If you still have trouble understanding why America went berserk when Sputnik traversed the heavens 30 years ago this week, a nonboring explanation is now available.

"The Russians, of all people -- stolid people who wore baggy pants and used the wrong fork -- had launched the world's first satellite," remembers author Fred Reed, a kid of 11 at the time, in this October's Air & Space magazine. "A public that a week earlier had regarded a satellite as foolishness was now furious that it didn't have one."

So it was that Sputnik crossed historical orbits with its American counterpart, the Vanguard. A "bureaucratic orphan" until the Soviets gave it a sudden priority, the Vanguard was still in the test stages when too-expectant eyes turned to watch its first post-Sputnik test. Vanguard rose from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 6, 1957 and achieved an altitude of several feet before it fell over and blew up, "a permanent symbol of failure." It spawned hubris ("Twinkle, twinkle little Sputnik/ My only comment is so-whatnik?") and black humor (The Sputnik Cocktail: one-third vodka and two-thirds sour grapes).

Reed's verbal documentary shows not just what happened with Sputnik and Vanguard, but also how a "What -- Me Worry?" nation let itself get whupped by its own pride.

Evidence is growing that Air & Space, a Smithsonian Institution magazine, is hitting its stride. Here too you will find relief from the nagging puzzlement of questions like "Why do Orlando luggage tags say MCO?" and "Why does IAD stand for Dulles?" (The Florida field, pre-Disney, was named for a man named McCoy; the old, logical Dulles code, DIA, was too often indistinguishable from handwritten versions of National Airport's DCA.) William Garvey clears up all but the most obscure coding mysteries.

Power Trips Champagne bottles are breaking over the prows of three new Washington magazines, each designed for very smart and very influential people who have frightening degrees of control over the rest of us:

Governing takes its editorial mandate (and circulation base) from what John Herbers describes in the first monthly issue: "State and local governments, with a new sense of independence from the federal government, have been been taking on new responsibilities in the 1980s -- a change that promises to be both more profound and more permanent than most people have recognized."

Judging from October's contents, the magazine will cover major trends in state and local government, like Florida's ambitious new sales tax and Minnesota-style anti-takeover laws, as well as more eccentric fruits of pluralism -- like the new legislators' oath of office in Delaware that includes a promise that no votes were bought or sold, and the latest news about anti-pit bull ordinances.

Governing, with a first-class graphic design, emanates from the Washington offices of Congressional Quarterly. Subscriptions are free, for now, to eligible state and local personnel. Write Governing, P.O. Box 359092, Palm Coast, Fla. 32035-9939.

Government Executive is reaching out to Governing's federal counterparts with such pieces (in the October issue) as W. John Moore's assessment of the nine-year-old Office of Government Ethics, whose powers have been sorely tested by Ronald Reagan's appointees, and David L. Wilson's report on the Sisyphean task facing the General Services Administration: how to consolidate the archipelago of federal office space in metropolitan Washington.

Government Executive is now owned and operated by the people who publish National Journal. It, too, is free to the right people. Applicants should write the magazine at 1730 M St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.

The International Economy is a weighty new bimonthly "magazine of record ... for finance ministry officials, central bankers, corporate leaders and financial market innovators -- all of us who influence international economic policymaking."

A directory of 5,000 key members of that community comes in the first issue (October/November), along with articles by some of its pillars: John Reed, chairman of Citicorp; Kiichi Miyazawa, finance minister of Japan; Gerald Corrigan, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank; Karl Otto Poehl, head of Germany's central bank; and Rudiger Dornbush, economics professor at MIT. Third World debt problems and the stasis at the World Bank, not surprisingly, are much on their minds.

The International Economy is published by two former Capitol Hill staffers, Richard Medley and David Smick, and edited by Art Pine, formerly of The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. It is not free. Send $72 for a year's worth to P.O. Box 70279, Washington, D.C. 20077.

Table of Contents TriQuarterly's enormous (500-page) spring/summer issue on South Africa "brings together new work from within the country and new stories, poems or translations by writers who have lived in exile for many years," according to editors David Bunn and Jane Taylor, to whom the inside and outside perspectives represent a "literary problem {that} imitates the urgent problem confronting all opponents of apartheid: the question of a united front." The special issue is available for $13.50 from TriQuarterly, 1735 Benson Ave., Evanston, Ill. 60201.

Even more enormous (640 pages) is Dissent's new special issue on a problem that isn't quite as urgent as South Africa's, except to some people who live there -- has New York seen the moment of its greatness flicker? Among the thinkers called upon to respond, 26 years after Dissent's first special issue on New York, are Marshall Berman, Ada Louise Huxtable, Martin Kilson, Michael Harrington, Morris Dickstein, Deborah Meier, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe. For a copy of "In Search of New York," send $5 to Dissent, 521 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.