Revisiting the Life of the CIA Operative Who Anticipated the Sputnik Launch

Where intelligence history and the space race converge

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When the Soviet Union took an early lead in the space race with the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, you might wonder how the United States reacted. Visit NASA’s website and you’ll see a relatively straightforward confirmation of that, with text noting that the launch “caught the United States by surprise.” And that’s largely true — but also not entirely accurate. In 2017, the CIA declassified a number of documents related to the U.S. government’s response to Sputnik — and it turns out the CIA had a better sense of what was coming than most.

The Washington Post recently published an excerpt from Liz Mundy’s new book The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA which offers more details about CIA’s Sputnik predictions. The excerpt focuses on Eloise Page, who Mundy describes as “reactionary but visionary, snobby but able to overcome patriarchal provincialism to wield unheard-of influence.”

As Mundy describes it, Page was involved in assembling numerous documents about the Soviet space program; by March 1957, her office had a sense of what was coming, and had estimated a window of when to expect Sputnik’s launch. The satellite’s actual launch date — October 4 — was within this timeframe.

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Mundy’s book also helps explain just how Page was able to avoid being stifled by the sexism found within the CIA in the mid-20th century. Mundy quotes one CIA case officer who said of Page that “[s]he had the pictures on somebody.” The whole excerpt is well worth reading for its combination of Cold War politics, space age intelligence and tales of intra-agency blackmail. I’d be shocked if a prestige television series isn’t in the works before too long.

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