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Seventy years ago this week — on May 16, 1952 — scientists announced the International Geophysical Year, a concerted effort of the world’s best minds to come together so that the planet could learn about itself.
By the time the actual “year” went down from July 1957 to December 1958, more than 30,000 researchers across 67 countries lent their brightest minds to the IGY, producing volume after volume of new discoveries. The theory of plate tectonics, the detection of the Van Allen radiation belts above Earth, developments in oceanography, and the sprouts of the Space Age all came out of this 18-month period.
But in the background of it all was the acceleration of the Cold War. Much like today, politics played a significant role in the science of the IGY.
But first, let’s go to the inspiration: Despite the outer space ambitions, the meeting can trace its roots to the 19th-century fixation with the North and South Poles.
“People in the late Victorian age are obsessed with the poles. They are this undiscovered space on the map,” Thomas Ellis, a teaching fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, tells Inverse.
Antarctica in particular held “a real mystique” because it was uninhabited. So historically speaking, “you get this connection between the Antarctic and space in many respects.”
“The poles are a unique environment,” Ellis adds. “They are hazardous to survive in, but you can do a lot of really excellent science there.”
From 1882 to 1883, 12 countries participated in the first International Polar Year. They created more than a dozen research stations near the poles and investigated auroras and meteorology.
Half a century later, it was revived. The number of countries partaking in the second International Polar Year had tripled since the first one. Their scientists looked at the newly-discovered jet stream and investigated new developments in radio science. One of its explorers, named Lloyd Berkner, would go on to create the IGY.
Origins of the International Geophysical Year
As the story goes, it all started at a 1950 dinner party. Berkner, the former Antarctic explorer turned physicist, was reminiscing about his adventures.
Berkner had seen how the new field of aviation had advanced polar expeditions. He suggested a brand new Polar Year so that teams could use the latest science that had been developed in those two decades since his Antarctic Expedition with Admiral Byrd to learn about the extreme environment at the poles in a way that couldn’t be done before.
He suggested holding the project in 1957, when the Sun’s activity would reach its maximum in its roughly 11-year cycle. As a physicist, he was intrigued by a region of Earth’s atmosphere affected by solar radiation, called the ionosphere.
Berkner and his colleagues put the idea forward, but a lot had changed in the two decades since his odyssey. By the middle of the 20th century, space populizers like futurist Arthur C. Clarke talked about how a Space Age was just on the horizon. Coupled with the nuclear, radar, and missile developments that came out of World War II, the Polar Year transformed and expanded beyond Antarctic science to include new fields of study.
The 1950s was a period of a massive trust in scientists, Ellis says. It was also a heyday for fantasies about reaching space, Cathleen Lewis, curator of International Space Programs and Spacesuits at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, tells Inverse. These visions had been growing for more than half a century, and slowly capturing the world’s imagination, thanks to books like From the Earth to the Moon (1865) by French writer Jules Verne.
“This had been a long-standing idea. Obviously, to some extent, the idea was science fiction, from its European concept with Jules Verne. But there were others who had really latched on to this idea,” Lewis says, referring to avid Verne readers like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia and Hermann Oberth in Germany, who are now remembered as the forerunners of the Space Age.
“With Verne, it was purely science fiction,” she adds, “but it was based on this growing surge of industrialization and the realization that soon we would have the physical might to send a human into space.”
Culturally, too, space was on everyone’s minds. In March 1952, Colliers ran the first in a series of articles in the “Man will Conquer Space Soon” — a series that would detail the ambitions of former-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun’s work on behalf of the United States to get America to space.
In the two years that spanned its inception to ratification, the Polar Year proposal had received endorsements from various scientific organizations such as the Mixed Commission on the Ionosphere (MCI) and the International Scientific Radio Union (USRI). In October 1951, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) approved the proposal.
Then in May 1952, ICSU appointed a very small international committee to form national working groups to plan what each nation would study. But the project name changed shortly thereafter. “Later in 1952, the International Council widened the scope and title of the enterprise, which became the International Geophysical Year,” according to the writings of British physicist Sydney Chapman.
Scientists and global leaders got five years in the mid-1950s to outline what they would investigate. Planners had to extend the initial 12-month period by four months because of the sheer quantity of proposed experiments.
How the IGY evolved
Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former general from World War II, became President of the United States the year after the IGY was announced. Now in the throes of the Cold War and on the heels of World War II and the Korean War, Eisenhower saw the IGY as something the U.S. could capitalize on. By taking up a role as an IGY leader, and pushing for new research while promising to share its findings with other countries, the U.S. would benefit politically from its appearance as an altruistic scientific player in the world arena.
Eisenhower had his eye on spaceflight. A fear of Eisenhower’s, Ellis says, is that the U.S. would mess up its budget by spending too much trying to avoid communism during the Cold War, go broke, and essentially become its worst nightmare.
When the concept of satellites got his attention, he saw them as a pragmatic budget-friendly solution: An orbiting probe meant the U.S. didn’t need to physically send people to gather ground intelligence about its enemies and would allow the government to collect information about other nations without violating flyover laws. Satellites could offer sustainable surveillance in a long-lasting conflict like the Cold War. By the mid-1950s, Eisenhower thought “America should prepare itself for a marathon, not a sprint,” Ellis says.
Satellite technology became a reality soon after the IGY’s establishment, and the event provided a compelling cover — the advancement of science for its own sake — for the political and military motivations to launch these objects, Ellis says. The IGY also masks other sciences’ geopolitical benefits. The field of geodesy, for instance, could be classified as Earth’s attempt to understand itself, but knowing our planet’s shape would also facilitate the development of missiles and bombers.
The IGY ultimately sped up the timeline of the launches of the first three space satellites: Sputnik by the Soviet Union in October 1957, and Explorer 1 and Vanguard by the United States early in 1958.
“The satellites would have been launched anyway,” Ellis says, “but [IGY] gives both sides a compelling deadline.”
IGY also created a template for “a planetary frame of mind,” he says. “Some of that is quite idealistic because you got people talking about, ‘We’re a planet studying ourselves.’ But at the same time, the research that we’re doing makes it easier to nuke each other. This isn’t just kind of a happy story.”
Why the IGY mattered
The IGY was a historic earmark for international scientific cooperation.
“You see this kind of rhetoric in world leaders at this time of, ‘science is above it all,’ literally with astronomy. ‘It is above it all, above politics,’ even though, of course, science has politics,” Lisa Ruth Rand, a technology historian at California Institute for Technology, tells Inverse. “This kind of cultural investment in science is seen as being above the fray, particularly space science.”
The legacy of IGY still matters today. Ellis says scientists use it as an example of successful and competitive international cooperation. It significantly broadened what we know and how we think about our planet, and helped develop major programs like those now operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The Space Race that started during the IGY eventually led to the creation of the Outer Space Treaty, too. This piece of international legislation influences how we think about space today. Canada recently extended its criminal code to the Moon. Earlier this decade, NASA published the Artemis Accords to foster the “civil exploration and use of the Moon, Mars, Comets, and Asteroids for peaceful purposes,” acknowledging the wake of what the IGY established on the world stage last century. The Paris Agreement created in 2015 is still an important matter on the international stage, as countries debate one another and set goals for mitigating climate change.
Looking into the future, it will be worthwhile to remember the behind-the-scenes of historic collaborations like the IGY, which paved the good and bad elements in the modern road of scientific exploration.
Space Time is an Inverse series that remembers the most important moments in humanity’s exploration of outer space.