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The Wrong Anniversary? Sputnik and the Space Treaty

by Captain Future Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 04:27:01 AM EST

Are we looking at the wrong anniversary--the one that's just passed, the 50th year since Sputnik, and not the one to come next week, a related 40th anniversary?

In any case, the answer begins on October 4, 1957. My childhood recollections suggest the dual nature that was inherent in the major event of that day.

By 8 pm it was dark outside, on that early October night. At the end of a long, multi-jointed arm, a green-shaded lamp focused light on the surface of the heavy, dark-grained wood desk, a hand-me-down undoubtedly older than I was. The rest of my room was in shadow.

I often had my radio on while I did my homework--a supposed shortwave set with a slate gray face and exposed, glowing tubes in the back, that sat on the bookshelf above and to the right of my desk, next to the globe. My father had put the radio together from a kit, and despite its impressive dials it seldom pulled in more than the local AM station. But for some reason the radio was off. I was absorbed in my homework, and I didn't even notice the hum and murmur of the television set on the other side of the far wall, in the living room, where my parents were watching.

So when my bedroom door flew open I was startled. My father leaned in, and asked me if I'd been listening to the radio. I said "no" defensively, but he wasn't checking on my homework diligence. He said the Russians had launched a satellite into space. It was orbiting the earth right now. They'd just announced it on television, and broadcast the actual sounds coming from the satellite. It was called Sputnik.

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At my desk I turned on my radio, which eventually played the eerie, even- toned beeping sounds from space. I was stunned.

The news of Sputnik had spread quickly in government and scientific circles earlier that day. Around 6:30 PM on the East Coast, President Dwight Eisenhower was at Camp David when he was told. It was just a few minutes after 8 PM in New York when RCA technicians recorded the sound. Sputnik had already orbited over the U.S. three times by then.

NBC News broke into radio and TV programming coast to coast. "Listen now for the sound," the radio announcer said, "which forevermore separates the old from the new." (The news did not break into a World Series game, as some stories say. October 4, 1957 was a travel day for the Yankees and Braves between New York and Milwaukee, and besides, there weren't night games in the World Series until 1971.)

It was rush hour on the West Coast. Commuters might have been listening to Jimmie Rodgers sing "Honeycomb," the current number one hit, or the song it dethroned, "That'll Be the Day" by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. When they first heard the Sound.

What did it really change?

A lot of attention this 50th anniversary of Sputnik has been focused on its role in beginning the Space Age. It did that, at least for adults. The technical achievement of humans sending a rocket into space to deliver an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth marked a monumental moment. For some, this very fact was profoundly shocking. "It is hard for people now to realize how stubbornly the idea of any form of space travel was opposed before that date, "wrote science fiction writer and historian Brian Aldiss, "and not only by the supposedly ignorant."

But kids like me had been living in the Space Age for years. I'd grown up with Captain Video, and then Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, one after the other on Saturday mornings.

Certainly for me as well as for imaginative adults in America, the reality of it was a cause for wonder and excitement. But it was something I was looking forward to, even expecting. I learned about rockets and space travel from Disneyland's "Tomorrowland" hour. And I knew that the U.S. was planning to rocket a satellite into orbit as part of the International Geophysical Year--sometime between the summer of 1957 and the end of 1958. But I wasn't prepared for the Russians doing it first.

I'd even heard one of the smartest men in America, the quiz show champion Charles van Doren, talk about it on a television documentary about the IGY. The newsman interviewing him asked if the Russians might orbit a satellite first. He just chuckled. Years later, of course, van Doren admitted that on "The 64 Thousand Dollar Question," he'd been given the answers.

We're now told that people in the know in Washington were expecting it, and that Eisenhower's military people welcomed it, specifically because they wanted to spy on the Russians from space, and now the Russians could hardly object when the U.S. sent a satellite over their country. No doubt some also saw it as an opportunity to intensify Cold War fears.

Those fears were already in the air, and had been for most of the decade. So as I sat there in the pool of light surrounded by darkness, listening to the grim monotone from above, I opened my brown notebook and wrote about what had just happened. I still have that notebook:

"The Russians, Conquerors of Space. Oct.4, 1957. I have just heard some news which will affect my whole future. Russia has just successfully launched the first man-made satellite into space...How did the Russians do it? Out of their own ingenuity? Did they get information from a spy in America? A traitor? All the work our scientists and top brains did, what for? Will the Russians take advantage of this and use it to start a war?"

I was eleven years old. So was Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Steven Speilberg would turn 11 in a couple of months. George Lucas was 13.

Sputnik changed our lives, in some ways encouraging our dreams of the future, but also introduced a new dose of fear. (Clearly, Cold War paranoia was already in the air.) It gave us more (and more obviously useless) `duck and cover' drills, and it started a national furor over our education, parodied for our generation by the Firesign Theatre pitting Communist Martyrs High School against More Science High. It also led to the National Defense Education Act, which provided loans for college, which is how many of us got there.

But there was also real basis for alarm. Although the U.S. had exploded the first true hydrogen bomb in 1952, it was too large and fragile for a weapon. The bomb the Soviets designed and exploded the next year was not as powerful, but it was already a weapon. The U.S. soon had created usable hydrogen bombs, but the Soviets had a brief advantage which had shaken the military establishment.

Now it seemed the Soviets had leapt ahead and were a much greater threat. Until then, an attack on the U.S. or Russia could be conducted only by using bombers. Although the U.S. was rapidly developing guided missiles, Sputnik (and especially the bigger Sputnik II launched a month later) proved the Soviets had built missiles capable of reaching the U.S. and delivering atomic bombs. Sputnik itself was beeping over America to remind them.

Missiles were a much greater threat--much faster than bombers and harder to detect. Airplanes could be shot down, but not guided missiles. They didn't even have to be especially accurate: hydrogen bombs were so powerful they didn't have to be delivered to precise targets. To destroy New York or Moscow might require as many as 24 atomic bombs. The first hydrogen bombs were each as powerful as a thousand Hiroshima bombs. New York could be destroyed by one of them, which would also produce radiation lethal to the population of Washington, D.C., and would contaminate most of the Northeast, into Canada. The "lethal zone" in H-bomb tests in the Pacific after the Bravo test proved so powerful was equal to 20% of the continental United States.

Now we also know that the intent of Sputnik was precisely to demonstrate this threat, not to start an era of space exploration, though that was a common dream of some Soviet scientists as well as Americans. According to a recent AP report, the Sputnik launch was "a spur-of-the-moment gamble" using military missiles designed to carry large payloads of hydrogen bombs the distance to the U.S. "The key reason behind the emergence of Sputnik was the Cold War atmosphere and our race against the Americans," Chertok said. "The military missile was the main thing we were thinking of at the moment."

Sputnik was an important moment, but it didn't begin the Cold War or Cold War paranoia (like the early 1950s Blacklist) or the subterranean fear of nuclear war (we'd been watching those radiation monster movies most of the decade.) It did threaten to make space another battlefield.

No Star Trek; so long, Internet?

This could well be the real significance of this anniversary for us now. Beginning with his dream of space-based weapons that to the eternal chagrin of George Lucas came to be called Star Wars, Ronald Reagan began what George W. Bush wants to intensify and expand. The Russians have picked this moment in 2007 to warn that if any country puts weapons in space it will lead to a new arms race. Only the US has shown any inclination to do so. And several peace organizations have chosen this week for an international week of protest to stop the militarization of space.

Apart from the threat of nuclear warfare from space, there is a very real ongoing threat to what's up there in space now--the most tangible legacy of the Space Age, such as communications and global positioning satellites, and the space-based technology behind the ground level gadgets we increasingly depend on and take for granted--including the Internet, cell phones and GPS.

Apart from the questionable drift to total dependence on these technologies, so vulnerable to accident and attack, there is the simple fact of space garbage. At the speed it moves, a tiny piece of debris can kill a satellite. And there is an awful lot of it up there. According to David Wright in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

"Some 4,500 launches have taken place since Sputnik, and there are currently 850 active satellites in space, owned by some 50 countries, as well as nearly 700,000 pieces of debris large enough to damage or destroy those satellites."

Put the danger of debris together with the whole idea of space warfare, which could create so much debris in orbit around the earth that no spacecraft would survive, and the Space Age would be over. Sorry, no Star Trek. And maybe no cell phones either.

These are some of the reasons that scientists and writers like Wright and Laura Grego (behind a pay wall) at New Scientist are pointing out the even greater significance of a 40th anniversary this month--the October 10, 1967 signing of the Outer Space Treaty, since ratified by some 100 countries. It states:

"The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind."

Of course it's just one of many international treaties that the Bush administration ignores and wants to destroy. But as Laura Grego writes in the September 8, 2007 New Scientist:

"While we look back at the achievements of half a century in space, we should look ahead, too, and make it a priority to safeguard our common heritage in space and our security on Earth."

There is something to the theory that some American functionaries had the idea to let the Soviets to launch a satellite first - a "Reichstag fire" excuse might have been in their character, looking from today's perspective. Even that media shock might look somewhat familiarly directed now.

But frankly, there seems to be a bit too much revision going on suddenly. It is way too comfortable an explanation for the American lag up till the Moon landing. Why would Americans weight future events without empirical precedents so objectively only so sporadically?

It is especially suspicious when Charles Krauthammer is making a similiar story.

We had no idea how lucky we were with Sputnik. The subsequent panic turned out to be an enormous boon. The fear of falling behind the Communists induced the federal government to pour a river of money into science and math education. The result was a generation of scientists who gave us not only Apollo and the moon, but the sinews of the information age -- for example, ARPA that created ARPANET that became the Internet -- that have assured American technological dominance to this day.

There was another lucky outcome of Sputnik. Two years earlier, President Eisenhower had proposed "Open Skies" under which the U.S. and Russia would permit spy-plane overflights so each would know the other's military capabilities. The idea was to reduce mutual uncertainty and strengthen deterrence. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rejected the idea out of hand.

The advent of the orbiting satellite circumvented the objection. By 1960, we had launched our first working spy satellite. But our greatest luck was the fact that the Soviets got to space first. Sputnik orbiting over the United States -- and Eisenhower never protesting a violation of U.S. sovereignty -- established forever the principle that orbital space is not national territory but is as free and open as the high seas. Had we beaten the Russians into orbit -- and we were only a few months behind -- Khrushchev might very well have protested our presence over sovereign Soviet territory and reserved the right to one day (the technology was still years away) shoot us down.

His think tank apparently forgot that a government can never be so effective in education... More seriously, I doubt much that it could had been reasonable to object space fly-overs, or expect such objections.

I certainly disagree with this statement in your diary:

Now we also know that the intent of Sputnik was precisely to demonstrate this threat, not to start an era of space exploration, though that was a common dream of some Soviet scientists as well as Americans.

I used reports with the same Chertov's remarks in my diary. Sputnik 1 was spontaneously conceived, with the obvious intent to be first in the space. It does demonstrate the past Soviet threat - once we know what Chertov said recently. But the R-7's were not initially planned for cosmic launches; even if Eisenhauer knew their real purpose then, the demonstration turns out to be not so intentional.

But then again, how much can we trust any new "historical" disclosures? Some devil advocacy of old understanding might be welcome.

by das monde on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 05:05:36 AM EST
I had forgotten Krauthammer's link.
by das monde on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 05:07:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree we have to take the revisionism with a grain of salt.  Perhaps my sentence was clumsy, but that report (I give the AP source version) indicates that while the scientists involved intended Sputnik to be the first space satellite, they got the go-ahead to build and launch it to demonstrate the military potential of their missiles--and the U.S. got the message.

It all also has an eerie echo for me of N. Klein's "Shock Doctrine"--the idea that the U.S. could use the Sputnik shock to intensify the Cold War.  

"The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan

by Captain Future (captainfuture is at sbcglobal dot net) on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 05:59:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Soviets made bigger impression than inteded, I still think. Krushchev was quite bemused with Western reaction. The inference of Sputnik launch for Soviet ballistic capabilities was clear - but the new impressive fact that R-7's were designed without a space purpose in mind but then were spontaneously used to get there nevertheless was presumably unknown.

The idea that the Sputnik shock was "manufactured" is not consistent with the interpretation that Soviets showed unexpected threat progress - it would mean that Americans did not took the Soviets and the whole Cold War seriously.

by das monde on Sun Oct 7th, 2007 at 02:16:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Fantastic article Captain Future. Thank you. One of the best things I have read all week.

Money is a sign of Poverty - Culture Saying
by RogueTrooper on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 11:46:30 AM EST


A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 12:54:56 PM EST
I'd even heard one of the smartest men in America, the quiz show champion Charles van Doren, talk about it on a television documentary about the IGY. The newsman interviewing him asked if the Russians might orbit a satellite first. He just chuckled. Years later, of course, van Doren admitted that on "The 64 Thousand Dollar Question," he'd been given the answers.
In fact, if I remember correctly, the opening credits of the movie Quiz Show are on a scene about the shock experienced by americans on the day Sputnik was launched.

We have met the enemy, and it is us — Pogo
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 01:31:38 PM EST
Love the essay.  I too remember the arrival of Sputnik with some fond memories.  I lived in rural Minnesota so watching the night sky was easy.  I must have watched Sputnik fly over at least 20 times.

I also remember what Sputnik did to the schools.  Small towns could not attract good science teachers but they could buy the fancy new textbooks and fine lab equipment with their bigger budgets.  For example, my high school chemistry teacher knew nothing about chemistry but he WAS a good football coach and they needed him to teach something.  Even so, if you actually read the textbook, it was possible to emerge from the experience with a working grasp of chemistry.

And of course, Sputnik gave us the space race.  I was such a space fan that I pretended to be sick so I could stay at home to listen to the live account of John Glenn's orbital journey on the RADIO.

Unfortunately, the space race also gave us some absurd forms of paranoia.  Worries over the militarization of space is probably the most amusing.  The idea that there would be some advantage to parking some nukes in orbit so they could be dropped on us like rocks from an overpass ignores some pretty serious realities such as targeting, re-entry concerns, and most importantly, the roughly $25,000 per gram cost of placing anything into orbit.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 04:51:01 PM EST
I read somewhere that what was visible wasn't Sputnik itself but the 5th stage of its rocket, that was orbiting along...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sat Oct 6th, 2007 at 07:10:27 AM EST
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