The Real Sputnik Story

Forget the hype. The '57 launch wasn't such a big shock.

On the Saturday morning in 1957 after the Soviet Union launched the world's first manmade satellite and inaugurated the space age, President Dwight Eisenhower played golf, a NEWSWEEK reporter in Boston described "massive [public] indifference" and some American papers ran the story as a small box on page three. And why not? The Soviets had announced plans to go into space no fewer than 20 times since 1951: as part of their participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a global program to study Earth's physics starting in July 1957, they even told an American official the orbital speed and launch site of the little satellite they planned.

It usually takes time for myths to take hold. But in the case of Sputnik—launched on Oct. 4, 1957—myth supplanted reality within days and continues to warp the lessons of that "red moon." Less than a week after Sputnik began orbiting Earth once every 96 minutes, politicians and the press had spun it into a shocking symbol of Soviet superiority that could soon lead to nukes falling on American cities. But far from being alarmed by Sputnik, newly released archives show, Eisenhower and his military and intelligence advisers welcomed it. The terror triggered by the uninstrumented, 184-pound silvery satellite, roughly the size and shape of a blue-ribbon watermelon and emitting an A-flat beep from its rudimentary radio transmitter, had little basis in reality. With Sputnik's 50th anniversary this week, we're in danger of getting it wrong yet again, for the supposed lessons of Sputnik are ones we should actually unlearn. Most important, it is wrong to believe "that the American people need 'another Sputnik' " to increase our competitive juices in space or technology, says historian Walter McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania, author of the 1997 book "The Heavens and the Earth." The United States "does not need another ill-conceived spasmodic reaction to some humiliation that does not pose an immediate threat."

The chief myth of Sputnik is that it took America by surprise. Yes, the public was shocked that "the clod-hopping Russians could surpass the U.S. in a vanguard technology," says McDougall, even though newspapers regularly reported on the Soviet satellite program. But the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency knew the status of the Soviets' rocket program, and viewed the prospect of a satellite with such complacency that they weren't even prepared to monitor it. Sputnik passed over the United States twice before the government knew about it, through an Associated Press report. "The Russians had announced they were going to do it, and we even knew what frequency Sputnik would transmit on," says NASA historian Steven Dick.

Far from being a bitter blow, Sputnik furthered one of Eisenhower's cherished military goals. Called "open skies," the policy would allow any nation to undertake aerial reconnaissance of any other. "The administration welcomed Sputnik," says McDougall. "The Soviets could hardly deny the right to launch satellites over the territory of other countries if they did it first."

Nevertheless, administration critics and the press seized on Sputnik to pummel Ike for letting the United States fall behind technologically. In fact, the Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space only because the U.S. was in no great hurry to get there. Ike had chosen the Navy to develop a satellite for the IGY, partly because its program seemed more scientific and less militaristic than the Army's (which was headed by Wernher Von Braun and used Redstone rockets dubbed "city wreckers"). Although Von Braun pushed for his own satellite launch, he was turned down repeatedly by the military brass. If he'd gotten a green light, his satellite might well have claimed the place in history now occupied by Sputnik, argues Paul Dickson in his 2001 book "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century." When Von Braun's team launched a rocket from Cape Canaveral in September 1956, it had to use a dummy fourth stage—an engine filled with sand instead of rocket fuel—so it would not accidentally reach orbit.

The shock and panic, misplaced as it was, did light a fire under the American space program. Without Sputnik there would have been no Apollo program, no race to the moon, no 1969 landing. But while Apollo "was a sterling success in the short run," argues McDougall, "it skewed NASA spending toward a big public relations program that went nowhere in the long run." A slower, steadier program leading to cheaper rockets, space planes and a sustainable Moon base—which NASA now has its sights on for 2020—would have given the United States vastly more to show for its space investment than it has now. On Jan. 4, 1958, Sputnik re-entered Earth's atmosphere and burned up, but its wrongheaded legacy persists.