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The Clunky Little Ball That Caused Mass Hysteria

This October 4th marks the 55th anniversary of the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, history’s first artificial satellite. It was a momentous occasion, to be sure. But at the time, the Soviet and U.S. responses couldn’t have been more different: While...

by Amy Teitel
Oct 3 2012, 2:00pm

This October 4th marks the 55th anniversary of the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, history’s first artificial satellite. It was a momentous occasion, to be sure. But at the time, the Soviet and U.S. responses couldn’t have been more different: While the Soviets patted themselves on the back for their technological feat, Americans descended into a state of complete hysteria.

Sputnik’s launch came during the International Geophysical Year, an internationally agreed upon series of geophysical scientific investigations coinciding with a period of maximum solar activity. Officially lasting the seventeen months between July 1957 and December 1958, both the US and Soviet Union planned to launch satellites as part of their IGY offerings. By the fall of 1957, it looked like the Soviets were pulling ahead of the U.S., aiming to launch on September 17 to commemorate the 100th birthday of Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The launch ended up delayed until early October, but the Soviets still held the lead.

October 4 was a Friday in 1957, and that evening there was a reception at the Soviet Union’s Embassy in Washington. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. A six-day conference run by the international Comité Speciale de l’Année Geophysique Internationale – CSAGI – at the National Academy of Sciences had just ended. The meeting had focused heavily on rocket and satellite research for the IGY, marked throughout with murmurs that the Soviet Union was “on the eve” of a satellite launch. Few Americans in attendance thought this was anything more than boastful and poetic rhetoric, but opinions changed a little before 6:00 in the evening.

Eisenhower and Khrushchev

Walter Sullivan, a reporter with the New York Times who attended the party at the Soviet embassy that night, got an urgent call from his bureau chief. The man on the phone told him the Soviet news agency Tass had just announced the launch of a satellite called Sputnik. News spread through the room quickly.

President Eisenhower and members of his administration congratulated the Soviets, and tried to downplay the importance of the accomplishment in the days that followed. The administration knew that Sputnik wasn’t a particularly spectacular satellite. It was a rather simple device, and the result of compromise; the Soviets could have launched something more sophisticated, but it would have taken longer to develop.

It was decided that being first to launch a satellite was more important than launching something fancy, so Sputnik kept things simple. The bulk of the 184-pound aluminum ball was devoted to a radio transmitter and batteries. The satellite traced an ellipse around the planet once every 96 minutes, broadcasting a beep that Ham radio operators could pick up in their garages.

American scientists knew the size and weight of Sputnik came from its primitive instruments. The components were unsophisticated and heavy, but that’s not what the public saw. To the average American, Sputnik’s 184 pounds, compared to the planned 3.5 pound Vanguard satellite the Navy was planning to launch, put the Soviets clearly ahead in the tech race. Remember, this was way before anyone was cheering for shrinking electronics. Bigger is better, right?

What no one could deny was that the Soviets had more powerful rockets. The Cold War mentality of the late 1950s turned this weight disparity (the Soviets had to built a massive satellite, while ours was tiny and efficient) into one of capability (the Soviets have huge rockets!). There were terrifying implications to the Soviets’ launch capacity, which quickly became a “missile gap.” Eisenhower and his administration were right to downplay the threat of Sputnik, which was rather unsophisticated on its own, but grossly miscalculated the American public’s reaction to the satellite.

As the news of Sputnik spread, hysteria bloomed. People speculated that Sputnik’s beep was a way for the Soviets to determine the exact location of U.S. cities so they could better aim their ballistic missiles. Talk of a “missile gap” and a “technology gap” became common, as did two new terms to describe the world: pre-Sputnik and post-Sputnik.

Interestingly, the impact of the satellite wasn’t immediately felt by the Soviet scientists who launched it. They were pleased with their success. Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, made the announcement about Sputnik in a small article. But there was nowhere near the same hubbub in the U.S.S.R. as there was in the U.S. The impact the launch had on the world slowly trickled back to those who had made it happen.

Laika preparing for launch

Less than a month later, on November 3, 1957, the Soviets struck again:Sputnik 2 launched with a dog, Laika, on board. This, rather than Sputnik 1, was a significant launch. The spacecraft was equipped with a life support system and weighed a whopping 1,120 pounds. Rather than tossing a bleeping metal orb into space, Sputnik 2 showed that living creatures could indeed survive orbit (even if Laika didn’t survive the trip).

This time, launch was also timed for political effect. Sputnik 2 was launched on the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. As parades marched through Red Square, Khrushchev was able to boast that the Soviets had multiple satellites in orbit, while Americans had zero. It was a brilliant political play: The arguably-overwrought fervor over the launch of Sputnik 1 was thus legitimized and intensified by the impressive sophistication of Sputnik 2. That one-two punch, of course, produced an American outcry for funding the fledgling space program, and pushed the space race into full swing.