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On Its Anniversary, Remembering the Beeping Fear of Sputnik

Fifty-four years ago this week, people throughout America were searching for a flashing dot among the stars every night and tuning their radios to hear the first sound to reach Earth from space.

by Amy Shira Teitel
Oct 7 2011, 7:14pm

Fifty-four years ago this week, people throughout America were searching for a flashing dot among the stars every night and tuning their radios to hear a tinny beep beep beep – the first sound to reach Earth from space. They were looking and listening for the world's first artificial satellite, the Soviet-launched Sputnik. Curiosity over the satellite quickly gave way to fear, then envy, then frustration, and ultimately spurred on to a missile race between US military branches to see who could match the Soviet accomplishment first.

Sputnik's story starts in 1952 when the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed an International Geophysical Year (IGY) – a coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena between 46 nations worldwide, including the United States and the Soviet Union. The IGY was set to run from July 1957 to December 1958, an 18-month period known to feature a high level of solar activity. To make the most out of solar phenomena, both the US and the USSR planned to launch small scientific satellites for research purposes. And both nations knew of the other's intention.

Publicly-asserted scientific goals weren't the United States' only indication that the Soviet Union was preparing to launch a satellite. U-2 mission had confirmed the presence of missiles in the USSR that could launch a satellite. And both countries knew the other had German rocket scientists on the job. In the weeks and months following the Second World War, both the Soviet Union and the United States went through Germany looking for the German scientists responsible for the V-2 missile. The men were a form of 'intellectual reparations'.

In the USSR, Joseph Stalin had put his Germans to work developing missiles right away. When Nikita Khrushchev took over from Stalin, he inherited an ongoing missile development program, and the streamlined communist system only aided Soviet rocket development. With all its missile-producing eggs in one strictly ruled basket, there was less chance of stagnation in the program. The US knew the Soviet's technology was as advanced, if not further along, than its own.

The US, however, took a different route with its captured Germans. After importing 110 men in the mid 1940s, they went into a holding period. They waited in New Mexico for their Nazi-affiliate status to fade in anticipation of assignment on rocket development. Not until the early 1950s when the Korean war threatened US troops overseas did the development of long range missiles become a necessity. The German rocketeers were spread across the country and set to work on varying program. Some went to the Air Force to work on missiles. Others went to the Army to work on missiles. Others still went to the Navy. To work on missiles.

This division of resources took a toll on the US satellite effort. When the time came to select a launch vehicle, president Eisenhower had choices. There were two front runners: the Navy's Vanguard rocket and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's (ABMA) Jupiter C. The ABMA also had Wernher von Braun, the famed designer of the V-2. But Eisenhower chose the Navy's Vanguard as the priority rocket.

Von Braun for one was displeased. He'd been pleading for months for increased priority to launch a satellite with his Jupiter C in advance of the rockets to no avail.

When Sputnik went up on October 4, 1957, he wasn't entirely surprised.

Von Braun was in a meeting with Secretary of Defence Neil McElroy to once again plead higher priority for the Jupiter C when news of Sputnik's successful orbit reached him. His shock quickly gave way to frustration. He knew the Soviet launch was imminent, and knew Vanguard was falling behind schedule and not performing as well as expected. Worse, Jupiter was almost ready to go. A local newspaper in Huntsville, Alabama recorded his reaction: "We have the hardware on the shelf. For God's sake, turn us loose and let us do something. We can put a satellite in sixty days! Just give us a green light and sixty days!"

For the average American, shock gave way to fear rather than frustration. Sputnik itself wasn't exactly scary. At 182 pounds and with a talent for beeping and not much else, it was hardly a threat. But the rocket that launched it was. Sputnik was a significant payload compared to the 3-pound capability of the Navy's Vanguard and the 17-pound capability of the ABMA's Jupiter C. The possibility of a nuclear attack was suddenly real; the buffer of the Atlantic that had given most Americans a feeling of security in spite of "duck and cover" drills had been breached.

Eisenhower's reaction, at least publicly, was calm resolve. Or perhaps he sought to assuage the fears of his people by downplaying the Soviet achievement – he famously asserted that Sputnik did not raise his apprehensions about the USSR one iota. Sputnik, he pointed out, was not a scientific satellite like the US' was sure to be. It was a stunt whereas the US satellite – which he asserted was still on track for orbit in 1958 – was going to do real science in space.

Despite calm assertions from the president, the shock gave way to pressure within the US military and government offices like the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the President's Science Advisory Committee. Not only was there a need for a satellite launch as soon as possible, but a long-term space program demanded attention as well. Newspapers across the country were claiming that the first country to send a satellite to the moon would be top technological dog. Focussing on the first satellite wouldn't be enough to best the communist adversary.

This pressure led to a second less popularized missile race that ran in parallel with the budding Cold War. The US Navy and the ABMA each wanted a crack at a satellite launch, but only one would get the green light from the president to go first.

This separation between military branches created an odd arrangement. It precluded the Navy and ABMA from combining their efforts or their hardware into a single, more powerful, rocket. The ABMA was furthermore directed to focus on missile development rather than satellite launch vehicles because weapons were thought to be a more necessary asset.

Maybe it was the weapons-association of the ABMA's rocket that made Eisenhower focus on the Navy's Vanguard, but his desire for a launch at any cost ultimately won. Vanguard would have the first launch attempt. Their failure would give the ABMA a shot during the next window (a period lasting a number of weeks). The ABMA's failure to launch during their window would turn the priority back to Vanguard for another attempt. This would continue until someone put a satellite in orbit.

Von Braun wasn't the only one who had serious doubts about Vanguard; many shared his opinion that the rocket was far from ready for launch. Turns out, they were right.

The morning of December 6, 1957, Vanguard sat on the launch pad fuelled and ready to go. The countdown proceeded and America held its breath. The whole world watched on live television as Vanguard lost thrust and exploded on the pad. The mess triggered the satellite's escape rocket. It launched into a nearby swamp. The short flight tricked its sensors into thinking it had achieved orbit and it began proudly beeping for the world to hear.

International news outlets had a field day. The American attempt was dubbed Spätnik, Kaputnik, Splatnik, Stallnik, Sputternik, Dudnik, Puffnik, Oopsnik, Goofnik, to name a few.

The silver lining (of sorts) was that von Braun and the ABMA were granted a launch attempt with the Jupiter C after the public loss of Vanguard. Their launch came towards the end of their window, late on January 31, 1958. The Jupiter rocket launched with Explorer 1 on board – the principle scientific payload Eisenhower has promised would set the American satellite apart was an instrument that would prove the existence of radiation around the Earth, more commonly known for its discovered as the Van Allen belt.

The launched looked good, bur confirmation didn't come until nearly 1 am on February 1. Von Braun got a ticker tape printout that confirmed Explorer was in orbit.

The space race was officially on.