The devastating impact of a Soviet satellite on the American public in the ’50s.
When Sputnik was put into orbit on October 4, 1957, Leave It to Beaver was first airing on TV. The juxtaposition of these two images—one of Communist technological superiority, the other of American gee-whiz innocence—is journalist Dickson’s structural theme here. The US, like the Soviet Union, raided Nazi Germany after 1945, removing scientific equipment and personnel for re-use in the Cold War. That the Soviet Union was the first to exploit this science comes as no surprise to Dickson, who credits Sputnik with giving the complacent US the wakeup call it needed to advance in the space race. American scientists and the US military scoffed at scientist Robert Goddard, who could have vaulted the country in front of all others in the field of rocket technology. While his work was given little support, Germans and Soviets were studying and building on his designs. After the war, as the Americans and Soviets dissected German rockets, the US still didn’t take the technology seriously. The army, navy, and air force all had their own missile programs, with the army’s team under former Nazi Wernher von Braun probably being the most advanced and the most overlooked. With the launching of Sputnik, everything changed. Whereas US rockets could barely reach the upper reaches of the atmosphere, the Soviet Union had placed in space an object that flew over North America several times a day. In an era when nuclear war seemed imminent, the military saw the importance of such devices for spying on the enemy. Von Braun and others were given the green light. On a larger level, the American public also got into the act: it rejected decadent cars like the Edsel and advocated advanced science curriculums in the schools. The Internet even owes its existence to Sputnik, the author claims—precursors to the Web were created by rocket researchers.
An excellent treatment of one of the early chapters of the Cold War.