A US report on how space programs are perceived (1959)

In July 1959 a United States agency prepared this intelligence briefing on how American and Soviet space programs were perceived around the world. It concluded that Sputnik had bridged any perceived advantage previously held by the US, a fact being exploited by Soviet propaganda:

“Awareness of US and Soviet space activities, though still high in general, appears to have declined since the days following the launching of the first Sputnik. The dramatic appeal of that event generated a breadth of interest rarely paralleled. While subsequent events have continued to attract wide attention, both coverage and comment, particularly the latter, have fallen off substantially.

The nature of coverage, as well as its extent, appears to have changed from the days of the first space efforts. The tendency to sensationalism has modified and reporting is more sober and more factual. This seems to stem in large measure from the fact that the novelty of space ventures has begun to wear thin, and in part from the fact that audiences are increasingly sophisticated, and fewer projects are such sharply pioneering and unprecedented efforts…

Reaction to space developments, from all audiences, shows a clear tendency to equate achievements in this field with military power. Although thinking about the military implications of space experiments is not in general very precisely or elaborately developed, concern with the military implications of space activities is prominent. While there is some interest in peaceful potential, this tends to be subordinate and unspecified…

The most significant and enduring result for world public opinion of the launching of the first earth satellite by the USSR was a revolutionary revision of estimates of Soviet power and standing. Prior to the launching of Sputnik I, there was very general belief that the Soviet Union was a long way from offering a serious challenge to the US lead in science, technology, and productive power. Sputnik and subsequent Soviet space achievements appeared as a dramatic demonstration that the USSR was able to challenge the US successfully in an endeavour where US pre-eminence had been widely taken for granted. Sputnik worked a major modification in the world image of the USSR. At one stride it appeared to close the gap between the US and the USSR in terms of relative power, and gave new dimensions and new formidableness to that power, a fact which the USSR has vigorously exploited in its propaganda and diplomacy, with greatly enhanced credibility.

Restoring a Balance: US post-Sputnik space activities have served to restore confidence in general US scientific and technological leadership. They have brought about a much more cautious and qualified assessment of the permanence of the Soviet lead in space. But they have not succeeded in restoring the pre-Sputnik gap in the general consensus regarding relative US and USSR capabilities, or in erasing the new image of the USSR and Soviet society. Lost ground has been regained to a point where the space race is, by and large, viewed as neck-and-neck…

In sum:

Interest in space developments continues strong but has shown a sharp decrease from the intense excitement that marked the first year or so following Sputnik I. Reactions have become more sophisticated, informed, and detached.

Sensitivity to military implications is marked and has produced strong concern over the possibility that the USSR now enjoys military superiority over the West, and a belief in some quarters that this is a fact.

The US and the USSR space programs are generally assessed as competitive efforts, and there is notable concern regarding the need to limit the dangers seen in this rivalry.

Soviet successes in space have produced a major revision in the image of the USSR and to some degree of the Soviet system, and lent greatly enhanced credibility to Soviet propaganda claims. The USSR, by appearing to have spectacularly overtaken the US in a field in which the US was very generally assumed to be first by a wide margin, is now able to present itself as fully comparable to the US and able to challenge it in any field it chooses – perhaps the most striking aspect of the propaganda impact of space developments…”