60 years ago today, the world marveled, reeled, and responded to Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite.
And so mankind’s journey towards manned spaceflight began. Time described the chirping sounds coming from Sputnik as “those chilling beeps.” Suddenly, the need for America to dominate the Russians in technological progress became a necessity. A year later, NASA began operations.
Russia’s official statement informed that the 184-pound satellite, 23 inches in diameter, circled Earth at a height of 500 miles: “The successful launching of the first man-made satellite makes a tremendous contribution to the treasure house of world science and culture. The scientific experiment staged at such a great height is of great importance for establishing the properties of cosmic space and for studying the earth as part of our solar system.”
What once was fascination represented in comic books, movie serials, and novels became, if not a certainty, then a reality within grasp. Bureaucracy and boasting, the twin banes of progress in any endeavor, became a sticking point. E.P. Martz, Jr., a scientist described in the Washington Post as having “played an active part in U.S. missile development, decried, “We see extensive worldwide propaganda from our country about our plans long in advance of any readiness for an actual launching.”
For scientific prestige, the Russians were a giant leap ahead of the United States. It, in turn, ignited frustration, if not ire, in certain factions of Washington. Senator Richard Russell, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, pointed out that the military factor was one of great concern, calling it a “new and terrifying danger,” but cautioned “this is no time or place for panic or fright.”
Four days after the Sputnik launch, President Eisenhower met with advisers, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles. A memorandum indicates that Quarles had “no doubt that the Redstone [missile] had it been used, could have orbited a satellite a year or more ago.” But that capability was not realized because the American approach to space exploration differed greatly from Moscow’s. “One reason was to stress the peaceful character of the effort, and a second was to avoid the inclusion of materiel, to which foreign scientists might be given access, which is used in our own military rockets.”
Sputnik provides the backdrop for a critical scene in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, based on the novel of the same name by Tom Wolfe. Jeff Goldblum races down a hallway to a meeting between President Eisenhower, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, and other advisors. It is a fictional counterpart to the October 8th meeting, perhaps.
Johnson compared the conquest of space to the Roman Empire’s world leadership because of roads and the British Empire’s because of ships. Also chronicled in the book, Johnson’s statements indicated an urgency for America to get further involved in spaceflight. NASA selected its initial seven astronauts for the Mercury program on April 9, 1959. 10 years later, an American flag was planted on the Moon. The Russians never made it there.