Twinkle, twinkle, little ball

Sputnik caught the world off guard 44 years ago today

Sputnik I - Earth's first artificial satellite - was only a shiny beach-ball-size aluminum sphere with a radio beeper inside, but the entire world was bemused by its presumption. Consternation would be a better term to describe American public reaction.

Soviet officials and American science writers had reported that the Soviet Union, as well as the United States, was preparing to launch satellites as part of a global study of Earth and Sun called the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Most Americans discounted the reports or ignored them altogether. After all, launching satellites really is rocket science, and they didn't think the mid-century Soviet Union was any good at it.

But in 1957, they watched in jaw-dropping wonder as sunlight glinted off the highly polished beeping sphere. The realization that it took awesome rocket-science capability to launch that taunting beeper hit most Americans with such force that frenzied commentators spoke of a scientific "Pearl Harbor."

Contempt for Soviet technology turned to fear. There was talk of American scientific backwardness and of a (nonexistent) military missile gap. Never mind that the US was expected to launch its own satellites. Americans felt thoroughly humiliated when the first US launch attempts failed while the rest of the world cheered Soviet space prowess. Realizing they had an unexpected propaganda coup, the Soviets trumpeted their satellites as evidence of the superiority of their communist system.

It's easy to laugh at such silliness now. We know the US recovered its balance and won the race to put humans on the Moon. We know that Russia and the US now are partners in advancing manned space flight and scientific exploration. What may not be widely known is what was going on behind the scenes when Sputnik orbited exactly 44 years ago today.

Declassified Russian and American documents and comments by Russian space veterans put that event into a new perspective. They show that American rocket technology was strong and not significantly lagging that of the Soviet Union. The Eisenhower administration knew for a fact that there was no missile gap but couldn't make public the secret intelligence.

Moreover, Sputnik helped fulfill one of Dwight Eisenhower's strategic goals. Werhner von Braun and his Army rocket team could have orbited a satellite with one of their missile-launching rockets many months before Sputnik left the pad. But Eisenhower did not want to use military hardware or make a race out of humanity's first step into space. He wanted to establish the principle that near-Earth space - like the high seas - is a common area where satellites of any nation can freely go. The Soviets loudly proclaimed that principle when Sputnik went up. That point established, there could be no objection to orbiting the spy satellites that the United States already had under development. Eisenhower then allowed von Braun to launch the first US IGY satellite, compensating for the early failures of the civilian rocket developed for IGY work. If this information had been available 44 years ago, Americans would not have been so alarmed nor the Soviets so cocky.

Paul Dickson skillfully puts the story of Sputnik and its aftermath into this new perspective in his informative and readable book. Readers should be warned that my enthusiasm for the book is fed partly by a sense of vindication. Reporters covering rocketry and space science knew enough to warn that panic over Sputnik was unwarranted. Had we known then what Dickson details now, we could have made a more persuasive case. This is not to say that American science and technology were without problems. Agency rivalry hampered rocket development. Serious underfunding threatened the vitality of basic scientific research. Sputnik shocked the US into getting its act together. Rocket development was re-organized. Science and education suddenly received high priority. A meaningful space program was established.

This saga is the core of the book. The author does carry the story forward to show what followed the Sputnik shock - the Moon exploration program and beyond. However, that sketchy account serves mainly to reinforce the book's main point, which is a lesson for our own time. It was a mistake to sell the United States short in October 1957, and it would be a mistake to sell it short in October 2001.

Robert C. Cowen writes about science for the Monitor.

Sputnik: The Shock Of The Century

By Paul Dickson Walker & Co. 272 pp., $28

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