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Sputnik: The Shock of the Century

In what way was the United States before October 4, 1957 similar to the United States before September 11, 2001?

November 23, 2001

In what way was the United States before October 4, 1957 similar to the United States before September 11, 2001?

Before the Sputnik satellite was launched, Americans outwardly seemed to be content. The U.S. population had passed 170 million in February as the “Baby Boom” continued at the lusty rate of 2.5 million births a year.

The nightmare of the Great Depression was finally becoming a dim recollection. The long-dreamed-of minimum wage was now $1 — and a gallon of gas was a mere 23 cents. Volkswagen sold more than 200,000 Beetles and J. Paul Getty made $1 billion.

Americans were enthralled with television quiz shows featuring sweating contestants closeted in soundproof booths. Consumer goods flourished everywhere and many Americans dreamed of possessing a color television set.

And there was more to American life than mere material goods. During a 16-week New York “crusade” ending in September 1957, the Reverend Billy Graham had drawn an audience of 2 million souls.

In short, a new world was at hand for the United States. The country was creating an interstate highway system, the suburbs were growing, families with two cars and color televisions were becoming the norm. The highest peacetime federal budget in history ($71.8 billion) was in place, and it was the first year in which more than 1,000 computers would be built, bought and shipped.

There were advances in public health, although none more stunning than Dr. Jonas Salk’s discovery of a vaccine against polio, the scourge of an entire generation of children.

The satellite was silver in color, about the size of two basketballs — and weighed a mere 184 pounds. Yet for all its simplicity, small size — and inability to do more than orbit the Earth and transmit meaningless radio blips, the impact of Sputnik on the United States and the world was enormous and unprecedented.

Listen now, said the NBC radio network announcer on that fateful night of October 4, 1957, “for the sound that forevermore separates the old from the new.” Next came the chirping in the key of A-flat from outer space that the Associated Press called the “deep beep-beep.’

Emanating from a simple transmitter aboard the Soviet Sputnik satellite, the chirp lasted three-tenths of a second, followed by a three-tenths-of-a-second pause. This was repeated over and over again until it passed out of hearing range of the United States.

I can recall exactly where I was when I heard about Sputnik’s launch. I was 18 years old, a college freshman at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut. A friend stopped me in the middle of the campus to say he had heard about it on the radio. Instinctively, we both looked up.

Within hours I could actually hear its signal rebroadcast on network radio. Before the weekend was over, I got to hear it directly on a shortwave radio as it passed overhead.

Not only could you hear Sputnik, but — depending on where you were — it was possible to see it with the naked eye on certain days in the early morning or the late evening when the sun was still close enough to the horizon to illuminate it.

While standing in the middle of the college football field a week or so after the launch, I first saw the satellite scooting across a dark evening sky, orbiting the Earth at a speed of 18,000 miles per hour.

Watching Sputnik traverse the sky was seeing history happen with my own eyes. To me, it was as if Sputnik was the starter’s pistol in an exciting new race. I was electrified, delirious, as I witnessed the beginning of the Space Age.

The vast majority of people living today — at the beginning of the 21st century — were born after Sputnik was launched and may be unaware of the degree to which it helped shape life as we know it.

Now — after the recent emotional crisis over the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington — is an especially good time to take a fresh and focused look at the event whose impact looms even larger with the passing of time.

Prior to Sputnik I, the United States was buoyed by its resolve, courage and confidence in its scientists’, engineers’ and technicians’ ability. But Sputnik changed that.

The news about Sputnik that day displaced several stories in the works — the tense racial situation at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Milwaukee Braves/New York Yankees World Series and a widespread flu epidemic.

Jimmy Hoffa had been elected head of the Teamsters union earlier in the day by a vote of 1,208 to 453. Yom Kippur was beginning at sundown and the television series “Leave It to Beaver” would premier later in the evening on the CBS television network.

Details about the satellite were slow in coming, while information on the launch vehicle, or booster, that put Sputnik into orbit would not be known in the West for years.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, an old Army man himself now in his second term as president, got the Sputnik news around 6:30 p.m. at his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Before leaving Washington earlier in the day, he had been in meetings to discuss the federalization of the Arkansas National Guard and the use of federal troops in response to the crisis in Little Rock, which had been touched off when Governor Orval Faubus refused an order to desegregate the schools.

Prior to Sputnik I, the United States had enjoyed a period of economic growth and national pride that began at the end of World War II. But Sputnik changed all that.

Adapted from “Sputnik: The Shock of the Century.” Copyright © 2001 by Paul Dickson. Reprinted with the permission of Walker Publishing Company.