A Brief History of the International Geophysical Year
On July 1, 1957, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) began. It lasted 18 months.
The idea was hatched in the early 1950s when physicist Lloyd Berkner proposed a worldwide effort to track geophysical data. The idea was to collect and share scientific data about the Earth—notably its atmosphere, its oceans, its glaciers, and its sun—regardless of political boundaries. A total of 67 countries got onboard.
Berkner studied the Earth's atmosphere, and he proposed mid-1957 through the end of 1958 for the IGY. This timing would allow scientists to observe a period of tumultuous sunspots at the height of their 11-year cycle. As a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Berkner's proposal went over well.
As part of the IGY, the U.S. began to ramp up its orbital satellite-building efforts. They hoped to launch satellites to collect geophysical data, and that effort fed directly into the creation of NASA in July, 1958. Of course, Americans' dreams of satellite supremacy were interrupted when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 using a military intercontinental ballistic missile on October 4, 1957, going against its promise to keep the military out of the scientific activities of the IGY. (The launch was pre-announced; the ICBM was not.) The IGY marks the beginning of the space race, but it was also a remarkable collaboration on Earth, particularly in the areas of Antarctic research and glaciology.
During the IGY, satellite launch attempts happened nearly every month. After Sputnik 1, the USSR sent up Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika aboard. A month later, the U.S. responded with Vanguard TV-3 (Test Vehicle-3), which blew up on the launch pad. (Subsequent Vanguard and Sputnik launches were littered with failures, but successes poked through as well.) The first American satellite to reach orbit, Explorer 1, went up on January 31, 1958 as part of the IGY. It discovered the Van Allen radiation belts. (In the image above, Dr. James Van Allen stands in the middle of three scientists, holding aloft a model of the Explorer 1 launch rocket.)
The effects of the IGY are still felt today, in the satellites we use to observe our planet and in the open research processes organizations like NOAA use to study oceans and weather.
Just before the IGY began, President Eisenhower gave a one-minute statement on the project:
Far more impressive was an BBC TV program called The Restless Sphere. Hosted by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, this 70-minute show dug into all manner of science, including the various satellite projects in progress around the world. This was broadcast on June 30, 1957, and is a brilliant time capsule. Enjoy: