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FORTY YEARS AGO THIS MONTH the Soviet Union orbited a “man-made moon” whose derisive chirp persuaded Americans they’d already lost a race that had barely begun
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
The reporters were, to put it mildly, skeptical. If the Soviets could orbit a satellite, they could fire a nuclear warhead across the ocean at Washington; if the Americans couldn’t orbit a satellite, they couldn’t shoot a warhead inside Soviet boundaries. Or so experts were telling journalists, and journalists were telling the public. War planners had been confident that the United States could fight off a nuclear strike launched by Soviet long-range bombers, but if Soviet missiles could reach the United States, as Sputnik hinted, then perhaps our way of life was doomed. Life magazine presented “The Case for Being Panicky.”
Sputnik, said “does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota.” The reporters were, to put it mildly, skeptical.
Readers were persuaded. Soon Gallup found that half of all Americans believed the Soviets held the lead “in the development of missiles and long-distance rockets.” By early 1958 more than a third of Americans thought that the Soviets “could wipe out most cities in the United States in a matter of a few hours with their new rockets and missiles.” One out of three Americans also expected the outbreak of World War III by the early 1960s.
First dogs, and soon, the Soviets hinted, men.“ What will Americans find on the other side of the moon?” went the joke. “Russians.”
The news grew gloomier. In early November, just in time for the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the Soviets announced the launch of a second Sputnik, this one carrying Laika, the orbiting dog. No matter that Laika had a one-way ticket; the capsule accommodated enough oxygen to keep her alive for ten days (because a thermal-control system failed, she didn’t last even that long). The Soviets began hinting at plans for manned spaceflights. “What will Americans find on the other side of the moon?” went the joke. “Russians.”
In reality the United States was winning both the arms race and the nascent space race. There was indeed a “missile gap,” but the lead belonged to the Americans. Ike, it turned out, knew something the rest of us didn’t.
Sputnik , like so many 1950s developments in military technology, had its roots in World War II. Hours after the satellite was launched, a U.S. military official complained, “We’ve got the wrong Germans!” He was mistaken. Most of “their” German rocket scientists—the Peenemünde group captured by the Soviets at the end of the war—had been repatriated. The four-hundred-thousand-pound three-stage rocket that launched Sputnik may have been an elaboration of the successful German V-2 design, but it was homegrown.
The best known of “our” Germans, those who had fled west to avoid capture by the Russians, was a civilian scientist for the U.S. Army Redstone missile command in Huntsville, Alabama, named Wernher von Braun. Smooth, handsome in a Hollywoodheavy sort of way, von Braun had been trying for years to get the government to make satellites a priority. His 1954 report “A Minimum Satellite Vehicle” outlined a plan for orbiting an American satellite by 1956. “It is only logical to assume that other countries could do the same,” von Braun wrote, adding (emphasis in original): “ It would be a blow to U.S. Prestige if we did not do it first. ” He sought one hundred thousand dollars to start an Army satellite program. The request was turned down.
Instead the administration divvied up the tasks—and the pork—of missile development. In that 1950s spirit of compromise, every service got a piece of the action (as did the contractors allied with each service—Martin, Northrop, Convair, Aero-Jet General). Even though von Braun and the Army were far ahead in testing rocket designs, the Defense Department gave the Navy the satellite assignment. A new Navy Vanguard rocket would be developed to lift a four-pound satellite and its modest telemetry into orbit. At the same time, the Army would continue to develop the Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missile, while the Air Force would work on its Atlas and Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles. Eisenhower didn’t warm to the idea of a “missile czar,” on the model of Gen. Leslie Groves during the Manhattan Project, to knock Army, Navy, and Air Force heads together; each service forged ahead independently of the others.
On July 31,1955, American scientists, with the blessing of the White House, announced that the United States would launch a satellite during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a resolutely peaceful eighteen-month (July 1957 through the end of 1958) multi-national investigation of the planet and its resources. Within days of the American announcement, Soviet scientists revealed that they, too, were readying a satellite, also to be launched during IGY. American experts scoffed.