From our files: Made-in-U.S.S.R.‘Moon’ Circles Earth; Space Era Advent Jolts Washington
From the Oct 5, 1957 edition.
The first earth satellite, hurtling around the earth in its manmade orbit, evoked several Washington reactions:
Congratulations to the Soviet Union for its feat in hoisting the first mechanical moon above the earth.
Chagrin that Moscow had beaten the United States, which is not scheduled to launch its earth satellite until next spring, although the date conceivably could be advanced.
Surprise at the size of the Soviet satellite, which is more than eight times heavier than the contemplated American vehicle.
Sharp awareness that the Soviet accomplishment indicated a very high degree of skill and development in the field of far-flying missiles.
And finally, a startled look ahead to the not-so-distant future when still heavier satellites, capable of carrying instruments for “inspecting” other countries’ territory and eventually capable of carrying weapons, would be circling this earthly sphere.
There was no Congress in session in Washington to comment on the outstanding Soviet achievement, there were few available American diplomats, and President Eisenhower had flown off for a quiet weekend at Gettysburg. So capital comment came largely from the physicists and specialists engaged in preparing the American earth satellite some attending an International Geophysical Year Conference here.
In the international fraternity of natural science there was a sporting amount of congratulations to the Soviets.
Lloyd Berkner, nuclear physicist and American IGY official attending a party at the Soviet Embassy celebrating the IGY rockets and satellites conference here, offered plaudits to A. A. Blagonravov, a top Soviet satellite expert.
“It would have been nice if the United States had been first but let’s be glad that it’s been achieved,“ Dr. Berkner declared.
Joseph Kaplan, chairman of the United States National Committee for the IGY, said:
“I am amazed that in the short time in which the Soviets had to plan—obviously not any longer than we had—they made this remarkable achievement.”
“From the point of view of international cooperation the important thing is that a satellite has been launched. They did it and did it first.”
“I hope they give us enough information so that our ‘moonwatch’ teams can help learn the scientific benefits.”
Experts pointed out that if the Soviets could launch a satellite 23 inches across and weighing 185 pounds, they soon could launch still heavier ones.
Soviet expert Blagonravov termed the Soviet launching merely the first of mankind’s steps into space. He reported that he had sent his own dog 90 miles skyward in a rocket in 1951, without ill effects. The next step would be to send an animal up in a satellite, and then “men will penetrate space.”
‘Second Round’ Moscow’s
The Soviet natural scientist said there was no danger to any of the earth’s peoples form this man-made moon, for it would disintegrate from friction when it began to fall back into the earth’s heavier atmosphere.
However, American officials were not unaware of the intense meaning of the Soviet accomplishment in terms of rockets and missiles.
“The Soviet satellite gives the Russians no military advantage as such,” declared Dr. Fred L. Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Observatory, “but it indicates the Russian potential in the area of missiles. We won the first round with the H-bomb, but they took the second with the satellite.”
There was a very penetrating realization in Washington—and at the Pentagon—that the Soviets again had demonstrated the excellence of their basic research, and the speed with which they are able to translate research into actual, usable hardware.
‘Pressure Off’ Now
Undoubtedly, had Congress been in town, there would be questions as to why the Soviets had been allowed to outdistance the Americans. As if in reply to this unstated query, William M. Holaday, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Guided Missiles, said the achievement would not be evidence of Soviet technological superiority in missile and rocket developments.
The Soviets may have placed great emphasis, time, and money in getting the satellite into orbit first in order to embarrass the United States, Mr. Holaday suggested. Quite conceivably, they had given the project higher priority than has the United States, which is not scheduled to launch its firs full-scale satellite until next spring. This autumn, four small test spheres will be fired as part of the advance testing program and some of these may go into a globe-circling orbit.
Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett, whose Office of Naval Research has charge of launching the American satellites, said the United States never regarded the program as a “race with the Russians.” A very opposite impression was given by American experts at the Soviet Embassy reception when they commented, “Now the pressure to win is off, and we can concentrate on doing a good job.”