Friday, February 4, 2011

"Sputnik: The Shock of the Century"

A technician finalizes the construction of Sputnik I in 1957.

Using fear to achieve a political objective is nothing new in American politics. The false claims of health care "death panels" or secret Kenyan presidential birth certificates are just the latest in a long tradition of sensationalism in American politics.

During the administration of President John Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed to justify the Federalist majority jailing members of the opposition Democratic (now the Republican) party.

A century ago, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst pioneered ""yellow journalism," which really wasn't that much different from what happened in Adams' time. In the early 19th Century, newspapers were generally published by political parties, or those sympathetic to one particular partisan stripe. One hundred years later, Pulitzer and Hearst (both of whom had close ties to the Democratic Party) ran stories that favored labor and immigrants. Hearst was the basis for the fictitious Charles Foster Kane in the film Citizen Kane.

An example of Hearst's 1898 yellow journalism — a story claiming that American women were strip-searched by Spaniards when visiting Cuba.

So it shouldn't be any surprise that both the media and the press overreacted when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I on October 4, 1957.

That seminal moment in space flight history is expertly explored by author Paul Dickson in his book, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. First published in 2001, a new edition is due out in March from his publisher, Walker & Company.

The book is complemented by Dickson's web site, The author provided me with an uncorrected proof copy of the 2001 edition.

Dickson's introduction summarizes the event's impact on American culture, and therefore history.

There was a sudden lack of confidence in American technology, values, politics, and the military. Science, technology, and engineering were totally re-worked and massively funded in the shadow of Sputnik. The Russian satellite essentially forced the United States to place a new national priority on research science, which led to the development of microelectronics — the technology used in today's laptop, personal, and handheld computers. Many essential technologies of modern life, including the Internet, owe their early development to the accelerated pace of applied research triggered by Sputnik.

On another level, Sputnik affected national attitudes towards conspicuous consumption as well, symbolically killing off the market for the Edsel automobile and the decadent automotive tail fin. It was argued that the engineering talents of the nation were being wasted on frivolities.

Looking back through the prism of history, I'm left wondering what it is about American culture that sometimes causes us to go a little cuckoo. Our smug sense of superiority seems quite fragile, for we can be stampeded into fear by relatively inconsequential events.

Was Sputnik inconsequential?

From a historical perspective ... of course not. It was the first time humanity launched an artificial satellite into orbit. It fulfilled the dreams of rocket theorists for nearly a century.

But did Sputnik present a clear and present military threat to the United States?

The answer would also appear to be ... of course not.

The Eisenhower administration didn't see Sputnik as a military threat. Its calm amidst the hysteria was interpreted as befuddlement.

Sputnik wasn't exactly a secret, for those paying attention. Both the United States and Soviet Union had agreed to launch satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year. Soviet scientists provided their American counterparts with documents detailing their experiment, and publicized in advance the frequency that could be used to listen to the satellite's "beep beep" signal once it was launched.

Dickson's research showed the main problem was that the Americans simply didn't believe the Russians were capable of launching a satellite into orbit. Russian rocket research was more secretive than their American counterparts. Both programs were rooted in their military agencies, as until the IGY no nation had a purely civilian rocket program.

The Russians had no moral problem with using a military rocket. The R-7 used to launch Sputnik I was an intercontinental ballistic missile. The United States, more concerned about domestic and global opinion, pledged to launch their satellite aboard a civilian rocket. The U.S. rejected the Army's Jupiter rocket (a descendant of Nazi Germany's V-2) in favor of the Vanguard which would be built from scratch by the Naval Research Laboratory. That decision probably led to the Russians launching first; the Jupiter team, led by Wernher von Braun, later claimed they could have launched many months earlier if authorized.

Sputnik 3's payload weighed nearly 3,000 pounds. It was launched seven months after Sputnik I, which had a payload of less than 200 pounds.

If the Sputnik program posed any threat, it was from the demonstration of Soviet ability to launch increasingly large payloads. These rockets were ICBM knockoffs, modified military weapons. The ability to launch a significant payload (Sputnik 3's payload weighed 3,000 lbs.) implied the ability to launch an equally hefty nuclear weapon. But could they target it? And did the United States have retaliatory capability should the Soviets choose to do so?

The White House wasn't concerned. And if truth be told, the Soviets probably knew too that the United States had military superiority. But that didn't stop the Soviets from turning what was supposed to be a modest scientific first into a propaganda campaign, once Americans overreacted.

Dickson devotes an entire chapter to what he calls, "Red Monday." Sputnik I launched on a Friday. Americans had the weekend to contemplate its implications. American politicians and media moguls had the weekend to contemplate how to exploit the event. Dickson's chapter begins:

The public's surprise and awe over the weekend quickly changed to anger and shock as the impact of Sputnik was felt. The weekly newsmagazines helped set the tone: "Red Moon over the U.S.," Time said, editorializing over what it referred to as the "chilling beeps" of the satellite, while Newsweek noted that Moscow "had already given the word 'satellite' the implications of ruthless servitude," asking, "Could the crushers of Hungary be trusted with this new kind of satellite, whose implications no man could measure?"

The evening CBS news telecast claimed that Sputnik proved the Soviet Union now had the power to launch and deliver an "intercontinental ballistic missile with a multi-megaton hydrogen bomb warhead of several thousand pounds."

John Rinehart of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory told the Associated Press, "I would not be surprised if the Russians reached the moon within a week." The New York Times speculated that the Russians would land on the Moon and discharge "a red paint or dust that would mark an area large enough to be seen from the earth during the full moon."

The official Vatican position was that Sputnik was "a frightening toy in the hands of childlike men who are without religion or morals." One minister told his congregation that Sputnik foretold the Second Coming of Christ.

CBS News journalist Edward R. Murrow suggested after the launch of Sputnik 2 that the United States could no longer negotiate from strength with the Soviet Union.

After the launch of Sputnik 2 on November 3, the media ratcheted up the hysteria to suggesting unilateral surrender. Dickson writes:

Several commentators even suggested that Russia might use its missiles to blackmail the United States into a Cold War surrender. One of America's most influential commentators, Edward R. Murrow, reminded America that it could no longer negotiate from a position of strength and that it was time to accept any plan that afforded the opportunity for peaceful coexistence.

A story ran in U.S. newspapers that the Soviets might explode a nuclear bomb on the Moon's surface to mark the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Dickson cites many more examples of this baseless hysteria. I was struck by the similarities to our era, an era that often suffers from a loss of reason if not common sense.

A frequent claim by some critics of the Obama administration's human space flight progam is that it unilaterally surrenders the heavens to China — even though the Chinese have flown only three orbital flights with no more than two crew members. A letter in the February 4 Florida Today claimed, "If the Chinese establish a lunar base before we do, the high ground will be in the hands of a potentially hostile foreign nation." This echoed the outlandish claims of the late 1950s that the Russians would soon conquer the Moon for the same purpose.

Sandy Adams, Florida's newly elected 24th Congressional district congresswoman, implied in a December 29 editorial that unnamed powers are forcing the United States to launch its astronauts on Chinese rockets.

Recently elected Florida congresswoman Sandy Adams, whose district includes Kennedy Space Center, wrote in the December 29 Daytona Beach News-Journal, "We cannot and should not be forced to rely on the Russians and Chinese to get our astronauts into space." Another sensationalist fantasy. The United States flies no astronauts on Chinese rockets, and using the Russians to get to the International Space Station began with the Bush administration in January 2004.

A revelation for me was Dickson's depiction of Wernher von Braun. He frequently cites examples of the German rocket engineer exploiting his popularity to promote his agenda, at times bordering on insubordination. In Congressional testimony and in media interviews, von Braun said he could have launched a satellite months before Sputnik if only allowed to do so. Dickson notes, as have other historical researchers, that some believe von Braun was denied primacy in the early space flight days because of his Nazi past. Others believe it was due to his working for a weaponry program, that the United States didn't want the world to think our space interests were military in nature.

I was surprised to learn that von Braun initially resisted the Eisenhower administration's plan to merge the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and other government space programs into NASA. He threatened to quit; his commanding officer did. Always looking for assured government funding, perhaps von Braun believed he was likely to receive more money from a military program than a civilian one. His career history would seem to confirm this; his modest Berlin rocketry group could only raise money from the German military. Another factor may have been his observation of the low priority given Project Vanguard because it was a nominally civilian program. Dickson writes that von Braun relented "when he realized that he was being given the bulk of the space agency's space booster systems work and the responsibility for launch operations," and that his team would be transferred intact from ABMA.

Dickson's book concludes with an assessment of Sputnik on history. I look forward to his March 2011 to see whether this final chapter includes a reference to the "Sputnik moment" invoked by President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union speech. Obama called for new investment in biomedical research, information technology, and clean energy technology. Although I support the idea, as I wrote on January 26 I don't think calling it a "Sputnik moment" is the proper metaphor — especially since in my view a "Sputnik moment" equates to overreaction and irrationality.

But its use proves Dickson's conclusion that Sputnik still influences our politics and culture more than half-century later.

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