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Launching into a New Generation: The Space Race and STEM

It’s 9 PM, and you’re sitting at your desk, surrounded by books—your computer wide open, fluorescent light reflecting off your eyeballs. Finishing your homework is a grueling task—it’s paper after paper, worksheet after worksheet. But did you know that there’s a reason this way? To understand this, we need to consider the past.

The 20th century was a period jam-packed with event after event. There was the Spanish Flu, the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and, most importantly for science, Sputnik.

NASA, Cold War, Sputnik, Rocket, Space Race, Space, Science
A rocket, blasting off into space.

With the advent of World War Two and the US's use of atomic bombs, the tension between Russia and the United States began, resulting in the Cold War of 1947. The term ‘cold war’ doesn’t indicate that it was cold outside, but that the two countries were in a state of political conflict. Imagine living in a time when you don’t even know whether you are going to live for another day because of a missile attack. That was the Cold War. There isn’t any direct warfare, but there is everything except that.

With this tension came the Space Race. Where Russia and the USA rushed to explore space. At first, the USA declared that they would shoot a satellite up into the sky. Despite the initial steps by the USA, however, the launch of Sputnik 1 by Russia was the catalyst for the eventual conflict. Suddenly, both countries began working to send as many objects as possible into space. Following the first Sputnik was Sputnik Two in November of 1957, and then the USA’s Explorer 1 in January of 1958, and so on. Every new installment created more competition between the countries. The fanaticism for space led to the eventual establishment of NASA on the first of October, 1958.

The establishment of NASA resulted in a realization among Americans, in tandem with

National Defense Education Act, Education, STEM education, STEM, School, STEM subjects, Science, Math, Physics. Rocket.
Math surrounds a book, emphasizing the changing viewpoints of what students should be learning.

the shock from Sputnik. We needed more people to work in STEM-based careers. And so, the government turned to the youth- suddenly enforcing hours of homework, and an added emphasis on STEM classes in their schools: students began to learn more ‘practical’ subjects. This was especially enforced by the National Defense Education Act of 1958 which resulted in federal funding of higher education and created low-cost student loans. All of this contributed to propelling school, and particularly STEM-based subjects, into the public eye. Its effect can be seen in the numbers: before the act, only 3.6 million students went to college, but by 1970 the number increased to 7.5 million.

The trend of increased education, however, isn’t exclusive to just the Space Race: its influences can be seen in the adjustment and changes in the education system; 9/11 caused an increase in STEM education, and more relevant to modern-day, we’re emphasizing the importance once more as economic policy.

To this day, there are ongoing political debates over what we should do to enrich the education of the students of America. Some people feel that there’s an over emphasis on STEM, while others feel like we don’t learn enough. Some point out that certain aspects of science-based subjects (such as biology) are pushed into the spotlight, while careers such as space sciences tend to be neglected. However, despite the ongoing debate, one thing can be said for sure: STEM is in the USA’s line of vision, and the launch of Sputnik only made it clearer. So next time you’re finishing your homework, you can think about where it came from, and more importantly, where the American education system is going.


Fraknoi, Andrew. Space Science Education in the USA: The Good, the Bad, The Ugly, Accessed 25 Aug. 2023.

Powell, Alvin. “How Sputnik Changed U.S. Education.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 11 Oct. 2007,

“Space Race Timeline.” Royal Museums Greenwich,

“Sputnik Spurs Passage of the National Defense Education Act.” U.S. Senate: Sputnik Spurs Passage of the National Def

ense Education Act,

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