Making Sense of Sputnik

The Soviet Union launched a spherical orbital satellite, about two and a half times the size of a basketball, to usher in the “Space Age” on October 4, 1957, it changed the world. Sputnik 1, a mere 183-pound “hunk of iron almost anybody could launch,” as U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett called it, carried on its orbital trajectory a symbolism far beyond its size.

For one it reversed the image of the Soviet Union as a technological backwater, and placed it on a near equal footing with the United States. It also established spaceflight as evidence of progress and forward thinking among the nations of the world. It represented a first step beyond this planet, and we have never known a time since when there has not been some human-made object in Earth orbit. Finally, it suggested that the destiny of humanity rested in the cosmos rather than on Earth, and for all of its elusiveness that destiny motivated many to embrace the space age.

In the United States, the launch of Sputnik touched off a crisis of confidence in the nation’s scientific and technological elite and led to a series of important decisions, among them the creation of NASA and the establishment of major educational programs. There are several quite excellent books that discuss the history of Sputnik’s launch and the crisis it precipitated. Perhaps the best overall academic work is Robert A. Divine’s The Sputnik Challenge: Eisenhower’s Response to the Soviet Satellite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), which contains insights into the space program as promoted by the Eisenhower White House. Closely related is …The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985, rep. ed., Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), by Walter A. McDougall. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book analyzes the space race that began with Sputnik and compares efforts in the United States and the Soviet Union.

Three additional scholarly works are worth noting. Rip Bulkeley’s The Sputniks Crisis and Early United States Space Policy: A Critique of the Historiography of Space (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), offers an idiosyncratic account of early efforts to develop civil space policy in the aftermath of the Sputnik crisis of 1957. It contains much information relative to the rivalry between the United State and the Soviet Union and how it was affected by the launching of the Sputnik I satellite. Additionally, Roger D. Launius, John M. Logsdon, and Robert W. Smith edited Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), a collection of original essays emerging out of a 1997 history conference held at the time of the fortieth anniversary of Sputnik’s launch. Finally, Matt Bille and Erika Lishock have contributed The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004), which offers an account of Soviet successes and American responses with the Vanguard, Explorer, and the virtually unknown the navy’s NOTSNIK satellite project.

For the general reader two highly entertaining popular accounts may be found in Paul L. Dickson, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century (New York: Walker and Co., 2001) and Matthew Brzezinski, Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age (New York: Times Books, 2007). In addition, two recent illustrated works have appeared that owe their origins to Sputnik. After Sputnik: 50 Years of the Space Age (New York: Collins, 2007), edited by Martin Collins but with essays by all members of the Smithsonian Institution’s space history curatorial staff, presents space artifacts and stories about them to explore the remarkable changes wrought by spaceflight. Using stunning visuals, Piers Bizony also recounts this era of spaceflight in Space 50 (New York: Collins, 2006).

There are also several good books on various aspects of the Sputnik crisis. The best work to discuss the Soviet side of the issue is Asif A. Siddiqi, Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003). Based on records opened after the end of the cold war, it represents a new standard in knowledge about the Soviet side of the effort to launch the first Earth satellite. Likewise, James J. Harford’s Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), offered the first English-language biography of the Soviet “chief designer” who directed the space projects, including Sputnik, that were so successful in the late 1950s and early 1960s in energizing the Cold War rivalry for space supremacy.

Philip Nash also offers a fine detailed study of one case in which ballistic missile technology entered the sphere of international relations in the cold war in The Other Missiles of October: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Jupiters, 1957-1963 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). A fine detailed study of one case in which ballistic missile technology entered the sphere of international relations in the Cold War. Closely related, Peter J. Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), offers an excellent modern analysis of the “missile gap” controversy that arose after the Soviet launch of Sputnik I using recently declassified records.

Finally, there are three other works that illuminate the story of Sputnik. The first of these is Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home And Abroad (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), by Kenneth Osgood. It is a critically important contribution to the brutal historiography of Eisenhower revisionism. It suggests that Eisenhower was much more than a smiling, golf playing figurehead, and that he waged an aggressive psychological battle for hearts and minds worldwide; one that overall proved quite successful. Rocket Boys (New York: Delacorte, 1999) is a wonderful memoir of Sputnik and its aftermath for a group of boys in high school in Coalwood, West Virginia. Sputnik inspired them to pursue engineering as a career. Vanguard: A History (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institition Press, 1971), by Constance McL. Green and Milton Lomask offers an outstanding history of Vanguard program to launch a scientific satellite into orbit.

In all, these books represent a treasure of information on this important event in history.