Sputnik, 50 Years Later

The Launch of Techno-Power
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[This is an excerpt from Norman Solomon’s new book “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State.”]

A story could start almost anywhere. This one begins at a moment startled by a rocket.

In the autumn of 1957, America was not at war ... or at peace. The threat of nuclear annihilation shadowed every day, flickering with visions of the apocalyptic. In classrooms, “duck and cover” drills were part of the curricula. Underneath any Norman Rockwell painting, the grim reaper had attained the power of an ultimate monster.

Dwight Eisenhower was most of the way through his fifth year in the White House. He liked to speak reassuring words of patriotic faith, with presidential statements like: “America is the greatest force that God has ever allowed to exist on His footstool.” Such pronouncements drew a sharp distinction between the United States and the Godless Communist foe.

But on October 4, 1957, the Kremlin announced the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. God was supposed to be on America’s side, yet the Soviet atheists had gotten to the heavens before us. Suddenly the eagle of liberty could not fly nearly so high.

Sputnik was instantly fascinating and alarming. The American press swooned at the scientific vistas and shuddered at the military implications. Under the headline “Red Moon Over the U.S.,” Time quickly explained that “a new era in history had begun, opening a bright new chapter in mankind’s conquest of the natural environment and a grim new chapter in the cold war.” The newsmagazine was glum about the space rivalry: “The U.S. had lost its lead because, in spreading its resources too thin, the nation had skimped too much on military research and development.”

The White House tried to project calm; Eisenhower said the satellite “does not raise my apprehension, not one iota.” But many on the political spectrum heard Sputnik’s radio pulse as an ominous taunt.

A heroine of the Republican right, Clare Boothe Luce, said the satellite’s beeping was an “outer-space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our material superiority.” Newspaper readers learned that Stuart Symington, a Democratic senator who’d been the first secretary of the air force, “said the Russians will be able to launch mass attacks against the United States with intercontinental ballistic missiles within two or three years.”

A New York Times article matter-of-factly referred to “the mild panic that has seized most of the nation since Russia’s sputnik was launched two weeks ago.” In another story, looking forward, Times science reporter William L. Laurence called for bigger pots of gold at the end of scientific rainbows: “In a free society such as ours it is not possible ‘to channel human efforts’ without the individual’s consent and wholehearted willingness. To attract able and promising young men and women into the fields of science and engineering it is necessary first to offer them better inducements than are presently offered.”

At last, in early February 1958, an American satellite -- the thirty-pound Explorer -- went into orbit. What had succeeded in powering it into space was a military rocket, developed by a U.S. Army research team. The head of that team, the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, was boosting the red-white-and-blue after the fall of his ex-employer, the Third Reich. In March 1958 he publicly warned that the U.S. space program was a few years behind the Russians.

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Soon after dusk, while turning a skate key or playing with a hula hoop, children might look up to see if they could spot the bright light of a satellite arching across the sky. But they could not see the fallout from nuclear bomb tests, underway for a dozen years by 1958.