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How Sputnik Changed the World

October 4, 2007

By Mike Mullane

Tonight, I will sit in my backyard spa and look into the evening twilight and count the passing satellites. In the clear, dry New Mexican sky they’re easy to see. Just as the setting sun lingers on the tallest mountain peak, satellites that are hundreds of miles high continue to reflect sunlight long after the Earth beneath them has darkened.

Most evenings I’ll observe at least a half-dozen of the little “moons,” but it wouldn’t be remarkable to count 10 or more. As they streak over, I’ll try to guess their function. There’s a good chance the ones gliding north and south are military spy satellites. Others that are flashing are almost certainly space junk, periodically throwing a reflected sunbeam my way.

But this particular night, at my very first satellite sighting, I will raise a glass of wine and toast the man that started it all — the Soviet Union’s Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. It was a half-century ago this night that the “Chief Designer” (Korolev’s name was classified by a paranoid Nikita Khrushchev, so he was known to the world only by that title) put SputnikI into orbit and started the space race.

Satellites protect us and connect us

Now satellites touch every aspect of our lives. They warn of hurricanes and enemy missile launches. They watch for crop blight and allow us to get credit card approval at the gas pump. They bring hundreds of channels of TV into our homes and connect us to the world through the Internet. The next time your automobile GPS guides you through a city maze to an appointment that closes an important business deal, thank the Chief Designer. It was Korolev’s genius that put up a 183-pound ball that beep-beeped its way around the globe every 98 minutes and blazed the way for the constellation of hundreds of satellites that now guard, guide, connect and entertain us. It was also a beep that took America to the moon.

Post-World War II America had largely dismissed our Cold War enemy as nothing more than a wretchedly poor, backward country incapable of anything that smacked of cutting edge science or technology. Its nuclear bomb, we were certain, wasn’t even homegrown but a copy acquired through spies.

So on Oct. 3, 1957, the idea that the Soviet Union could best the USA in any area of science was laughable. The next day, we learned otherwise.

Shock and fear gripped the population as headlines everywhere roared: Reds Orbit Moon! Now there was a Russian sphere spinning over our heads. Many Americans, my dad included, worried that it could just as easily have been a nuclear bomb.

And there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. Americans fell into a funk of self-doubt and gut fear. President Eisenhower was savaged in the press for a failure of leadership. Our allies, too, began to wonder whether U.S. hegemony was as real as previously supposed. And a vast Third World population began to question whether national alignment with the Russian hammer and sickle wouldn’t be a better path for them.

Fear and failure forced us to respond

Sputnik was the 9/11 of the day. America was scared. And we got more frightened several months later when our first satellite launch ended, on live TV no less, in a ball of flame. If the world needed further proof that the USA was technologically deficient, Vanguard’s explosion gave it to them.

But if there’s one thing Americans do well, it’s our response to fear. Our response to Sputnik was as astounding as the Manhattan Project. At all costs we had to win on the new front of the Cold War — space. JFK threw down the gauntlet: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

It was so American to challenge an enemy to a contest we appeared already to have lost. As Kennedy was saying those words, no American had even orbited the Earth (another first the Soviets had already taken), and only a single American had been in space, Alan Shepard on a 15-minute suborbital mission. He had gotten to a mere 116 miles altitude — or about 480,000 miles short of Kennedy’s roundtrip goal.

But the USA stormed back. Just 12 years after Sputnik, astronaut Neil Armstrong was on the moon. (If, at Sputnik’s launch, you had predicted an American on the moon in a dozen years, you would have been dismissed as mentally unbalanced.) No technological accomplishment by any civilization at any time in the history of the world comes close to Apollo. It stands as a monument to the power of a free people.

And it would never have happened without Sergei Korolev’s Sputnik.

NASA’s current underfunded creep back to the moon is proof America needed the shock-and-awe effect of Sputnik to get there in the first place.

So the next time the moon rises over Albuquerque, I’ll turn my eyes from my satellite-watching and stare at its crescent and imagine the six American flags standing in its soil and the 12 Americans who walked it. And then I’ll toast Chief Designer Sergei Korolev again. A half-century ago, he slapped us awake and inspired us to take on the moon.

Astronaut Mike Mullane is a three-time space shuttle veteran and the author of Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut.<>




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