July 1, 1957 – The International Geophysical Year Begins

On July 1, 1957, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) began its eighteen-month run.  First proposed by the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1952, the IGY was an ambitious program of coordinated research by the world’s scientists into the mysteries of geophysical phenomenon such as aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determination, meteorology, oceanography, rocketry, seismology, and solar activity.  Research into Antarctic ice depths yielded a new estimate of the earth’s total ice content.

But the most attention-grabbing goal of the program was the endeavor to launch an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth.  Recent breakthroughs in technology included cosmic ray recorders, spectroscopes, radiosonde balloons, electronic computers – and the rocket.  Exploration of space to pursue scientific knowledge of our solar system was now a real possibility.  By the end of the IGY the world’s superpowers had successfully launched seven satellites, after previous years of setbacks and failures.  The IGY fully achieved its goal to “observe physical phenomena and to secure data from all parts of the world; to conduct this work on a coordinated basis by fields, and in space and time, so that results could be collated in a meaningful manner”.

An uneasy relationship existed between the scientific community and the military establishment at this time.  IGY scientists feared that military preoccupation with launching satellites would detract from other goals.  Scientists also resented that the military held its rocket technology information close to the vest.

National Science Foundation posters, new television programs, and filmstrips for high schools were created by the program to translate the IGY findings for the common man.  Reaction to the first satellite launch took on a good news-bad news aspect.  On the one hand, we could now explore the infinity of space and learn more about our own planet.  On the other, those superpowers who now had satellite capability also had the ability to place nuclear bombs in orbit, threatening mass destruction.

Image Credit: National Academy of Sciences

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