A World-Changing Orbit: How a Satellite Freaked Us Out

Sputnik: The Shock of the Century , by Paul Dickson. Walker & Company, 310 pages, $28.

Junior-high history classes and cable-TV retrospectives have long hammered it into the head of anyone under 50 that the Soviet launch of the world’s first satellite on Oct. 4, 1957, was both an epoch-making event and a national trauma for the United States. Well, maybe you had to be there. At 184 pounds, Sputnik was scarcely larger than a basketball and did nothing except emit beeps out of a battery-powered antenna. That beep brought on the only direct hardship America suffered from Sputnik: It reportedly activated electric garage-door openers from coast to coast. Post-Sept. 11, Americans may find it hard to credit contemporaneous comparisons of the Sputnik launch to the Pearl Harbor attack.

Freelance writer Paul Dickson shows why Americans of the 1950′s were so freaked out. Relying on government records declassified only in the last half-decade, he has reconstructed not just the military stakes of the launch but also the Cold War society it so rudely roiled, giving a straightforward and snappy account of a crisis in American politics, science and self-esteem.

It’s hard to imagine a time when America was worse equipped to absorb evidence of Soviet superiority in space. Political concerns, such as they were, were domestic. President Eisenhower, who would see his poll numbers drop 22 points in Sputnik’s wake, was about to deploy federal troops to get Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to desegregate Little Rock’s schools. Most Americans didn’t even know the word “satellite,” referring instead to artificial “moons.” Leave It to Beaver premiered the night Sputnik went up.

Mr. Dickson further sets the scene with a few where-they-were-when-they-heard vignettes. James Michener was on a plane crashing into the Pacific. Ten-year-old Stephen King was in a movie theater watching Earth Versus the Flying Saucers. Doris Kearns Goodwin was making out in a park with a high-school boyfriend. (“I didn’t give Sputnik another thought,” she recalls.) When Little Richard saw it pass during an outdoor concert in Australia, he walked off the stage, quit music and became a Christian evangelist. A panicky Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Senate majority leader, said of the Russians, “Soon, they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.”

His fears were well-founded. The Russian space shot came less than a year after Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-banging “We will bury you!” tirade on the floor of the United Nations. C.I.A. chief Allen Dulles called Sputnik part of a “trilogy of propaganda moves”: Russia had fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile six weeks earlier, boasting of its ability to direct rockets “to any point on the face of the Earth.” And it would announce the successful test of a hydrogen bomb three days after Sputnik went up. Russia’s rockets were indeed advanced: The R-7 used for Sputnik was still the country’s standard model for space shots in the mid-1970′s.

What’s more, all the Soviets’ cosmonautical moves were carried out by military personnel in extreme secrecy from bases in Kazakhstan. It would be years before the world heard of Russian failures, from the half-dozen aborted and exploded missions preceding Sputnik to the multiple flops of Sputnik III in 1958, to the launch-pad blast in 1960 that left 165 people dead. In the eyes of the world, the Soviet space program looked invincible, a harbinger of the radiant future, while unrest in Little Rock made America look reactionary and backward. When the United States’ first publicly announced satellite rocket fizzled and fell to pieces before liftoff in late 1957, the U.S.S.R. mischievously introduced a U.N. motion to list the United States as an underdeveloped nation eligible for technical aid.

It was in this atmosphere of humiliation that Wernher von Braun became a folk hero. The brains behind Hitler’s rocket program (his V-2′s had blown whole London neighborhoods to bits), von Braun was then the design director at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala. Mr. Dickson shows von Braun to have been neither particularly political nor particularly militarist, more an eccentric scientist than an ideologue. He had become a rocketeer for the German government under Weimar, was more interested in satellites and space stations than missiles, and quit the Army for NASA once it became apparent that the civilian agency would control the moon shots. Nor was the American space program more beholden to Nazi Germany’s than the Russian one: The U.S.S.R.’s Pobeda rockets, too, were simply rejiggered V-2′s designed by captured German scientists.

Von Braun had bragged in 1954, “Give me five years and $5 billion and we can land on the moon.” But he’d been blocked-due, he thought, to a rivalry between the country’s military branches, which had built a space program consisting of 119 different half-completed missile projects. In January 1958, von Braun’s team finally launched America’s first satellite. But even then, he would use the press to wage a P.R. war on his bosses, letting it be known that, a year before Sputnik, one of his Jupiter rocket launches had been meant to contain a satellite. (Eisenhower’s Defense Department had intervened, replacing the final, satellite-bearing stage with a dummy capsule.)

Persistent rumors at the time-much like the ones surrounding F.D.R. and Pearl Harbor-held that Eisenhower had wanted the U.S. defeated in the space race. Mr. Dickson’s bold conclusion is that those rumors were largely correct. The President worried about two things: first, the alleged Soviet ICBM buildup and, second, the ability of the U.S. to monitor it. In 1955, the Soviets had rebuffed his offer of an “Open Skies” policy that would have permitted satellites to orbit anywhere. Once Sputnik crossed the United States without incident, that principle was established de facto. Eisenhower then poured American resources into spy satellites that quickly outstripped the Russians. The CORONA program-revealed only in February 1995, when President Clinton declassified the work of first-generation spy satellites-allowed the United States to count Soviet missiles with such precision that, at arms-reduction treaties in the 1970′s, “U.S. negotiators often knew more than their Soviet counterparts about the exact contents of the Soviet arsenal.”

For Mr. Dickson, then, Ike was “the quiet unsung hero of the Sputnik crisis.” He kept his cool. There was speculation in American newspapers that the Soviets would set off an atomic bomb on the moon as a propaganda display, and many suggested that the Americans should beat them to it. Eisenhower preferred perfecting the surface-to-surface rockets already in development, however, on the grounds that “we didn’t have any enemies on the moon.”

The U.S. space program was probably not inevitable. John F. Kennedy, for one, was bored to tears by it. (The “challenge” Kennedy issued to Congress in May of 1961 to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade was Lyndon Johnson’s idea.) Grant that, and Sputnik appears indeed as a founding event of our world. It led to NASA, to certain wild excesses in the nuclear-arms race (the U.S. staged 77 aboveground nuke tests in the year after Sputnik) and to the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which would spawn the Internet.

Sputnik changed the culture, too. It is responsible for the words “beatnik,” “neatnik” and “refusenik.” It killed the gaudy, three-tone Ford Edsel, which in crisis times was viewed as an embarrassing symbol of American materialism (“A higher standard of living, seen as prima facie evidence of American pre-Sputnik superiority over Russian communism,” Mr. Dickson writes, “now became an emblem of national inferiority.”) And it led to the National Defense Education Act, that monument of Cold War liberalism, which established college loans, subsidized the new math, shoehorned Darwin into podunk curricula and recruited women for the sciences. (It even promised to promote “independent thinking.” Win some, lose some.)

The satellite’s great legacy, however, was a healthy fear. Describing himself as one who’d had “the dubious privilege of living and working under a totalitarian government for many years,” Wernher von Braun used to warn that expertise and morality were independent variables. Americans were indulging in dangerous nonsense if they thought there was anything inevitable about the victory of “free” science over “totalitarian” science. That Sputnik helped prove him right is as worth remembering today as it was then. In fact, more so.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.