50 Years Ago, Launch of a New World

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.

Americans presumed that the space era would begin with the launch of Vanguard, a small U.S. satellite, as part of a global scientific program called the International Geophysical Year. The Soviets announced their own intentions to put up a satellite, but few people gave the claim any credence.

The big event scheduled in the United States for Friday night, Oct. 4, was the premiere of a CBS television series, "Leave It to Beaver."

Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, had taken his son Sergei, then a 22-year-old engineering student, to a meeting of Ukrainian officials in Kiev. It was nearing midnight, Sergei Khrushchev recalled, when an aide summoned his father to the phone. He soon returned, smiling broadly, and announced the launch of Sputnik. But the Ukrainians wanted only to talk about local matters, such as funding for a new electrical station.

Not everyone was surprised that Sputnik Night. Ernst Stuhlinger, a rocket scientist, now 93, had followed von Braun to the United States along with 116 other German scientists. On Sept. 27, 1957, Stuhlinger warned Army Gen. John Medaris, head of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala., that the Soviets were on the verge of launching a satellite. Medaris told him the Soviets weren't yet capable.

Stuhlinger remembers being in a taxi in Barcelona when the Sputnik bulletin came over the radio. "I told you so," he said to himself.

Sputnik made the popular President Dwight D. Eisenhower suddenly appear out of touch, almost semi-retired. Paul Dickson's "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century" reports that Eisenhower played golf five times during the week of Sputnik's launch.

But Eisenhower had his own geopolitical calculations that the public knew nothing about. He wanted to avoid the militarization of space and insisted that the first American satellite would use a nonmilitary rocket. He knew that the United States would soon have spy satellites for observing the Soviets.

What he didn't anticipate was the public relations disaster that the "Red moon" would become for him. Even the Soviets underplayed the achievement initially. Their 15-paragraph announcement was matter-of-fact, except for the concluding sentence:

"Artificial earth satellites will pave the way for space travel and it seems that the present generation will witness how the freed and conscious labor of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of man's dreams into reality."

In the U.S., Awe and Fear

Sputnik's polished aluminum exterior made it visible from the ground after dusk and before dawn as the satellite reflected the sun's rays. Many Americans lacked any understanding of the Newtonian mechanics of orbiting objects. They wondered why Sputnik didn't fall to the ground.

The political and media riot lasted for months. People suspected that Sputnik was spying on the United States. Was the beep-beep-beep a secret code? Pundits decried the softness of an American society that cared more about the size of automobile tail fins than the long struggle against the communists. Democrats in Congress saw political opportunity, and aerospace corporations envisioned new profits. Lyndon B. Johnson, the Senate majority leader, warned that the Soviets would soon build space platforms and drop bombs on America "like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses." Sen. Mike Mansfield declared, "What is at stake is nothing less than our survival."

A month after Sputnik I came Sputnik II, with a massive payload of more than 1,000 pounds and containing an ill-fated dog named Laika. "Soviets Orbit Second Artificial Moon; Communist Dog in Space," read one headline. A Life magazine column ran under the banner "Arguing the Case for Being Panicky."

The United States tried to launch its own satellite, Vanguard, but as the nation watched on live television, the rocket rose just four feet and exploded. Johnson called it "one of the best publicized -- and most humiliating -- failures in our history."

Many Americans literally went to ground, building bomb shelters. "The public relations impact of Sputnik in October of '57 never faded away until the election of 1960," said William Ewald, who was one of Eisenhower's speechwriters. "Everyone's speeches -- 'The Russians are coming, they're 10 feet tall, they're 12 feet tall, they're ahead of us in outer space.' People were talking about the missile gap, which did not exist."

Today we know that the United States wasn't behind the Soviet Union technologically. One reason the Soviet Union had bigger rockets was that, unlike the United States, it didn't have the technology to miniaturize the nuclear weapons that intercontinental missiles would deliver.

A new book on Sputnik, "Red Moon Rising" by Matthew Brzezinski, reports that the Soviets were desperately afraid that the United States would launch a preemptive nuclear attack. The satellite Sputnik was never as important as the R-7 rocket that delivered it -- and that served notice that the Soviets potentially could strike America with intercontinental missiles.

"Sputnik was never about space or the satellite. It was always about the missile, the rocket it rode on," Brzezinski said in an interview.

The Legacy of the Space Age

In 1957 many basic features of space were unknown. No one knew if Venus or Mars or any other planets in the solar system were habitable. Textbooks still taught that the shifting surface characteristics of Mars, observed through telescopes, might be the seasonal fluctuations of vegetation. Robotic probes eventually showed that they are caused by dust storms.

Half a century ago, no one could have predicted the boom-and-bust nature of human spaceflight. But now the Apollo triumph looks in retrospect like a heroic Cold War stunt. "Beating the Russians was everything. Going into space was almost secondary," said Hickam, author of the book "Rocket Boys," which was adapted for the movie "October Sky."

No human beings have gone beyond low Earth orbit since 1972. The international space station, a version of which was envisioned as long ago as the early 1950s, has yet to be completed.

There are bold plans at NASA for a return to the moon near the end of the next decade, about the time of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. But the space agency will have to achieve this feat on a tight budget, using spacecraft architecture that resembles that of Apollo. Much of the glory of post-Apollo spaceflight has belonged to unmanned probes and orbiting telescopes.

Perhaps satellites have been the real story of spaceflight all along.

"I thought eventually we'd have a few satellites in orbit, but not hundreds," said Konrad Dannenberg, 95, another of the German scientists on the von Braun team.

About 6,600 satellites of one kind or another have been launched since Sputnik, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He said 850 to 920 are in active operation, and of those, 568 are for communications.

Sergei Khrushchev, now a senior fellow at Brown University, cites the proliferation of satellites when he speaks of the historical significance of Sputnik Night:

"It is the beginning," he says, "of the new world."

On the 50th anniversary of the Space Age, few people use the term "Space Age" anymore. It's the Information Age now, and the era of globalization. Space technology has played a key role in the creation of a highly networked, accelerated, communications-saturated civilization.

People who have grown up in the age of satellites may find them no more remarkable than streetlights or storm sewers. They're infrastructure.

Sputnik plus the Internet equals Google Maps. Click on "Satellite," zoom in, and you can see your house from space.

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