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Sputnik, the Space Race and Women in STEM

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 6 months, 2 weeks ago




Women and Space Exploration


AP US History Key Concept 8.3:  Postwar Changes in American Society, Politics and Culture



Topics on the Page


The Conditions that Led to the Space Race


President Eisenhower’s response to the Soviet’s launching of Sputnik


The Creation of NASA


The National Defense Education Act of 1958


Timeline for the Space Race

  • Anniversary of the First Human in Space 


Women in STEM

  • The movie Hidden Figures


  • Major Women Contributors to the Space Race and NASA 
    • Dorothy Vaughan
    • Katherine Johnson
    • Kitty O'Brien Joyner
    • Mary Jackson
    • Christa McAuliffe  







  • After World War II, many Western European countries such as England, France and Germany were left in shambles. This left the United States and the USSR as the world's largest powers.


  • Conflicting ideologies between communism and capitalism created extreme competition between the countries. This led to the Nuclear Arms Race and the Space Race. 


  • At the height of the Cold War, the launching of Sputnik caught the West totally by surprise.


  • Sputnik - first artificial satellite to be put into orbit, on October 4, 1957. 


  • This terrified Eisenhower, and a lot of the country, who were filled with Cold War uncertainties, that the U.S. was no longer number one in advanced technology.


    • A week later the U.S. Office of Education published a study confirming that the Soviet Union outranked the United States in every aspect of science and technology.


  • The only hope, in Eisenhower’s and many U.S. citizen’s minds, was to reinvigorate American education, to place more emphasis on science, to add more discipline, and to use Sputnik as a threat of thermonuclear war to get kids to focus more.


    • Sputnik, not only reformed U.S. education but lead to the Space Race against the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The United States launched Explorer I, Courier 1B, and Project SCORE in response to Soviet advances in the space race



Created NASA in 1958; its goal was to compete with the Soviet Union and its space program.




    • Read Sputnik's influence on America from NOVA PBS.


    • Watch a CBS news story from October 6th, 1957.


    • Click to read History.com's overview of the Sputnik launch.

Click here for a documentary on what became known as the "Sputnik Moment."


October Sky Trailer : The trailer for the movie October Sky, a movie based on the true story of a young American who was inspired greatly by the launch of Sputnik and became a engineer for NASA

National Defense Education Act was signed September 2, 1958 and was in response to the Soviets launching of the satellite Sputnik.


  • This funded education in the United States with a focus on math, science, and foreign language which the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in.


  • It provided National Defense scholarships for students to pursue higher education in fields that were essential for national defense.


Click to see a timeline of the Cold War.

Click for a Crash Course video on the Cold War, including areas regarding US domestic policy.


This is a link for a timeline of the Space Race beginning with the launch of Sputnik.


A 5 minute video on the Space Race that details some of the larger, societal implications of it as well. 


April 12 is the Anniversary of the First Human in Space


  • Yuri Gagarin was the first human to launch into space in 1961




 Women in STEM


Women had been working for the government as human computers since 1935.


Executive Order 9346 (1943) was designed to promote fair hiring practices in wartime industries


  • Led to more opportunities for African Americans, particularly Black women working as human computers reading film from wind tunnel tests, running calculations and plotting collected data.


  • Two books, The Girls of Atomic City and Hidden Figures, reveal the untold stories of women in STEM fields, the building of the atomic bomb and the space race.



Hidden Figures Movie and Book


Hidden Figures Trailer 



Major Women Contributors to the Space Race and NASA


  • Dorothy Vaughan


    •  Mathematician Dorothy Vaughan worked as a human computer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later transitioned into NASA.


    • She worked in the segregated group of African-American woman at Langley Research Center who solved complex mathematical calculations by hand. She specialized in flight paths, the Scout family of rockets and FORTRAN computer programming, going on to become NACA’s first Black supervisor.


    • Intuiting the rise of machine computers over human computers, she had the foresight to begin teaching women programming languages to prepare them for the transition and ensure they weren't out of a job. She is featured in the movie Hidden Figures.



  • Katherine Johnson
    • Despite being forced to work under segregated conditions, Katherine Johnson and her brilliance with numbers played a pivotal role in the US's first space missions.


    • During her NASA career, she calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights of Project Mercury, the US’s first human spaceflight program, and the Apollo 11 flight to the moon.


    • When NASA began to use electronic computers for their calculations, astronaut John Glenn refused to fly unless Johnson verified that all the numbers were correct.


    • In 2015, at the of age 97, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, America’s highest civilian honor. 


Biography:  Katherine Johnson 


Katherine Johnson Interview




  • Kitty O’Brien Joyner 
    • Kitty Joyner was not only the first woman to graduate from the University of Virginia’s engineering program, but she also went on to become NASA’s first woman engineer.


    • She initiated a successful lawsuit in order to be permitted to receive her education, at a time when women were not accepted into the all-male engineering school, and subsequently worked as an electrical engineer at NASA for 32 years.


    • She managed several wind tunnels, including supersonic wind tunnels, used to test new aircraft designs before they go into flight, making her work critical in defining the standards for modern aeronautics that we have today. 



  • Mary Jackson
    • Mary Jackson began her career as a mathematics teacher, before becoming a human computer at NACA.


    • She petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her to attend an all-white engineering evening program and won, becoming NASA’s first black female engineer. Her work revolved around understanding air flow, with the aim to improve the aerodynamics of planes.


    • After achieving the most senior title within the engineering department, she took a demotion in order to work in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field, to make changes, support and highlight women and other minorities in the field.



  • Sally Kristen Ride
    • Sally Ride was the first American woman in space as well as being the youngest person, having done so at the age of 32.


    • She joined NASA in 1978 where she served as a ground-based capsule communicator and helped develop the robot arm used on space shuttle Canadarm.


    • She was the only person to serve on both committees investigating the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, and reportedly provided the key information that eventually led to the cause of the Challenger’s explosion being discovered. 


The Lost Lessons of Christa McAuliffe 


  •  The lessons Christa McAuliffe had planned for the Challenger STS 51L Teacher in Space mission unfortunately never got released due to the fatal explosion of the Challenger which led to her death along with 6 other crew members.


  • NASA has decided to re-create these lessons in the International Space Station with Ricky Arnold and Joe Acaba.











National Geographic Hidden Pictures of Women in NASA


13 Amazing Facts About the Women of NASA from Reader's Digest


At NASA Women Are Still a Big Minority


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