Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Promise of Sputnik

Sputnik was one of the major milestones in the long history of the human race. Hovering 560 miles over the planet and moving 18000 miles an hour, this first man-made "moon" was described in the American press as the single most important story of the century, something akin to Christopher Columbus' discovery of the Americas. American ham radio operators everywhere followed the satellite's progress. Americans eagerly watched as the network anchors tracked the geographical progress of the famous satellite. Some went outside to observe the Soviets' handiwork with their own eyes.

But if Sputnik seemed to represent an unprecedented progress for humankind, it also marked the height of Soviet international prestige. It seemed that the future itself belonged to the USSR and communism in general. Soviet propaganda put the matter this way: while American scientists busily improved the aesthetic designs of automobiles according to caprice of bourgeois consumers, Soviet engineers were focused on loftier goals such as space travel. Indeed, the world admired the Soviet Union's scientific prowess even as it wondered why white Americans seemed to be mired in the pre-modern racial strife of Southern integration controversy. And what did it say about the difference between the two countries when, as the Soviets soon cheerfully announced, Sputnik was flying directly over Central High in Little Rock?

The Soviet Union's scientific achievement caught America by surprise, as the History Channel film, Sputnik Mania explains. In the midst of a consumer revolution and the dramatic expansion of suburbia, the Soviet Union had made a spectacular gesture of high adventure and scientific progress. Within days, and in the middle of the general atmosphere of awe and wonder, Americans began to feel a deep sense of anxiety over the impact of this scientific breakthrough on the Cold War. As Johnson recalled, as he looked up over the Texas sky, he felt that "the sky itself had become alien." How would the Russians exploit their innovation? Would they begin to drop bombs from the sky? And what did it say about Russia's ICBM capability if a satellite that apparently weighed 180 pounds had been launched into outer space? This was a second Pearl Harbor in the making.

While Lyndon B. Johnson called for a congressional investigation into America's competitiveness in the looming space race, Eisenhower, concerned as ever to dampen America's growing Cold War hysteria, failed initially to recognize the historical importance of Sputnik. Americans were concerned. For the first time, as the documentary film Sputnik Mania explains, the president's impressive military credentials seemed irrelevant if not obsolete. In an age of potential space battle, space travel, and powerful ICBMs, D-Day seemed like a distant memory.

The American people had been told repeatedly that the leader of the free world maintained a clear lead in science, technology, and advanced weaponry. To make matters worse, the Soviet Union followed up Sputnik with the successful testing of a new generation of hydrogen bomb. What to do? At first, Eisenhower put the problem of America's response into the hands of civilian leaders, but when our first satellite-rocket launch failed spectacularly, military leaders (and the Nazi scientist who had created the V2 rockets during World War II) took matters in hand.

A year after Sputnik, however far behind we were, America was fully engaged in the space race. Although Eisenhower would warn against the rise of the military industrial complex, and attempted to limit military spending in general, he launched America on the path that would soon overtake the Soviet Union's early successes in space. Soon he was broadcasting around the world via the world's first communications satellite.

Under J.F.K. America landed a man on the moon and, unlike the Soviets who allowed a dog to perish in outer space for lack of oxygen, they got him back safely. In Russia, according to Soviet children author Chukowsky's Diary, the Kremlin quickly changed course in its official communications on the subject of space. In addition to increasing military expenditures, they now declared that space travel was not something that represented the triumph of the human species in general. Rather, it was an instrument of American colonialism or military aggression. In fact, they now said America was demonstrating its callous disregard for humanity by risking human life in an endeavor that simply did not require the direct participation of men.

It's impossible to exaggerate the import of Sputnik which symbolized both the greatest hope and fear of the post-war years. Although the achievement allowed people to see the Earth holistically for the first time through photographs from outer space, it came at a time when, according to the film, Americans believed that war with Russia likely and might actually kill seven in ten of us.

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