TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite -- much to America's surprise. Little Sputnik was only ushering in the Space Age, but at the time it seemed more as if the Russians had sneaked unseen downcourt to slam-dunk a 184-pound ball through our national basket. It turned out, of course, that it was we who drove on inexorably toward the Moon, winning the moon race to cap a 10-year comeback. The gamesmanship may have cooled now, but Sputnik is still remembered -- in Connecticut, Redwood City, Harvard, industrial Jersey, Paengnyong Do. The Diabolical Beep

The truth is, that year, I was a spy for the U.S. Air Force, hauling battered paperback copies of Camus and Dostoevski around the Orient in the waning days of the Pax Americana. I was stationed on a Godforsaken island in the Yellow Sea off the coast of North Korea just south of the 38th Parallel. The island was called Paengnyong Do, and to get there you landed on a foggy, crescent-shaped beach in a DC3 (I was then too young and too dumb to be scared). There, on the top of a very cold mountain, by means of powerful radio receivers, my comrades and I listened to, and translated, the in-flight chatter of the People's Republic of China air force, an activity alleged to be highly useful for military intelligence purposes but in practice monumentally boring.

When the Sputnik was launched, we stopped listening to those Commies (in the 1950s the Commies were demonstrably everywhere) and immediately began listening to the steady beep-beep the diabolical Russian basketball emitted in outer space, hoping to discern some meaning, some pattern, in its electronic signal. The Rosetta stone was not studied with more intensity than these beep-beeps. As a matter of fact, I personally tape-recorded 72 continuous hours of beep-beeps, and I devoutly hope those tape recordings are preserved today in the vaults of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade.

The panic passed after a few days, and the translators of the 6922nd Radio Group (Mobile), a sort of at-ease, pre-M*A*S*H collection of misfits, hollow-eyed beatniks and poets manque', returned to their all-night double-pinochle games, drinking bouts and sullen insouciance in the presence of commissioned and non-commissioned officers, waiting, even pining, for the arrival of the DC3, the big bird, come to take them home. -- Reid Beddow Seeing, Believing

I was news editor of a small California daily when the Associated Press came through with the Sputnik story, and I'll say for us that, even though the Milwaukee Braves had just tied up the World Series by beating the Yankees, we gave Sputnik the banner.

I did have to fight for an eight-column line, as I remember.

But the thing that stays with me is how many people doubted the whole story.

"It's a phony!" callers would scoff. "Has anybody seen it? You only seen a picture of it, right? Well, anybody can fake a picture. You think I'm gonna believe what some Commie tells me?"

The '50s were like that.

When it was pointed out that our astronomers had picked up the tiny satellite in their telescopes, obviously the astronomers had to be pinkos. Or it was a tremendous international plot: "They say that because they're told to. The government is in on it. What it is, is UFOs. You watch, they'll hush it all up in a couple weeks."

Then we were told that it might be possible to see Sputnik if you looked close to the sun just at twilight. Half the population of Redwood City stood on the shake roofs of their ranchettes that evening, gawking, pointing, arguing over the binoculars. A few citizens claimed they saw it, but everyone else dismissed them as impressionable.

"Oh, it was Birdie Wilson, huh? Huh! He'd see a cow up there if you told him it was there."

I didn't see it either. But almost immediately Sputnik stopped being a physical reality and turned into a concept. There were two ways you could react: Either it was a Commie trick, or the Reds were way ahead of us because we didn't teach enough math in elementary school. (The '50s were very big on Either-Or, too.)

Anyway, the math panic mushroomed into a national cause, and Sputnik became a code word and turned into one of those abstractions that we called an issue. You had the Sputnik Era and the post-Sputnik educational theory, and then columnist Herb Caen invented the beatnik and so on.

One lovely hot December Sunday afternoon, the sort of day you move to California for in the first place, I was lying beside the pool at our new tennis club. I was dreamily watching a cloud shaped exactly like New York State with rabbit ears. And I saw it: a tiny silver dot, moving deliberately across the blue sky. A brilliant speck so small that I knew if I took my eyes off it I would never find it again.

So I kept watching it, sitting up and shouting, "Hey, I see it! I see it!"

"Oh him," someone said. "It's a spot in his eye. It's a weather balloon."

But I saw it, the actual Sputnik, still up there doing its job, forgotten in all the uproar, calmly circling the planet. -- Michael Kernan Garden State Gizmos

New Jersey responded to the challenge of Sputnik as Greece to the barbarians: by absorbing the interloper as its own.

True, there were those who called the spiny globe a "Russian grapefruit with an arrow through its head." But most New Jerseyites, their lives already animated by urgent trains, mighty highways and deep-water ports -- their very sky adrone with the music of Eastern Constellations -- saw Sputnik for what it was: another chorus in the hymn to transportation.

Those were the days when trucks roared and diesel smoke rose and the sunsets were particulate rainbows. Over the refineries of Linden, its sky ablaze with the candlefires of Esso; over the prismatic gleam of the Arthur Kill as it flowed toward Perth Amboy, oiled like a Nubian bride; over the nighttime gleam of the Dr. Lyons toothpowder billboard in North Rahway -- over all these the Sputnik soared.

Perhaps these passes of Sputnik were not as dramatic, as celebratory or as mad for life as the rest of New Jersey. Perhaps little Sputnik's passing could be easily overshadowed by the one Battle of Britain searchlight probing heavenward from the Two Guys From Harrison parking lot. But New Jersey knew Sputnik was there, and brought it down to Earth.

All along Route 1 they sprang up, small acknowledgments of a new era. The motels started it first; then the diners, then the low-front bars. They put out small garish globes, gaudily lit, spouting goofy wands tipped with blinking bulbs. These funny gizmos turned, and winked, and could be seen far down the road.

They were called "sputniks," and it was written sometimes (in journals hostile to New Jersey) that they were very ugly, or crass. But they were not. They were commerce, they were advertising, they were the recognition of a generous and attentive state.

What the Soviet Union had launched was a piece of New Jersey. And New Jersey said, Hurrah! -- Christian Williams Harvard and the Faith

The debate in the Harvard dining room was ever so button-down.

One scholar of Soviet history suggested that the Russians were too technologically backward to design an artificial satellite themselves; the Sputnik must have come about as the result of research by German scientists captured during World War II. His colleague reminded him that the Russians are an immensely talented people capable of extraordinary bursts of creativity, though in limited areas and in response to specific challenges; their putting a Sputnik in orbit signified that they had overtaken the United States in one particular field of technology. As for military application, the scholars found themselves in agreement: It would take many, many years before American security could be affected, and by that time, the United States would catch up. Of course.

Their discourse was suffocatingly measured -- a verbal minuet by two courtiers. Oh, Harvard! Oh, moderation in all things! It would take World War III to make these people raise their voices, I thought, nothing short of that.

Suddenly, the ivy-covered buildings, the motto "grow in wisdom" and the Harvard style of genteel shabbiness seemed perilously old-fashioned. If Harvard was America's intellectual capital, the United States was an empire about to be superseded, an incipient Britain.

But I had classes to attend, and reading to catch up with. I didn't give the Sputnik another thought until the evening, when a friend burst into my room. He had fled Hungary less than a year before -- the same time I did. He was three years older than I, and a poet. He brought some sausage and bread, and suggested that we not go to the dining room for dinner. He just couldn't listen to all the naive arguments.

The Sputnik was a sign of the beginning of the end, he said, and he lowered his voice as if worried about being overheard. He had the refugee's fear of being caught up with, of becoming a fugitive for the second time. Somnolent, hopelessly liberal America was losing its supremacy, he intoned, while the Russians were gaining an edge. The process was irreversible and tragic.

But it couldn't be, I argued: America and technology were synonymous, and an ultimate American victory is as preordained as the parting of the Red Sea was for the Israelites led by Moses. I reminded my friend how certain our parents were during World War II that the Americans would defeat the Germans and that the descendants of those who had fled the Old World were destined to save it. You've got to have faith, I told my friend.

I went out for a walk by the river, but the openness and the quiet felt threatening. I couldn't get rid of the uneasy feeling that the sky above was invaded -- violated -- by a steel ball packed with hostile technology. Big Brother was watching!

It was my first sleepless night in the New World. -- Charles Fenyvesi Bronx Bombers

At age 9, in fourth grade at Horace Mann School in Bayonne, N.J., life seemed finite, especially when silver-haired Miss Knight would lead the class down to the beige-and-brown-painted basement corridors for our monthly air raid drill. The left arm went up against the wall horizontally, the forehead pressed against the forearm, the right palm pushed on the rear of the cranium. Mr. McGeehan, the gym teacher, sternly marched down the rows of students to ensure that each butt was properly tucked in, thus minimizing the body surface susceptible to falling concrete.

What we knew -- what we had been told at least -- was that the dirty old Russians might rain bombs down on us any day that struck their fancy.

A young boy's fancy drifted to baseball on Oct. 4, 1957. The day before, the Yankees had dropped a game to the Milwaukee Braves, tying the World Series at one game apiece. The lineups for the next game would be discussed on the radio news at 6 o'clock, which our family dutifully listened to each night as we ate our dinner, usually in silence while John Wingate on New York's WOR gave "the different angle on all the news, direct reports by people in the news . . ."

I know Oct. 4 was a Friday in 1957, because on that fateful night we were eating pizza, a favorite meal my Sicilian mother would prepare without meat to comply with the Catholic Church's dietary dictums of the time. I had not even finished my first slice before Wingate, in his deep baritone, announced that the dreaded Russians had launched a satellite called Sputnik, which was now circling the globe every 90 minutes, passing right over the United States. What this meant, the newsman said with dolorous doomsday demeanor, was that the enemy could now drop an Atom Bomb--without a plane, and against which there was no possible means of defense.

I went off to bed and hid under my pillow, never once thinking about pizza, and convinced that this strange cold war I had heard so much about was now over: My family, my friends, the red three-speed Schwinn bicycle I had received for my birthday, and even my beloved Yankees would all disappear in a mushroom cloud . . .

Now, although there are probably better reasons to think it will, life no longer seems about to end. -- Tom Zito Us vs. Them

Oh, woe. Oh, discontent. Were we standing out on the midnight lawns of Connecticut watching for Sputnik, that starry blazon of our national shame, and seeing only our own breath against the sky? Were we murmuring to this new god, confessing our guilt that every Russian was said to be capable of differential calculus by the third grade while our idea of big-time scientific advance was the Princess phone?

Sputnik changed everything. Sputnik was the first of the national disasters that would persuade the children (and a lot of the adults) of the '50s that America was not the New Jerusalem with just a few loose ends waiting to be tied up. Later there would be the Bay of Pigs, all the assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate, on and on, nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa. But for the children of the '50s, Sputnik started it all.

What I remember, though, isn't so much Sputnik but M.L. (for Mary Louise) Hutchens' basement, a classic '50s operation with a bongo board, maybe even a camel saddle and the television on which M.L. and I always seemed to be watching Lloyd Bridges in "Sea Hunt" except for the day of the Vanguard launch. It was a Friday, Dec. 6, 1957, two months after Russia jacked 184 pounds worth of Sputnik I into orbit. It was one month after they'd added insult to injury by heaving up Sputnik II, half a ton of it, with Laika the dog on board.

Vanguard, you recall, was to be more than America's proof that our ex-Nazi rocket engineers were just as good as Russia's, even if it was only going to orbit a satellite that looked like a grapefruit gift-wrapped in foil, weighing all of eight pounds. This was Us vs. Them. This was the American Way of Life, not to mention tail-fins, Wrigley's Spearmint Gum, Wednesday night bowling and attending the church of your choice going up against the godless horde.

My whole life may have hinged on that moment in M.L.'s basement, now that I think of it. Maybe the whole future of the country. The nasal tolling of Walter Cronkite's voice seems to ring across a quarter of a century still: 10, 9, 8, and the Vanguard exuded liquid oxygen vapor that looked like the steam coming out of peoples' ears when they get mad in cartoons. And then, 3, 2, 1, and, well, the visual effect was sort of like the time Aunt May got out of her chair at Thanksgiving dinner and her hip broke, except that to complete the picture you'd have to set her on fire, too.

There was a question of how to react. I might well have ended up taking a crash course in physics and Russian -- there was a craze for Russian, the next few years, as if by learning how to speak their language, we'd acquire their mysterious powers, too -- or at the very least we'd qualify for low-level jobs when they made good on Khrushchev's threat and buried us.

Less than two months after the Vanguard debacle, American scientists parked Explorer I in orbit, but it was like showing up with a birthday present a day late. Something had been lost, for me. So I took no Russian, no physics. I'd declared my allegiance to some larger, vaguer principle, it seemed, when I watched that Vanguard crumple on M.L.'s television set.

What I did was: I laughed.

I never took the space program very seriously, in the years that followed. So much of it seemed like an effort to reweave that wonderful cocoon of smugness we'd been living in. I'm glad we put men on the moon and all, I'm glad we've got all these satellites predicting hurricanes and crop yields, and bouncing "The Dukes of Hazzard" to every last square inch of Earth.

I'm also glad I laughed. And, no doubt, "Sea Hunt" was terrific that night. -- Henry Allen A Star Is Born

To me, even though it came three years before the end of the decade, the orbiting of the Soviet Union's Sputnik meant the end of the '50s.

Remember the '50s? The silent generation. When nobody asked any questions and nobody gave any answers.

Sputnik ended all that. People got hot under the collar. Who are these Russians?

With the arrogance of somebody not old enough, I thought the new star was an exciting, wonderful thing. So what if the Russians turned on its light? It was a symbol of change, a new sign of hope that men could make more than atomic bombs light up the sky at night.

About three years later, a man I know named Al Hibbs, a man who worked on the Explorer program that put the first American star into orbit, was out camping in the San Gabriel Mountains when he saw a pinpoint of light silently gliding overhead. "Hey," Hibbs called to his camp-mates, "there's a satellite." Nobody looked up. We were already into the '60s. -- Thomas O'Toole Confidence Lost

Sputnik. An ugly word for an ugly fact. The Russians, not the Americans, were first in this field of space. I remember well the anger and the sinking feeling that while the American government was mewling and chewing over which pork barrel got which perquisite attached thereto, the Soviets had seized the imagination of the world.

Except in the case of Eisenhower's handling of the U2 incident, I cannot remember any other case in which American anger and annoyance were expressed so freely wherever people met in small, informal groups.

The Nixon case, two decades later, was quite different. Half the nation thought he was a cad to begin with and therefore never expected anything of him, and the other half never really thought he was all that bad. There was a good bit of glee on the one side and a good bit of doubt on the other, but nowhere was the anger or deep disappointment that surfaced at the time of Sputnik.

It may seem now that the national government reacted too strongly in its crash program to get something into space. But the mood of the country after Sputnik was such that if anybody had a scheme to fire Mamie herself into orbit it would have passed with scarcely any mulling over moral implications. It made no difference then what was sent into orbit or how, as long as America got something up.

Somewhat to the surprise of many good steady citizens, America is now regarded as a sort of Goliath, a threat to little Davids everywhere, but I have always suspected American presidents remember the anger over Sputnik and -- never mind sense and balance -- are determined to win every space propaganda from here on out.

The Russian triumph of 1957 hit where it hurt, since Americans have always prided themselves on technical gimmicks and first flights here, there and yonder. Sputnik ended once and for all the American assumption that the Soviets wrapped their heads in bags and worked in factories making lousy shoes that wore out in three months.

For years Americans heard that the Russians read more books than we and took university educations more seriously. Some had even said the Soviet Union could work toward a goal and achieve it, but Americans pretty generally believed all Russians were miserable as slaves stoutly whipped every few days, and the general view in our continent was that if they didn't all starve from the lack of good agricultural land, they'd all fall into a depressed heap through Soviet bureaucratic bungling.

Sputnik, as I saw it, changed that. -- Henry Mitchell Science, Father and Son

They had a son who was a teen-ager in a small southern town during the '50s. The father was a physician who, like many true believers in those days, had passionate faith that there was no problem troubling mankind that would not eventually bend to a scientific solution. Over his years, his enthusiasm was unflagging as he dived into each newly arrived medical journal with optimism and zeal. Science was the future.

So it must have been a happy day when a battery of aptitude tests showed that the son had scientific talent. The father must have hoped that the teen-age son would one day share this absorption in the pursuit of scientic adventures; it would have brought much pleasure to the father.

But the son turned out to be an abject science failure, and that caused concern. Somehow, for example, the boy got all the way through high school without taking physics (that's what schools would allow in pre-Sputnik days). And family alarms were further stirred by the son's increasing predisposition with the arts, particularly with music. Even the mother, who had encouraged that interest, began to worry that the son might be getting too serious about it.

Then college came and the son got away with fulfilling his meager science requirement with Psych 101 and 102, which was regarded by the family as barely a science at all. And, as time passed, the parents came to face with resignation the fact that some weeks he spent more time in Carnegie Hall than in the lecture hall. But they kept reiterating, "You must be practical, too."

And then along came Sputnik. It was the parents' big moment, they thought. Here was proof to the boy that without scientific training he would be lost in coming decades. That dread prospect was being preached from the editorial pages, from the pulpits, from the academic platforms and from Edward Teller to Edward R. Murrow.

Finally, the son succumbed to parental pressure. At their expense, when he came home during the summer break between sophomore and junior years, he would take a night course in physics at a local college, "as an investment in the future." That investment was not all that well made, however. Every time he mastered one theorem or configuration it seemed to shove out of the mind the previously learned one, so that no body of information was building up. Thermodynamics, thermoelectronics, thermolysis, thermoluminescence -- they didn't just sound the same.

But the physics classes served at least one familial purpose; the parents seemed relieved. If nothing else, their son's ineptitude at science was now convincingly confirmed. He didn't hear much about science from them afterward. If the father was upset, he was always too generous to say so. -- Lon Tuck