WASHINGTON — News bulletin in 1957: Sputnik stuns the world. CIA in 2017: Not really.
The CIA released newly declassified documents on Wednesday revealing that while the American public was surprised when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite 60 years ago, intelligence agencies weren’t caught off-guard.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower had advance knowledge about the Soviets’ work on Sputnik, which was launched by a rocket on Oct. 4, 1957. He had been worrying for several years about the Kremlin’s long-range missile capability and how rockets armed with nuclear warheads could threaten America.
The documents indicate that U.S. intelligence and military officials and members of the Eisenhower administration not only knew that the Soviet Union was planning to launch Sputnik, but knew it could be put into orbit by the end of 1957.
The launch of Sputnik opened the space age and became a major victory for the Kremlin that highlighted its military might and technological abilities. But it wasn’t a surprise to those in the know within the Eisenhower administration.
Before the launch, the CIA issued two National Intelligence Estimates that included possible timelines for what was then called an “earth satellite vehicle.” In December 1955, one predicted the Soviets could launch one by 1958. In March 1957 — about six months before the launch — another intelligence estimate said Moscow was capable of putting a satellite into orbit before the end of that year.
And even earlier, then CIA Director Allen Dulles wrote a letter to the defense secretary in which he pushed for rapid development of an American earth satellite and warned of a public relations fallout for the United States if the Soviets were first to launch one.
“In addition to the cogent scientific arguments advanced in support of the development of earth satellites, there is little doubt but what the nation that first successfully launches the earth satellite, and thereby introduces the age of space travel, will gain incalculable international prestige and recognition,” Dulles wrote in January 1955.
“Our scientific community as well as the nation would gain invaluable respect and confidence should our country be the first to launch the satellite.”