- Historic Sites
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
As television recorded the scene, Vanguard’s first-stage rocket roared, spewed flame and smoke —and rose all of four feet.
But the worst blast came a few weeks later. Along with portraying the Sputniks as meaningless, the administration had been telling reporters that the United States was about to launch a satellite of its own. The Navy was still in charge of the program, though von Braun and the Army were quietly at work too. The day after Sputnik I ’s launch, von Braun had told Defense Secretary Neil McElroy that the Navy rocket “will never make it,” whereas the Army rocketeers could launch a satellite in sixty days. McElroy took it under advisement. A month later, amid the aftershocks of Sputnik II , von Braun was told to get to work.
The Navy’s Vanguard program was also on an accelerated countdown. The original schedule called for a dozen meticulous test runs, each one involving additional hardware and equipment. Not until number seven was a full-scale “earnest try” for orbit to be attempted. But with two Sputniks in orbit, as Newsweek put it, “the Vanguard test rocket with its grapefruitsized satellite suddenly became the U.S. answer to the Soviet challenge.”
Finally, at 11:45 A.M. on December 6, a rocket propulsion engineer flipped the firing toggle. As television recorded the scene, Vanguard’s first-stage rocket roared, spewed flame and smoke, rose four feet—and fell back onto the steel launching pad and tumbled to the ground, exploding in a spectacular fireball. The satellite cargo, thrown clear, was damaged but still beeping. For Eisenhower, recovering from a late November stroke, the news couldn’t get much worse. Headline writers around the world outdid each other: “Flopnik,” “Stay-putnik,” “Dudnik.” A Russian delegate to the United Nations asked his American colleagues if they would be interested in applying for aid “under the Soviet program of technical assistance to backward nations.”
Ike, his popularity plummeting (it had gone from almost 80 percent in late 1956 to just 50 percent in late 1957), bent a bit. His post-Sputnik budget increased military expenditures, a rise that mandated, in Eisenhower’s words, “at least a token reduction in the ‘butter’ side of government,” so spending on urban development and hospitals was cut. Still, the parsimonious President had little use for space exploration. “Look,” he told his cabinet, “I’d like to know what’s on the other side of the moon, but I won’t pay to find out this year.” Even so, he signed legislation creating NASA in 1958.
Most important, Ike knew that the Russians were behind the United States militarily—so far behind on warhead production and ICBM development that a surprise attack on the United States would be suicidal. Since 1956 Ike had been seeing photographs taken by supersecret U-2 spy planes. These photos revealed the Soviet disadvantage in ICBMs and tellingly, they didn’t show any preparations for a first strike. “We can still destroy Russia,” Eisenhower told his cabinet. “We know it.”