The race to space

The Baltimore Sun

Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union sent thrills and shivers around the world with a brief announcement: Its rocketeers had launched a tiny, beeping artificial satellite named Sputnik into orbit.

With it, they launched a revolution.

"I still have a mental picture of the newspaper inside the vending machine on Euclid Avenue. The news was absolutely electrifying," said Robert Williams, then a schoolboy in Ontario, Calif.

Williams, now 67 and an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, could barely make out the words through the plastic cover of the newspaper box. But they were exciting. "When I got home," he recalled, "I telephoned all my friends and we talked and speculated about what it meant."

So did the rest of the world. "U.S. Scientists Quickly Hail Soviets," read one headline in The Sun. "Flights to Moon Near, Soviet Says."

For others, the news was chilling: "Russ Rockets Make Bombers Obsolete, Krushchev Says," an Evening Sun headline reported.

Even Russian scientists were caught off guard. "We had no idea about the coming launch, and our reaction was surprise, mixed with a feeling of pride," said Roald Sagdeev, a University of Maryland physicist who was working at a Soviet atomic energy institute in 1957.

All of this might be puzzling to the 210 million Americans born after Sputnik ushered in the Space Age. Today, we barely notice the sophisticated satellite technology that puts every backyard on Google Earth, that supports our demand for television, radio, telephone, Internet, e-mail, weather forecasts, GPS navigators - even global ATM access.

A half-century after Sputnik (Russian for "fellow traveler"), the Earth moves in a cloud of more than 860 working satellites - commercial, military and scientific, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Not to mention a swarm of space junk that keeps them company.

Many satellites, including the International Space Station, are in low-Earth orbit, a couple of hundred miles up. There, uninhibited by the veil of Earth's atmosphere, orbiting telescopes are pushing the limits of the observable universe.

Beyond them, hundreds of communications satellites rub elbows in a narrow ring, 22,700 miles above the equator, orbiting once a day as the world turns, so that they "hover" over the same spot. Still farther out, a scattered fleet of robotic probes is exploring the solar system on our behalf, and even poking into interstellar space.

But all this was science fiction 50 years ago. Space was still empty of human invention and boot prints.

"For all my life, and for the lives of all astronomers of the past, the celestial apparitions that moved across the background of stars ... were the planets, comets and meteors," said Steve Maran, an astronomer, writer and press officer for the American Astronomical Society.

Suddenly, on Oct. 4, 1957, that changed. "There were these bright objects, Sputnik and the even brighter rocket stage, moving rapidly across the sky, brightening and dimming as they ... tumbled through space," Maran recalled. "An incredible thrill."

The Russians' surprise launch of the silvery, 23-inch sphere, with its insect-like whip antennas, is an indelible "flashbulb memory" for those old enough to recall it.

Ray Villard, now a science writer and information manager for the Space Telescope Science Institute, was only 7 years old at the time. But he was already thinking big.

"All the talk in the 1950s was about going to the moon. So I ... assumed we'd be exploring space. I was only disappointed that the Russian rocket could only launch a small satellite and not a whole manned spaceship," he recalled.

Americans weren't alone in their astonishment. Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescope institute, was a 12-year-old growing up in Israel. His news of Sputnik's launch arrived via radio and newspapers. There was no TV. "There wasn't even a word in Hebrew for satellite," he said.

But he recalled this: "The two facts that impressed me the most were the speed at which Sputnik was moving, about ... 18,000 miles per hour, and its weight, about ... 184 pounds, which was considered extremely high."

Sputnik, which orbited for three months, was launched as part of the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, a period of coordinated planetary studies. IGY plans included an Earth satellite, but no one expected the Russians to do it - and certainly not that soon.

"I think it was a remarkable achievement," said Lloyd Berkner, an American IGY official who was particularly impressed by the weight of the payload. "If they can launch that, they can launch much heavier ones," he said.

For many, that was cause for worry. The United States and the Soviet Union were developing long-range ballistic missiles. Sputnik convinced many American that the Russians had opened a "missile gap." That fear helped propel John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960.

"The sense of invulnerability, of being on a different continent, was shattered. The potential for nuclear weapon delivery through high-speed rockets was now a near-term reality for both sides in the Cold War," Stamatios M. Krimigis, former head of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory's space department, wrote in a Russian Sputnik commemorative book, First Step.

Paul G. Dembling, then a 37-year-old attorney with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), recalled that the Navy, as part of the IGY effort, had been appointed to launch a 3.5-pound research satellite called Vanguard.

News of Sputnik shocked the enterprise, said Dembling, now 87. "We were in a Cold War. Many people, of course, felt that it was a weapon, or could be used as a weapon. The capability scared them. 'How were they able to send up a satellite even before we?'"

After Sputnik, the Navy was to launch Vanguard, and the Army was told to accelerate a parallel program called Explorer. President Dwight D. Eisenhower assured the nation that while Sputnik was interesting science, it was no cause for alarm.

But every month that passed without an American answer to Sputnik was an acute embarrassment. An online history of NASA recalls bars that sold Sputnik Cocktails that were hawked as "one-third vodka, two-thirds sour grapes." West Germans called the promised U.S. satellite "Spaetnik," spaet being German for "late."

It got worse.

On. Dec. 6, one month after a second Sputnik carried a dog named Laika into space, the Americans tried to launch the first Vanguard. As news cameras rolled, the rocket rose four feet, then collapsed into a volcano of flame. "Look out! Oh, God! No!" someone in the blockhouse shouted.

"I don't think they were completely ready," Dembling said. "They took a chance and the risk didn't work out." Then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson pronounced it "most humiliating" and called for congressional hearings.

Finally, on Jan. 31, 1958, after a series of delays and scrubs, the Army team successfully orbited Explorer 1 atop a modified Jupiter C ballistic missile - a direct descendant of the Nazis' V-2 rockets.

If nothing else, historians say, Sputnik convinced Eisenhower of the importance of a space program. And, despite heavy lobbying by the military, the former Allied commander of World War II insisted that it be run by a civilian agency.

"He didn't want it to appear the space program was going to take a military direction. I guess he knew the military," said Dembling, who ultimately drafted the Space Act of 1958, which created NASA.

In the Soviet Union, the military physically owned the space program, Sagdeev noted, while the Communist Party's Central Committee controlled its planning and oversight. "Sometimes this approach did bring impressive results," he said. "But as we know, [it] finally proved unsustainable."

The Sputnik surprise, meanwhile, roused America. "[It] caused a great leap in research and development that would not have occurred otherwise," APL's Krimigis wrote. "The resulting technological progress is at the foundation of today's economic development."

The United States also invested heavily in science and math education.

"I benefited from this enormously," said Howard E. Bond, an astronomer at the Space Telescope institute who was then a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

Bond heard about Sputnik the day he first shaved.

"I got a really good education in math, chemistry and especially physics," he said. "In my graduating class there were three of us who went on to get Ph.D.s in astrophysics."

Anyone who grew up watching the adventures of Cmdr. Buzz Corry of the Space Patrol might have expected more progress in a half-century since then. Still, Bond said, "In the next 12 years we did make it to the moon. That ... seems so far beyond probability of success, that it is still staggeringly astounding."

"In many ways the dreams of that smooth-faced kid have come true," he said. "It is probably fair to say that the Hubble telescope would not be in orbit today if it were not for the spark provided by that little Sputnik of 50 years ago."

What's in orbit today? Visit NASA's satellite tracker at and click on J-Track-3D

To hear a recording of radio beeps from original Sputnik, surf to

An Associated Press graphic that accompanied yesterday's article on the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik incorrectly reported the date of the first U.S. moon landing. The landing occurred July 20, 1969.The Sun regrets the errors.
Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad