50 Years Ago, Launch of a New World

Shortly after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II, with a small dog aboard, an Atlanta restaurant offered the Sputnikburger,
Shortly after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II, with a small dog aboard, an Atlanta restaurant offered the Sputnikburger, "orbited" by a miniature hot dog. Americans reacted to the satellites, which could be seen in the night sky, with a mixture of fascination and dread. (Associated Press)
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

News flash, Oct. 4, 1957: The Russians have launched a tiny moon. It is an artificial satellite, 184 pounds, a pumpkin-size sphere polished to a shine. The Russians call it Sputnik. As it passes over the United States it transmits a signal -- surely the most ominous beep-beep-beep that any American has ever heard.

"The communists were going to rule," recalled Homer Hickam, who was 14 when he saw Sputnik in the sky above his home town of Coalwood, W.Va., and who would go on to become a spacecraft designer. "And the proof of this was this shiny little bauble that flew around the world every 90 minutes."

Rocket engineer Julian Davidson, dismayed at being beaten into space, remembers a radio commercial that night -- an ad for a new Gillette razor. "The Russians just launched a satellite," he said, "and I'm listening to an ad for a great technology the Americans had for making razor blades."

Sputnik and its aftermath are a familiar tale at this point -- the story of a fat and happy superpower suddenly finding itself in a full-blown existential crisis but shaking free of its torpor, revamping science and math education, and winning the race to the moon.

Fifty years later, however, the standard narrative of disaster, recovery and triumph is being overhauled by historians. They're more likely to speak of Sputnik's impact as a shock to the system that incited political maneuverings and media misinformation. Much that seemed certain in October 1957 turned out to be misunderstood or purely illusory.

Humans have not set up space colonies or left boot prints on Mars, as widely predicted, but we have launched a stunning number of new Sputniks -- thousands of satellites for communications, navigation and surveillance that have changed everything from how we fight wars to how our rental cars guide us to our hotels.

One result of Sputnik had nothing to do with space. It was the creation of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a technology think tank that went on to develop a computer network called Arpanet. Arpanet evolved into the Internet.

"The great irony is that what we actually saw in space, what we actually accomplished in space, was strikingly different but ultimately more significant than what was anticipated," said Roger Launius, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

More broadly, the Space Age, so famously inaugurated by Sputnik, has taken on new shadings in recent years. The "conquest of space" has never played out according to script: Sputnik signaled the moment when humankind escaped the gravity well of the planet, but rather than propelling us to the stars, space technology keeps turning back toward terrestrial needs and desires.

"Is spaceflight about leaving this planet," asks Launius, "or is spaceflight about making this planet more humane and a better place for humans to reside?"

The Soviets' Surprise

In 1957 anyone who read popular culture knew of the coming age of space travel. Space buffs had devoured a series of articles in Collier's magazine written by Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi scientist who had been invited to come to the United States to work on rockets. Von Braun envisioned space colonies, moon missions and astronauts on Mars.

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