Sputnik: The Shock of the Centuryby Paul Dickson
On October 4, 1957, as Leave It to Beaver premiered on American television, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made object into space, a 184-pound satellite carrying only a radio transmitter. While Sputnik I immediately shocked the world, its long-term impact was even greater, for it profoundly changed the shape of the twentieth century.
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On October 4, 1957, as Leave It to Beaver premiered on American television, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made object into space, a 184-pound satellite carrying only a radio transmitter. While Sputnik I immediately shocked the world, its long-term impact was even greater, for it profoundly changed the shape of the twentieth century.
Washington journalist Paul Dickson chronicles the dramatic events and developments leading up to and emanating from Sputnik's launch. Supported by groundbreaking, original research and many recently declassified documents, Sputnik offers a fascinating profile of the early American and Soviet space programs and a strikingly revised picture of the politics and personalities behind the facade of America's fledgling efforts to get into space.
Although Sputnik was unmanned, its story is intensely human. Sputnik owed its success to many people, from the earlier visionary, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose rocket theories were ahead of their time, to the Soviet spokesmen strategically positioned around the world on the day the satellite was launched, who created one of the greatest public-relations events of all time. Its chief designer, however-the brilliant Sergey Korolov-remained a Soviet state secret until after his death.
Equally hidden from view was the political intrigue dominating America's early space program, as the military services jockeyed for control and identity in a peacetime world. For years, former Nazi Wernher von Braun, who ran the U.S. Army's missile program, lobbied for his rocket team to be handed responsibility for the first Earth-orbiting satellite. He was outraged that Sputnik beat him and America into space. President Eisenhower, though, was secretly pleased that the Russians had launched first, because by orbiting over the United States Sputnik established the principle of "freedom of space" that could justify the spy satellites he thought essential to monitor Soviet missile buildup. As Dickson reveals, Eisenhower was, in fact, much more a master of the Sputnik crisis than he appeared to be at the time and in subsequent accounts.
The U.S. public reaction to Sputnik was monumental. In a single weekend, Americans were wrenched out of a mood of national smugness and post-war material comfort. Initial shock at and fear of the Soviets' intentions galvanized the country and swiftly prompted innovative developments that define our world today. Sputnik directly or indirectly influenced nearly every aspect of American life, from the demise of the suddenly superfluous tail fin and an immediate shift towards science in the classroom to the arms race that defined the cold war, the competition to reach the Moon, and the birth of the Internet.
Shedding new light on a pivotal era, Paul Dickson reminds us that the story of Sputnik goes far beyond technology and the beginning of the space age, and that its implications are still being felt today.
Author Biography: Long fascinated by space and the cold war, Paul Dickson is the author of more than forty books on diverse topics, including two works of investigative journalism, Think Tanks and The Electronic Battlefield. He lives in Garrett Park, Maryland, with his wife, Nancy.
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Read an Excerpt
"The news was a bombshell."
-Richard N. Goodwin, Remembering America
On a fall Friday afternoon in 1957, five bells rang ominously on noisy teletype machines in
newsrooms across Washington, D.C., as a news wire brought word of Sputnik's launch.
LONDON, OCT. 4 (AP)-MOSCOW RADIO SAID TONIGHT THAT THE SOVIET UNION HAS LAUNCHED AN EARTH SATELLITE.
The news flash displaced several stories in the works: the tense racial situation at Central
High School in Little Rock, Arkansas; the Milwaukee Braves-New York Yankees World Series; and a
widespread flu epidemic. Jimmy Hoffa had been elected head of the Teamsters earlier in the day by a
vote of 1,208 to 453. Yom Kippur was beginning at sundown, and the television series Leave It to
Beaver would premier later in the evening on the CBS television network.
Details about the satellite were slow in coming, while information on the launch vehicle, or
booster, that put Sputnik into orbit would not be known in the West for years. What was known in the
first hours was that the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite to orbit the
Earth. It was about twice the size of a basketball, weighed only 184 pounds, and took approximately
ninety-six minutes to orbit the Earth on an elliptical path.
Shortly after 6 p.m. the news reached an international group of fifty or so scientists, many of whom
were Russians and Americans, attending a party in the grand ballroom on the second floor of the
Soviet Embassy in Washington. The scientists were participants in the International Geophysical Year
(IGY), a grand sixty-seven-nation effort to unlock the secrets of the physical world. Officially
deemed the "greatest scientific research program ever undertaken," the IGY involved more than 5,000
scientists in the effort to find out as much as they could about the Earth, the Sun, and outer space
during the "year." (The IGY actually ran for eighteen months, from July 1, 1957, to the end of 1958,
a period when there was maximum activity in solar flares.) Millions of facts would be collected, and
major questions-such as whether or not the Earth's climate was changing-were to be investigated.
Earlier, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had announced to the world on
separate occasions that each would put a small Earth-circling satellite into orbit as part of its
contribution to the IGY. The Americans and much of the rest of the Western world had paid little or
no attention to the Russians' plan but were eagerly looking forward to the launch of the first U.S.
Had it been on schedule, the Vanguard, the U.S. satellite, would have been launched November 1957.
(Its anticipated timetable might have actually spurred on the Soviets.) However, Vanguard was eight
to nine months behind schedule. There was no problem with the design of the satellite itself, but
there were real problems with each of the three rockets needed to get it into orbit. The first stage
lacked sufficient thrust, the second had to be redesigned, and the third was too heavy. Despite
published reports alluding to slight delays, the American public perceived the program as moving
along quite nicely. The Vanguard was now due to be launched in the spring of 1958, right in the
middle of the IGY.
Vanguard was being built by the U.S. Navy, which had begun a massive publicity campaign to promote
the satellite. By mid-1957, several books about Vanguard were already in the stores, and there were
hundreds of feature articles about it in magazines. In May of 1957, a new edition of a popular book
for hobbyists, Discover the Stars, was published with the image of Vanguard on the cover and
detailed plans for building a model of the satellite. The book claimed that the Space Age would
begin in early 1958 with a Vanguard launch from Banana River, Florida, also known as Cape Canaveral.
National Geographic magazine referred to the planned Vanguard as "history's first artificial earth-
circling satellite" (in February 1956) and as the "first true space vehicle" (in March of the same
year). Martin Caidin noted in Overture to Space that "Vanguard had become a household word. . . .
Scientists had given speeches and lectures on the miracle we were about to bring to the world.
Artificial satellites had become synonymous with American genius, technology, engineering, science,
and leadership." "Everyone knew in 1957 that space exploration was the next item on the scientific
and technological agenda, and almost everybody assumed that the United States would lead the way as
usual," John Brooks wrote in The Great Leap. In fact, Americans were so complacent that they weren't
even prepared to monitor other satellites. Therefore, on "Sputnik night" the Russian satellite twice
passed within easy detection range of the United States before anyone in authority knew of its
existence from the Associated Press report out of London.
Four days before the launch of Sputnik, the Comité Spécial de l'Année
Géophysique Internationale (CSAGI), an international scientific IGY organization, opened a
six-day conference at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington focusing on rocket and
satellite research for the IGY. Scientists from the United States, the Soviet Union, and five other
nations met to discuss their individual national plans and to develop protocols for sharing
scientific data and findings. However, the conference was abuzz because of a comment made by Sergei
M. Poloskov, member of the Soviet delegation, at the opening session on Monday, September 30.
Poloskov's presentation was titled "Sputnik"-he pronounced it spoot-nick-the Russian word for
"traveling companion of the Earth" and the name Russia had chosen for the satellite it was preparing
to launch. Although earlier talk of a Soviet satellite had been dismissed, Poloskov's audience took
notice when he used an expression that was translated into English as "now, on the eve of the first
artificial Earth satellite." He announced that the transmitters in the projected Soviet satellite
would broadcast alternately on frequencies of 20 and 40 megacycles. (A year earlier, the
international ruling body for the IGY had stipulated a frequency of 108 megacycles as standard for
all IGY satellites.) Speaking for the United States, Homer E. Newell pointed out to the Russian
scientist that Project Vanguard's radio tracking stations, which were going on line the very next
day, were set up to receive signals on the IGY-established frequencies. Since adapting the American
equipment to receive the Soviet signals would require time and money, Newell asked Poloskov to say
when his country hoped to put that first satellite in orbit.
The deftness with which Poloskov sidestepped Newell's question, along with similar questions from
other delegates, produced such a roar of laughter that the sober Russian scientist himself finally
and reluctantly joined in. All he would say was that when the Soviet satellite materialized, he
hoped the Vanguard tracking stations would be able to collect the data it transmitted and send them
On October 4, Walter Sullivan of the New York Times was at the Soviet Embassy party when he received
a phone call from his Washington editor. As quickly as possible he found Richard Porter, a member of
the American IGY committee and chairman of its technical panel, and whispered, "It's up!" Sullivan
had been scooped by events, for he had just filed a story with the Times for the next day that said
the Russian satellite could go up at any moment. Although Porter had been convinced for days that a
Soviet launching was imminent, he was still surprised that it had come so quickly and while the
Russian scientists were still in town. He passed the information to Lloyd V. Berkner, an American
physicist who was head of the Brookhaven National Laboratory and in charge of the American IGY
program. Berkner clapped his hands, called for silence, and announced: "I've just been informed
by the New York Times that a Russian satellite is in orbit at an elevation of 900 kilometers. I wish
to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement."
The scientists and engineers assembled at the embassy party were thrilled. Cheers rang out. Within
minutes, one of the most impenetrable buildings in Washington was putting out the welcome mat to
reporters. The Washington Daily News later called it a veritable "open house." Vodka flowed as more
news was given out about the satellite. The Americans offered their congratulations, and Berkner
proposed a toast, while the Soviet scientists doled out proud quotes. Joseph Kaplan, chairman of the
U.S. program for the IGY, called it "fantastic."
Someone brought out a shortwave radio, and soon a beeping noise filled the room. A Russian
scientist, Anatoli Blagonravov, confirmed it was Sputnik. "That is the voice," he said dramatically.
"I recognize it." John Townsend Jr., one of the scientists at the party, recalled watching
Blagonravov: "I knew him quite well, and I could tell that he was a little surprised and quite
proud. My reaction was 'Damn!'"
And so an abstraction now had a voice. It also had a name-Sputnik.
Many of those at the party adjourned to the Soviet Embassy's rooftop, attempting to view Sputnik
with the naked eye. Several of the American scientists drifted over to the American IGY headquarters
in Washington, where they began speculating on what impact the satellite would have. They feared
that the American people would be disappointed.
It also dawned on them that they had better start tracking the satellite's orbit. They got in touch
with the American Radio Relay League in West Hartford, Connecticut, asking its 70,000 members-all
"ham" radio operators-to lend a hand and help track the Sputnik. In less than twenty-four hours,
reports on the satellite were coming back to the National Science Foundation, where a temporary
control room had been established. Eventually, these hams and other amateur and professional
trackers would consider themselves part of a great international fellowship known as ROOSCH, or the
Royal Order of Sputnik Chasers.
On the same evening, at about the same time, another cocktail party was going on in Huntsville,
Alabama, at the Redstone Arsenal, where the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) was working on
Jupiter C, a powerful guided missile. The party was staged in honor of Neil McElroy, the visiting
newly designated secretary of defense who was on an orientation tour before being sworn in. He was
about to replace Charles E. Wilson, who was intensely disliked by the Huntsville missilemen for his
lack of imagination and interest in their work. Wilson's greatest sin, they believed, was that he
had given responsibility for long-range missiles to the Air Force and left the Army with a table
scrap: missiles with a range of less than 200 miles. McElroy was in Huntsville to look at the
Army's missile work and was accompanied by a large entourage from Washington, including the
secretary of the Army and his chief of staff of the Army.
Hosting McElroy's group at the arsenal were Major General John B. Medaris, the Army's top missile
commander and head of ABMA, and Wernher von Braun, the German rocket engineer who had headed the
team that developed the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany and now worked as the top missile scientist for
the U.S. Army. These two, along with Lieutenant General James M. Gavin, the chief of research and
development of the Army who had just arrived from Washington, had a major agenda: to launch and
orbit their own satellite powered by the Jupiter C. They had been pushing long and hard for this. As
early as 1954, von Braun had tried to get permission to launch the Army satellite but was turned
down. Even with the help of Generals Gavin and Medaris, Project Orbiter-as it had come to be called-
had been turned down repeatedly by President Eisenhower, outgoing secretary of defense Wilson, and a
group empowered to select America's IGY satellite.
McElroy and company arrived around noon and were briefed by von Braun, who once again made his pitch
for an Army satellite to go into space. Medaris felt that the mission of his entire organization was
to give the group from Washington the full and complete argument for the Army going into space.
The predinner "stag" cocktail party was in full swing, with McElroy, Medaris, and von Braun engaged
in small talk, when Gordon Harris, the public affairs officer at the base, burst into the room,
broke into the conversation, and said: "General, it has just been announced over the radio that
the Russians have put up a successful satellite. It's broadcasting signals on a common frequency,
and at least one of our local 'hams' has been listening to it."
There was an instant of stunned silence. General Gavin and others looked shaken. Then, as Medaris
recalled later in his memoir, von Braun "started to talk as if he had suddenly been vaccinated with
a Victrola needle. In his driving urgency to unburden his feelings, the words tumbled over one
another. 'We knew they were going to do it! Vanguard will never make it. We have the hardware on the
shelf. For God's sake, turn us loose and let us do something. We can put up a satellite in sixty
days, Mr. McElroy! Just give us a green light and sixty days!'"
At dinner, McElroy was seated between Medaris and von Braun. There was a running fire of press
updates on the Russian satellite, including the fact that it could now be heard on a radio at the
base. Medaris did his best to sell McElroy on the idea of giving the Army the job of responding to
Sputnik. Then Medaris dropped a bombshell. He said that more than a year earlier a Jupiter C
designated Missile 27 would have put the nose of a rocket in orbit without question during a test
"if we had used a loaded fourth stage."
Later, when everyone else had left, Medaris and von Braun lingered. They were angry and frustrated
that the nation had been outmaneuvered, but were also "jubilant" because they assumed they would now
be allowed to get their own satellite off the ground. The next morning they would use their
brightest young officers to beg McElroy to let them get off the bench and into the game to score a
touchdown for the West, America, and the U.S. Army. They knew they would have to make one hell of a
sales pitch to convince their new boss. Fortunately, the only point on which Medaris and von Braun
disagreed was that Medaris thought it would take ninety days to launch a satellite rather than the
sixty that von Braun had promised over drinks. The fact that McElroy's visit coincided with the
Sputnik launch created an optimal opportunity. Medaris later said they had been given "one of those
little psychological breaks that happen only a couple times or once in a lifetime."
Early the next morning, von Braun and Medaris formally promised McElroy the first U.S. satellite in
ninety days using the Jupiter C/Redstone rocket. "When you get back to Washington and all hell
breaks loose," von Braun said, "tell them we've got the hardware down here to put up a satellite
After McElroy and his entourage left, Medaris told von Braun to get the mothballed Jupiter C
rockets, starting with Missile 29, out of storage and "onto the floor"; the team went to work as if
they already had a directive to proceed. It was a bold, risky move, which Medaris later recalled in
his memoirs: "I was convinced that we would have final word inside of a week, and that week was
too valuable to be lost. If we still did not get permission to go, I would have to find some way to
bury the relatively small amount of money we would have spent in the meantime." He added, "I stuck
my neck out."
Sputnik Makes a Lasting Impression.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, an old Army man himself now in his second term as president, got the Sputnik
news around 6:30 p.m. at his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Before leaving Washington earlier
in the day, he had been in meetings to discuss the federalization of the Arkansas National Guard and
the use of federal troops in response to the crisis in Little Rock, which had been touched off when
Governor Orval Faubus refused an order to desegregate the schools. Eisenhower was treating Faubus's
defiance as an insurrection as well as a civil rights crisis. Later that evening, presidential press
secretary James Hagerty advised news correspondents that "the Soviet satellite, of course, is of
great scientific interest" but made a point of saying that the Russian announcement "did not come as
any surprise; we have never thought of our program as in a race with the Soviets."
Word of Sputnik reached the headquarters of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Kittridge
Hall, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at 6:15 p.m. The observatory's philharmonic orchestra was
holding its first rehearsal of the season when Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the assistant director and
ranking person on the premises, got the news in the form of a phone call from a Boston newspaper
reporter, who asked, "Do you have any comments on the Russian satellite?" Within minutes,
Smithsonian employees, scientists, and members of the media began to congregate at the observatory,
which also was headquarters for the optical-tracking program set to follow the American Vanguard
satellite. The observatory became the unofficial center for Sputnik information in the United States
in the following hours and days. Within an hour Kittridge Hall was so ablaze with light from
normally dark offices and camera crews that a woman living in the neighborhood reported that the
building was on fire and a pumper and a hook-and-ladder went clanging to the scene.
As the evening progressed, Sputnik was heard by many people. At precisely 8:07 p.m., eastern
daylight time, the signal was picked up by an RCA receiving station at Riverhead, New York, and
relayed to the NBC radio studio in Manhattan. By this time Sputnik had already made three passes
over the Western Hemisphere. Within moments, the sound of Sputnik was recorded for rebroadcast and
could be heard everywhere there was a radio or television.
For years to come, Americans would recall where they were on Sputnik night. Senate majority leader
Lyndon B. Johnson was at his ranch hosting one of his trademark Texas barbecues when the news was
announced. After dinner he, Mrs. Johnson, and their dinner guests took a long walk, as had become
customary since his heart attack two years earlier. The once festive group was now silent as it
looked skyward. "As we stood on the lonely country road that runs between our house and the
Pedernales River," he later recalled, "I felt uneasy and apprehensive. In the open West, you learn
to live with the sky. It is a part of your life. But now, somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed
Deeply moved by the event while also realizing it was a great political opportunity, Johnson
immediately swung into action. He phoned his Senate colleagues of both political parties to get
their support for investigative hearings on missiles and space.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, a former Johnson aide and now a presidential historian, recalls her own
initiation into the Space Age. A sophomore in high school when Sputnik went up, she was at her
boyfriend's house when the news was broadcast. The two decided they would go out and try to see it.
"We took a blanket," she confessed on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer on the thirtieth anniversary of
Sputnik's launch, "and we went to a park nearby. And it was a very romantic setting, and we started
to look for Sputnik. And then my boyfriend reached over and kissed me. . . . I didn't give Sputnik
John F. Kennedy, who was then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, seems to have shown even less
interest in Sputnik-at least in public. Kennedy was a frequent closing-time visitor to the men-only
bar at Boston's Loch Ober Café, where Freddy Hamil was maître d' and bartender. Hamil
was smitten by space and was a devotee of Wernher von Braun, who was already a household name by
virtue of his television appearances on the Wonderful World of Disney. Immediately following the
Sputnik launch, Hamil introduced the future president and his brother Robert to Charles Stark "Doc"
Draper, an MIT professor and pioneer in rocket guidance. A timely late-night bar conversation ensued
on the meaning of the Russian feat. Many years later, Draper told aerospace historian Eugene M. Emme
that it turned into an argument, with John Kennedy insisting ironically that all rockets were a
waste of money and their use in space even more so. In retelling this story, however, Emme added,
"But then the Kennedys were known to pick arguments just for the education of it or for the
Alan Shepard, who would be the first American in space, was at the Naval War College in Newport,
Rhode Island, when Sputnik was launched. He said that when he saw it in the October sky days later,
he knew intuitively that "this little rascal" would affect him directly and quickly. John Glenn, who
would follow Shepard as the first American in orbit, was already an American hero at the time. Weeks
earlier he had set a new transcontinental jet speed record. He immediately saw the euphoria of that
feat fade. "Supersonic flight had been outdone as a yardstick for measuring military superiority,"
he would say later.*
Half a world away, German Titov was just about to graduate from the Soviet Air Force pilots school
when he heard the news of Sputnik and his mind raced ahead. "Maybe man can fly in space someday," he
said to himself, "maybe in 20 to 25 years." Less than four years later, on August 6, 1961, he became
the second human to go into space and the first to spend more than twenty-four hours in orbit.
Konstantin Feokistov, the scientist who would fly aboard the 1964 Voskhod-1 (the first three-man
capsule), had a different reaction: "When word of Sputnik reached me, I was very proud to be
Russian. The world would now respect our science."*
Daniel S. Goldin, who eventually became the ninth NASA administrator, was a freshman at City College
of New York. The Saturday following the launch, he went into physics class, where his professor had
written "Sputnik Is Watching You" on the blackboard. He instantly became a "space nut" and knew that
he wanted to work on a space program. Ed Stone, the director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
from 1991 to 2001, recalls that as a graduate student at the University of Chicago he saw doors open
to a whole new area of science and technology in the aftermath of Sputnik.
Soon after the launch, biologist Max Dellbrück was hosting a picnic. (Among his guests was the
great physicist Richard Feynman.) He hooked up a jury-rigged receiver, dialed up the Sputnik signal,
quieted the group by putting an index finger to his lips, and then grinned broadly-as if to signal
to his colleagues that science was back in the saddle.
"My life changed right there and then," Ross Perot recalled in a 1997 interview. He thought, "This
is just like Kitty Hawk, the world is forever changed and I am going to be part of that new world."
Ralph Nader, then a third-year law student at Harvard Law School, told Air & Space magazine, "It hit
the campus like a thunderbolt." "Psychopathic" is how Harold W. Ritchey, the solid fuel rocket
pioneer, described his shocked reaction. "It took me three months to get over it."
In Barcelona, Spain, where the eighth International Astronautical Congress was in session, word of
Sputnik was received late, after most of the delegates had gone to bed. British writer Sir Arthur C.
Clarke, the visionary who had been writing about the coming of the Space Age for years, was awakened
from a sound sleep by reporters asking for comments. He told them that Sputnik would have "colossal
On his way home from a Black Sea vacation, Nikita Khrushchev stopped in Kiev, where he awaited news
of the launch. His son, Sergei, later recalled that at about 11 p.m. his father got word from the
launch site that the satellite was in orbit and shortly thereafter heard its transmission on a
shortwave radio. Deeply impressed with the feat, he could not fully understand its impact until he
saw how the rest of the world, especially the West, reacted to it.
Sputnik night is recalled in many memoirs and recollections, and it is the rare writer who,
recalling the night, does not admit to being overwhelmed by its historic importance. Coincidentally,
writer James A. Michener was in flight on a military DC-3 from Guam to Tokyo when the plane ran into
trouble and was forced to ditch in the Pacific. Everyone ended up in a large rubber raft. The group
was rescued and flown to the Iwakuni base near Tokyo, where an excited reporter shouted, "Have you
heard the news?" Michener, as spokesman for the group, answered, "Yes. We ditched in the middle of
Pacific." The reporter shouted, "No! The Russians have sent a spaceship into orbit around the
world." As Michener would later recall, "Within minutes we had forgotten our own adventure in the
shadow of one so infinitely greater."
One of the lucky individuals who caught a glimpse of Sputnik was Saunders Kramer, cofounder of the
American Astronautical Society. Kramer heard about it while working for the Lockheed Missiles and
Space Company in Palo Alto, California. Then he listened to the beeping of Sputnik on his car radio
on the way home. The next morning he got up at 4:30 and went out on his patio to look for the
satellite with binoculars. In the October 1987 issue of Space World magazine, Kramer recalled that
before he actually saw Sputnik, he thought, "What am I doing here, the only person crazy enough to
be out here this early on a Saturday morning." But moments later, his neighbors all the way down the
block were looking up and saying, "Do you see it? Do you see it?" for the next several minutes. And
then, precisely at 5 a.m., out of the northwest sky, Sputnik appeared. Kramer raised his binoculars
and saw the satellite when "suddenly a huge meteor slammed across the sky, leaving a trail of orange
ash which lingered for several seconds. I obviously wasn't the only one who saw it because it made
the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the next morning. I'll never forget it."*
The Press Reacts
When the Sun came up in the United States the day after Sputnik's launch, the country experienced a
sense of awe rather than panic. As would be true for many weeks to come, President Eisenhower and
his top advisers reacted calmly. On that Saturday morning, and for the fifth time that week, the
president of the United States played golf.Ý A Newsweek correspondent in Boston wrote in a
memo that same morning that the "general reaction here indicates massive indifference," while
another Newsweek writer wired his home office from Denver that there "is a vague feeling that we
have stepped into a new era, but people aren't discussing it the way they are football and the
Polls taken within days of the launch showed that Americans were concerned-so concerned that almost
every person surveyed was willing to see the national debt limit raised and forgo a proposed tax cut
in order to get the United States moving in space.* A Gallup poll for Newsweek found that 50 percent
of a sample taken in Washington and Chicago regarded Sputnik as a blow to U.S. prestige. Still, 60
percent said that America, not Russia, would make the next great scientific advance. A poll by the
Minneapolis Star and Tribune found that 65 percent of Minnesotans thought the United States could
send up a satellite within thirty days following the Russian success. In a quick survey conducted by
the Opinion Research Corporation, 13 percent believed that America had fallen dangerously behind, 36
percent that it was behind but would catch up, and 46 percent that it was still at least abreast of
Russia. Assistant Director J. Allen Hynek of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory had the
impression that Americans, on this fine autumn weekend, felt they had "lost the ball on [their] own
40-yard line but would still win the game."
The initial media reaction was diverse. The New York Times announced the event in an extremely rare
three-row headline with much supplementary information. The Milwaukee Sentinel relegated the story
to a small headline and short article on page three, while the front page of the paper proclaimed
"Today We Make History"-because the city was hosting the World Series for the first time.
The only discord that Saturday morning was from Huntsville, where a scientist "asking that his name
not be used" (this was almost certainly the media-savvy Wernher von Braun) told the Associated Press
that he was "angry and distressed" because the Army could have had a satellite in orbit if it had
been given the assignment in 1955. Medaris and von Braun had apparently decided that they would
publicize their rage against Washington.
Over the weekend the news media, still collectively known as "the press" in those days, realized
that Sputnik was a big, big story. They needed a means of reporting it, so they besieged scientific
and military institutions in search of authoritative voices to provide datelines and interpret
events. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was flooded with
reporters, who ended up staying for weeks, while other reporters latched on to the willing Army
sources at Huntsville or the Army's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
In England, the Jodrell Bank Observatory, the world's largest radio telescope-though not yet
completed at the time-was thrust into the role of satellite central for the United Kingdom and
western Europe. Sir Bernard Lovell of the observatory wrote in his 1968 memoir: "Throughout
Saturday and Sunday a state of siege of newspaper and broadcasting personnel began to develop around
my house and Jodrell." Within hours, the BBC crew alone outnumbered the staff at the observatory.
Some things were immediately clear to the legions of reporters and editorialists assigned to the
story. First and foremost, the launch of Sputnik into orbit signaled the very moment when the Space
Age began. Although the London Daily Express was the first to actually proclaim it in a headline-
"The Space Age Is Here"-the term Space Age now cropped up everywhere. Writers with scant details on
the satellite opted for Sunday "thumb-suckers"-journalistic slang for labored, reflective essays
often written in lieu of hard news-about the dawning of a new age. Typically, these stories told
readers born in the horse-and-buggy era that they could now claim to have made it to the Space Age.
Also, there was no question that the Soviets had scored a major scientific achievement, and there
was no shortage of experts to attest to this. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, for example, said that the
launch was one of the greatest scientific advances in world history." Sir Bernard Lovell labeled it
"absolutely stupendous, about the biggest thing that has happened in scientific history."
In those first hours of the Space Age, many writers gave Sputnik a special identity, which added to
its luster and romance. It was declared to be nothing less than a new moon.* The headline writers
loved the lunar label. "Made-in-U.S.S.R. 'Moon' Circles Earth; Space Era Advent Jolts Washington"
was the first-day banner headline in the Christian Science Monitor, while "Russia Launches a Moon"
appeared in the London Daily Mail.Ý
In the United States especially, newspapers were quick to draw their readers' attention to the fact
that Sputnik was flying overhead. Saturday morning's Cleveland Plain Dealer screamed in a two-line
headline, "Satellite Fired by Russia; Circling US 15 Times a Day." Diagrams and maps showing the
overflight path were a common sight in U.S. newspapers. The American press also conceded that the
Soviet Union had won some points in what was, to use a Cold War cliché, "the war for men's
minds." "Major Propaganda Victory Believed Scored by Russia" read a Denver Post Saturday headline,
which was echoed in the simple Sunday New York Times headline "A Propaganda Triumph." The Times
backed up its headline with an editorial terming the Soviet announcement "one of the world's
greatest propaganda-as well as scientific-achievements."
By Sunday, the rest of the world had had a chance to react. The satellite was the lead story in
every British paper, and all were awed by the Russian feat. The Sunday Telegraph, however, added
that it believed that the United States soon would surpass the Soviet Union in space. The Chinese
papers viewed Sputnik as proof that the Communist system was superior and had superior scientists.
In Austria, a Communist newspaper, Volkstimme, commented with pride, "In contrast with the first
step into the atomic age which began with 100,000 deaths and frightful destruction in Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, mankind can rejoice without destruction on the . . . conquest of the cosmos by the human
spirit." Die Presse, a non-Communist Austrian paper, asked who could be certain that "the satellite
is intended not primarily for scientific purposes or the exploration of space but preparation of war
on a planetary scale."
By the end of the weekend, the giddying effects of the event were wearing thin in the United States.
The scientific, political, military, and media elite were no longer in a congratulatory mood. Nor,
it seems, was the American public. For one thing, while Sputnik put a proud Soviet Union in the
world spotlight, Americans were hard-pressed to find an upside to the story. Reporters hunting for a
positive spin had to settle for the rather feeble notion that the United States, purportedly the
most powerful scientific nation on Earth, was up to the challenge of tracking the first man-made
object to leave the planet. The New York Herald-Tribune reassured its readers with the headline
"U.S. Scientists Map Red Moon's Orbit."
The only other positive bit of news was a dispatch from Moscow reporting that the Russian people did
not learn about the launch until after most Americans and much of the rest of the world had. This
highlighted the fact that American society enjoyed a free flow of information, whereas Russian
society did not.
A press quote proved to be prophetic. Rocket scientist and avocational science fiction writer G.
Harry Stine was fired from the Glenn L. Martin Company, the prime contractor for the Vanguard
satellite program, because he was quoted in a Denver newspaper interview on Saturday saying, "We
have known in the rocket business for a long time that the Russians were pretty sharp. . . . We lost
five years between 1945 and 1950 because nobody would listen to the rocket men. We have got to catch
up those five years fast or we are dead." Stine later pointed out to an Associated Press reporter
that the comments that cost him his job simply paraphrased what he had written in his book Earth
Satellites and the Race for Space Superiority, published in paperback a month before the Sputnik
launch.* Within days, Stine's comments would be echoed by many.
Meanwhile, Russian rocket scientists still in Washington for the IGY conference had become the
instant darlings of the radio and television media. On Saturday, three of them appeared on the NBC-
TV show Youth Wants to Know. Anatoli Blagonravov was asked if the satellite was a victory over the
West. "We did not consider it necessary to compete in this field," he answered, "and we would be
happy, no less than we are happy now, if we see the American satellite in space. We believe that our
satellite, as well as the American satellite, could do it and serve science."
But before leaving town, the Russians did take one final poke at their American counterparts. On
Saturday, in the auditorium of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Blagonravov was given the
floor to speak about Sputnik. Homer E. Newell, who was in the audience, later recalled:
"Understandable pride was evident in Blagonravov's bearing, but his words also bristled with barbs
for his American listener. The speaker could not refrain from chiding the United States for talking
so much about its satellite before having one in orbit, and commended to his listeners the Soviet
approach of doing something first and then talking about it."
Newell and the other Americans felt that Blagonravov's "ungracious" comments missed the point of the
IGY, which was to talk about projects before, during, and after so that others could share
On Sunday, the Russians were making more news in the United States as the country learned of a press
release issued by Tass, the official Soviet news agency, which reported: "During the
International Geophysical Year the Soviet Union proposes launching several more artificial earth
satellites. These subsequent satellites will be larger and heavier and they will be used to carry
out programs of scientific research." Tass ended its release with this line: "Artificial earth
satellites will pave the way to interplanetary travel, and apparently our contemporaries will
witness how the freed and conscientious labor of the people of the new socialist society makes the
most daring dreams of mankind a reality."
The U.S. public immediately began to learn more about rockets and satellites, including the fact
that a Russian was the first person to prove the theory of spaceflight more than fifty years before
Sputnik. News services picked up a story from the October 5 Pravda that said, "As early as the end
of the nineteenth century the possibility of realizing cosmic flights by means of rockets was first
scientifically substantiated in Russia by the works of the outstanding Russian scientist Konstantin
E. Tsiolkovsky." Russian rocket literature was largely unknown in the West, although any Russian
could read the work of Western rocket experts.* And now the heirs to Tsiolkovsky had put an aluminum
alloy sphere in orbit. Many wondered what held it up. Schoolteachers, reporters, and editorialists
found themselves dipping into the theories and laws of Sir Isaac Newton, who was the first one to
explain-almost 300 years earlier-how a satellite could work.
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