Magazine article The New American

Sputnik: The Soviet Union's Launch of Sputnik 50 Years Ago This Month Shocked America. How Did It Come about That the United States Failed to Beat the Soviets, and What Is the Legacy of Sputnik for Us Today?

Magazine article The New American

Sputnik: The Soviet Union's Launch of Sputnik 50 Years Ago This Month Shocked America. How Did It Come about That the United States Failed to Beat the Soviets, and What Is the Legacy of Sputnik for Us Today?

Article excerpt

Georg Hegel, the German philosopher, once remarked that the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. The owl, in this case a symbol of knowledge that accompanied the Roman goddess of wisdom, represented the understanding that we learn the true meaning of an event only after sufficient time has passed. Such is the case with the launching of the world's first man-made orbital satellite. When the Soviets launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the United States was plunged into a state of fear and panic which effected profound changes in American society.

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To the American public, and the politicians who would later prey upon their fears, the launch of Sputnik was a national defeat, a serious defense setback, and a rebuke of our public-school systems. How could the Soviets have beaten the Americans to the punch? Americans were convinced that they were the leaders in aerospace technology and a lot more. To learn otherwise was a devastating blow to national prestige and confidence.

For the communists, it was a propaganda victory. They achieved a measure of prestige in the scientific world; their educational system was admired as a result; and their military capabilities were magnified beyond proportion. All of this had a profound effect upon American public opinion. At the time, when asked what Sputnik meant, Democrat Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson described the launch as a "devastating blow" and asked President Eisenhower to declare "a week of shame and danger."

Public reaction was predictable given the emerging Soviet potential to launch intercontinental missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. A sort of atomic anxiety gripped the nation, and the realization that the Soviets had launched a successful artificial orbital satellite only heightened the tension. But what was the true meaning of the launch? What could have accounted for America's seeming inability to launch a successful orbital satellite in advance of the Soviets? And what is the legacy of Sputnik in relation to our own history? Fifty years later Hegel's owl has since flown, and the passage of time affords us a clearer picture of the impact of Sputnik.

Sputnik

On October 4, 1957, Moscow revealed to the world the news that the Soviets had successfully launched a 184-pound manmade satellite into a 96-minute geocentric orbit. Tass, the Soviet news agency, dubbed the spherical satellite Sputnik, a Russian term loosely translated as fellow traveler or satellite. Equipped with four whip antennas, the 22-inch sphere carried transmitters capable of sending continuous signals from an orbit apogee of 588 miles.

Whatever it was called, the launching of the satellite caused an immediate reaction in America. New York Times headlines screamed: SOVIET FIRES EARTH SATELLITE INTO SPACE; IT IS CIRCLING THE GLOBE AT 18,000 M.P.H.; SPHERE TRACKED IN 4 CROSSINGS OVER U.S. Washington Post readers were met with a headline that only increased American anxiety: SATELLITE FLASHES PAST D.C. SIX TIMES--RUSSIANS MAY HAVE ULTIMATE WEAPON. The message was clear--the Soviets had scored an alarming victory, albeit several hundred miles above the country, that threatened our nation's survival.

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As the Soviet satellite circled the Earth, Americans wondered openly about the nation's failure to launch first, but for some American scientists and military specialists, the Soviet "victory" was particularly galling. Prior to Sputnik, American civilian scientists had been working on launching their own version of an orbital satellite during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) between July 1957 and December 1958, and they might have been successful had not the Eisenhower administration prevented them.

Under political and public pressure, Eisenhower met with his staff on October 7, just days after the Sputnik launch, to discuss a series of published reports asserting that the United States might have orbited a satellite in advance of the Soviets. …

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