satellite 1, known by its diminutive "Sputnik," into an elliptical orbit some 550 miles above a Cold War-wracked planet.

American scientists attending a reception at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., that day knew their Russian colleagues were close. With luck, the thinking went, the USSR might launch a satellite sometime in 1958. But the Americans were close, too. Their Vanguard program, run by the Naval Research Laboratory, was beset by cost overruns and various delays, but they were confident that they would be first into space.

That illusion was completely shattered October 4, which is remembered as "Sputnik Night." While getting Sputnik into orbit didn't suddenly confer technological supremacy upon the Russians, it was nevertheless a remarkable achievement -- and an enormous propaganda coup. For the moment, at least, communism had trumped capitalism on a major front, and the conceit that America stood unequaled in the technological sphere was shaken.

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