Sputnik and us

Sputnik I replica at the National Air and Space Museum.
© Smithsonian Institution.

The Soviets were number 1 in the space race.
  Sputnik I: The little satellite that did
sputnikFor a 184-pound aluminum sphere that spent just three months in orbit and didn't do much more than emit radio beeps, Sputnik I was one big deal.

Blasted into space at the height of the Cold War on Oct. 4, 1957, Sputnik was Earth's first artificial satellite. To an America that considered itself technological wizard numero uno, the news was a jolt.

How bad? Think about seeing a rip in your bungee-jumping cord -- about two seconds too late. After Sputnik, the exciting ride of the Cold War became a dangerous, arduous race to technology.

By demonstrating an ominous -- but short-lived -- Soviet lead in rocketry, Sputnik intensified the terror over nuclear annihilation. Coming at a time when science -- and its products like penicillin, radar and the atomic bomb -- was credited with helping win World War II, Sputnik raised the prospect that Red scientists might win the Cold War.

Today, almost a decade after the Soviet Union melted down, when Mir, the Soviet-built space station, is staggering between disaster and calamity, it's tough to recall the alarm over the Soviet achievement. The Sputnik Challenge (see the bibliography) gave a good readout on those reactions:

Physicist Edward Teller, the patron saint of the hydrogen bomb, said the United States had lost "a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor."

U.S. News & World Report said the launching ranked alongside nuclear fission in military importance.

Senator Henry Jackson called the satellite "a devastating blow to the prestige of the United States as the leader in the scientific and technical world."

And all this was before Nov. 3, when the Soviet Union launched the 1,121-pound Sputnik II. postage stamp with Laika's picture on itThe second edition carried a pooch named Laika. It may have been part publicity stunt, but the launch still poured gasoline on the flames of American paranoia. In a special issue of Life magazine, for example, the editors warned that the world "might be at a turning point."

(Sputnik 1 is long dead, but we found it in a long list of satellites. Sputnik orbited the Earth every 96.1 minutes, at a height of 227 to 945 kilometers, and incinerated upon entering Earth's atmosphere Jan. 3, 1958. To check on your favorite satellite.)

To fathom the alarm over Sputnik, you must understand the times, says Bruce Lewenstein, a science historian at Cornell University. World communism was not the joke it is today, but the wave of the future. China had gone communist in 1949. The Soviets had dominated Eastern Europe and recently exploded a hydrogen bomb.

Now, the Sputniks put the Soviets firstest with the fastest rocket on Earth. "People were tremendously worried about the bomb, that it would destroy the world," Lewenstein says, "and now the Russians had the capacity to deliver bombs anywhere in the United States."

And how did the United States respond?

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The Why Files Staff: Terry Devitt, editor; Darrell Schulte, webmaster; Dave Tenenbaum, feature writer; Susan Trebach, team leader.