The Scoop on Sputnik: A Science Writer's Reflections

Franklin D. Roosevelt called the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor - Dec. 7, 1941 - a date that would live "in infamy." The crunch of bombs shocked the United States into epoch-making action.

By that standard, Oct. 4, 1957 - the day Russia put the first artificial moon in orbit - is a date that forever lives in glory. Like Pearl Harbor, Sputnik's "beep" also shocked the US into world-changing action. But it was action of a vastly more beneficent kind.

Russia inspired a new era of human development, whatever the Kremlin's motives might have been. Days later, on Oct. 8, an editorial in The Christian Science Monitor welcomed "the vast new horizons opened to mankind by the potential of [Sputnik]." It added: "It is these new horizons, transcending old earth-bound limitations, that for us hold the overwhelming meaning of this [Russian] success...."

Most Americans didn't see it that way. They thought they had a new kind of Pearl Harbor on their hands. In August, the Russians had reported successful tests of a long-range ballistic missile. The US had yet to make a similar claim. Now the Russians had proved dramatically that they had the rocket power to fling nuclear warheads half way around the world as easily as tossing a shiny, beeping sphere into low earth orbit. Journalists and politicians were asking what had happened to American science and technology.

This reaction shocked scientists and science writers who knew that Russia and the US were both planning to launch satellites. This was part of both countries' contribution to the 18-month global research program in earth science called the International Geophysical Year - a "year" that ran from July 1, 1957, through December 1958. We writers had reported that Russia probably would launch first in the fall of 1957. And we had for years been reporting about experts' visions of the communications and weather satellites, the planetary probes, and the manned spacecraft that would likely be developed during the second half of this century.

Many people had read our stories. Apparently, few got the message. Having spent the night at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computation center in Cambridge - the only place in America prepared to compute Sputnik's orbit - I was enthusiastically writing about the new adventure when Monitor editors came in for work. They greeted the news with wonder and misgiving.

Asked why he was surprised, the man who edited my stories simply said, "We didn't believe you."

In truth, there was no "missile gap." The US was the world leader in science. Yet, in one sense, the gloomsters were right. In spite of its inherent strength, America's basic scientific research was on its knees. Much of civilian science was supported by military agencies. A change in the bureaucratic rules by which those agencies paid their bills was choking off research funding.

The deputy director of one such agency - the Geophysics Research Directorate of the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories - invited me to his Bedford, Mass., office a few days after Sputnik's launch. Closing the door, he said what he was about to reveal was not a classified secret, just an administrative secret.

He said he had plenty of money in his budget for research. But he couldn't spend a dime. As a result, university research teams that depended on his directorate and similar agencies were beginning to disband all over the country. American science, he said, was headed for a needless disaster. Other scientific administrators confirmed this. The Monitor broke the story. Scientific leaders lobbied Washington. Sputnik underscored the point. Research funds soon flowed again.

Forty years later, there is no doubt that Sputnik's main impact was to spark a renaissance in American science and to open the space age. The space prophets' dreams have become everyday reality. On the darker side, long-range missiles have also been perfected. But now, two former rivals are uneasy partners struggling to keep Russia's Mir operable while they prepare to build an international space station.

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