10 Questions: About Sputnik

(AP Photo)
Nancy Ramsey is a contributor to CBSNews.com.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite. Five hundred miles above the Earth, it traveled at a speed of 18,000 miles an hour and circled the Earth every 96 minutes. Sent into space by the Russians, not the U.S., it rocked our assumptions about our place in the world and quickly became a pivotal moment in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations and the Cold War.

For some memories of Sputnik's launch—and the impact it still continues to have on our society—we called Paul Dickson, who wrote Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. Published in 2001, it's just been re-released; he's also the co-writer on a new documentary, Sputnik Mania.

1. Your book is subtitled The Shock of the Century. Why "shock"?

Because the United States was by and large unprepared for the fact that the Soviet Union could do this. We didn't think they had the technology.

We had thought we had two oceans to protect us, we realized that if the Russians could throw a satellite over the middle of America they could drop an ICBM on it.

The Russians had been saying they were going to do it, but nobody believed them. Everybody knew we'd be first. We'd come out of the Depression and World War II, we had the Salk vaccine, people were thriving. We saw the Russians as brutish people who couldn't drive a tractor straight.

2. What was our initial reaction?

We immediately began to realize we were way behind in a lot of things. The Russians actually said, your color TVs, the tailfins on your cars, your Princess phone – they saw that Princess phone as the epitome of self-indulgence. You know there are serious people who have written that Sputnik killed the Edsel. It was a dreadful car with a dreadful name, people said at the time it looked like an Olds sucking a lemon. Sputnik had caught us in the middle of this materialistic fascination with toys.

And you can't divorce Sputnik from what was going on here. President Eisenhower had sent the 101st Airborne into Little Rock. Think of the contrast between what the Russians were doing, and here in this country you had white people spitting and cursing at black children just because they wanted to go to school.

3. You were a student at Wesleyan University at the time. What are your memories of that day 50 years ago?

I saw it from a football field, in Middletown, Connecticut. It was like seeing the Battle of Hastings, you knew you were watching a turning point in history. And the TV people hated it. It was about 7:00 in the evening when it went over, and everyone was outside instead of in front of their televisions.

It looked like a Henry Moore sculpture, it was a round ball, like a beach ball, with four trailing antenna. It was awesome.

Even though Sputnik was crude, it was done with slide rules, the beep-beep was two batteries, it was very low tech, but it was extremely well-positioned for propaganda.

4. And that was intentional?

Oh, yes. There was that beep-beep-beep. The radio frequencies were a common frequency, every kid with a ham radio could receive it.

And the booster, which they knew would go into orbit, they put mirrors on that. It was highly reflective aluminum alloy, they had polished it with sheepskin, and it was at a low enough altitude that at sunup and sundown you would see it.

5. In the recently published book Red Moon Rising: "Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age," Matthew Brzezinski writes that on October 9th, Eisenhower was "greeted by one of the most hostile press corps the president had ever faced." Why was that?

They were blaming him for inaction. Do something quick, they thought. He wasn't doing it. He had his own plans.

6. Which were?

Eisenhower wanted the space program to be peaceful, to be a civilian scientific enterprise.

He was taking a page from Harry Truman. Truman had taken away atomic bombs from the military and put them in the hands of the atomic energy commission. Eisenhower wanted this whole think to be peaceful, what he wanted was a civilian space agency, which became NASA.

In 1955 Eisenhower went to Geneva to meet with the Russians. He took his son John and Nelson Rockefeller with him. The great benefit of space, for him, would be reconnaissance. If we knew where the missiles were, that would allow for arms reduction.

Later on, Lyndon Johnson would say that the greatest contribution of the space age was that it allowed us to know where the arms and missiles are.

Eisenhower believed that national security shouldn't just be guns and standing armies, it should be good will, helping people in the rest of the world. He was totally in the face of the military guys.

7. And what did they want?

General John Medaris, a very ambitious Army general who may have wanted to be the next President, was keenly anti-Eisenhower. He and Wernher Von Braun saw space as the next battleground. They wanted to turn space into a weapons platform, make it the next combat zone. It took them months to come aboard.

What happens to this idea is that it morphs into the space race as a surrogate to war. You can have two great powers, both fueling the space program with huge public works money, a huge infusion of new technology. There will be a winner and a loser, but both will be better off at the end than if they were pushing nuclear bombs.

A lot of people thought it should all be military, and in a way both Eisenhower and Khrushchev were each conspiring against their own military.

8. Speaking of General Medaris, in the final chapter of your book, "Sputnik's Legacy," you quote him: "If I could get ahold of that thing, I would kiss it on both cheeks." What did he mean?

Sputnik galvanized America. We put billions of dollars into education. We began producing 1,500 PhDs a week. Teachers were going to special summer institutes, Middlebury to study language, MIT to study technology. It brought the middle classes back into education, which was drifting toward elitism. It showed us at our best.

We get Dr. Spock, Dr. Seuss. Rote learning starts to be abandoned. Dick and Jane are skewered on a plate. There's less Latin and Greek, more Spanish and Russian.

Betty Friedan is working on a book about Smith College, and she said Sputnik got her thinking. Stephen King is in a theater, watching a movie called "Earth vs. the Flying Saucer," about Martians coming down to Malibu and taking women back to Mars. They stopped the movie in the middle to announce Sputnik. That was the beginning of his dread. The world had been reality versus fantasy, and now the two had come together.

Sputnik changed a lot of people.

9. What you're saying flies in the face of the people who say that too much money has been spent on the space program, that in more recent times it could have been used for other things...

It got us all the things we now rely on, laptop computers, cellphones. Countries that don't have the copper to string phonelines? Cellphones. The space race has given the world a whole boost at every level. The space guys were the first guys to learn to do biometric readings of people's bodies. There was a large technology transfer.

At its highpoint, it was four percent of our economy, now it's only seven-tenths of one percent. And there's an $8 billion positive balance of payments in the aerospace industry, meaning you take all the money coming into this country—other countries paying Boeing to build their planes, hiring American pilots, for instance—and it's more than other segments of industry.

Sputnik resulted in the creation of DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. That was hundreds of millions of dollars into a think tank that was supposed to come up with those things that would prevent us from being surprised. There were these huge computers bulk processing, at MIT, at Cal Tech. And these huge computers could talk to each other.

When the government was finished with the ARPA net, they said, Let's give it to the world. Think what would have happened if they had decided to auction it off. So it's because of Sputnik that we've got the internet.

10. We were talking earlier in the conversation about how because of Sputnik we had more scientists, more engineers, better education. Somehow it feels as if today we've gone back to pre-Sputnik days. Now you hear about how we need more scientists, more engineers, better education because that sector of our society all seems to be going overseas...

Well, that's the argument everybody's making, we may need another Sputnik moment, something to galvanize us and get us going again. Katrina could have been that moment, but it wasn't. I thought that bridge collapse in Minneapolis might have been it, that we might have recognized we're letting the country deteriorate while we sit in corners with our ipods.

We need another Sputnik.