Revisiting America's Fear of Sputnik

Fifty years ago today, the first man-made object was launched into outer space. Space journalist Jay Barbree describes the widespread fear and awe caused in America by the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Thank you, Rachel.

Today marks an amazing anniversary. It was 50 years ago on October 4th, the first unmanned satellite was launched into outer space. Sputnik was about the size of a microwave oven, but it caused fear and awe in America because it had been launched by our enemies, the Soviets. Our next guest, journalist Jay Barbree, remembers the day. In fact, it's so captured his imagination, he was inspired to make outer space his beat. And five decades later, it still is. He has covered every major space launch of the past 50 years.

He's written about it in his memoir, "Live from Cape Canaveral." So, Jay, you're our witness to history today. Where were you and what were you doing when you first heard about Sputnik?

Mr. JAY BARBREE (Author, "Live from Cape Canaveral; Journalist): Well, I was working for the NBC affiliate, WALB, in Albany, Georgia when I first heard about it, and very intrigued, as every was. Everybody was speculating that they're going to drop bombs on our heads and all sorts of dire things that couldn't happen or would come true, of course.

But again, what most people didn't know, there were two groups of people in those days that were working on to getting it in the outer space: Dr. Werner von Braun and his group in Huntsville, Alabama at the Redstone Arsenal, and also Valery(ph) Korolyov and his group over at Baikonur on the steppes of Kazakhstan, were they launched Sputnik into orbit.

And I've said, Alison, people did not know that in 1956, Dr. von Braun rode Redstone number 29 to the launch pad, fashioned it with a rocket science upper stages and put a satellite on board and was not permitted to launch. And that they forced him to roll that rocket back to the hangar, which he did, and put it in moth balls, and it was only after Sputnik was launched on October 4th, 1957 and then the insistance to the Eisenhower administration that they follow the IGY - the International Geophysical Year - that we were participating in with the Vanguard rocket, which was not ready to go. They tried to launch a Vanguard on December 6th, 1957. It crumbled on its pad. It's little satellite fell over in the palmettos and just beeped away and did nothing.

STEWART: That sounds really sad, that it just fell over like…

Mr. BARBREE: Yeah, (unintelligible) and they finally, finally, told Dr. von Braun.

STEWART: My question is, though, Jay, were Americans really aware that the Soviets had this sort of capability at the time?

Mr. BARBREE: Oh, yeah, well, people in the know because he - they kept telling us they were going to do it.

STEWART: Did anybody believe him?

Mr. BARBREE: Oh yeah, well…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARBREE: …you know, we were on - in those days, Alison, we didn't believe they could build a refrigerator. And we were very stunned that they had done this. Of course, they had the Germans from the Peenemunde group that they had captured during the end of World War II that was working with Korolev over there, as was von Braun and his group here.

So those were the people who had to know the actual father of the rocket age was Dr. Goddard, who pioneered rockets here in this country. Then von Braun and his group studied after Dr. Goddard. But anyway, they rolled the same rocket, the Red Stone number 29, to the launch pad, and within 57 days, they put Explorer I into orbit on January 31st, 1958, when they were finally given the okay to go. But we found ourselves in a position that we had to catch up, Alison.

STEWART: Yeah, let's get a sense of how Sputnik's launch was played out in the news media at the time. I want to play a clip from an old newsreel.

Mr. BARBREE: Okay.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

Unidentified Man: Until two days ago, that sound had never been heard on this Earth. Suddenly, it has become as much a part of 20th-century life as the whirr of your vacuum cleaner. It's a report from man's farthest frontier, a radio signal transmitted by the Soviet's Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, as it passed over New York earlier today.

STEWART: How did people take the news that time? Were they really frightened that the Soviets…

Mr. BARBREE: I think a lot of them were.

STEWART: …were going to drop bombs?

Mr. BARBREE: Because they didn't understand, Alison, what was really going on. They just imagined this thing going around and around the Earth, and the idea of a satellite was new to them and man-made. And finally, they began to get the idea that the moon, our own moon was our natural satellite, and this was a man-made satellite.

And the fact that we are all on a spacecraft and it's 8,000 miles in diameter, it has a life-support system of about 10,000 feet above us. And this is not going to last forever, that we're all, in the sense, astronauts, and we're traveling around our own sun in our solar system at 67,000 miles per hour. So we're in orbit right now, as you and I were speaking, and we're riding our spacecraft, Earth.

STEWART: Well, all right then. It's a nice ride, so far, as far as I'm concerned.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: In terms of Sputnik, what impact do you think it had on our space program? Did it light a fire under the U.S. space program?

Mr. BARBREE: Oh, it did, because the pressure that was put on Washington. Because the Eisenhower administration looked at it as pretty much a stunt. They did not foresee what space would bring to us. And today, we enjoyed the fruits of that, and people don't really realize that most scientists tell me that we're 50 years ahead of where we would have been in technology. All the things that we enjoy today and we take for granted - our cell phones, iPods, computers…

STEWART: Teflon.

Mr. BARBREE: …everything that's out there, our health benefits, all of these great machines that check our health and all that are a direct outgrowth of technology from the space program. Had we not going to the moon, we would be about 50 years back. I don't think, first of all, you know, you and I both have done a lot of work for the cable networks. They wouldn't exist simply because there would be no satellites up there to carry.

So there have been - we would not have been working for MSNBC and the networks that we've been on and are still on, because it simply - the technology wouldn't be there.

STEWART: So here's the question. Now, working on those cable networks as we have, you know, if you want to do a space story, it's got to be because something bad happened or some astronaut is chasing her lover's friend or something like that. There seems to be - people sort of have lost a little bit of interest in space.

Mr. BARBREE: Oh, well, I tell you. You know, I don't buy that.

STEWART: You don't? All right.

Mr. BARBREE: I do not buy that. I tell you why, because the facts that - when President Bush decided we should return to the moon and quit just going around and around and around the Earth in this space shuttle, that the space shuttle was, in hindsight, a very dangerous vehicle, and we should go back to the simplicity of rockets and a spacecraft much like the Apollo, that we can get the astronauts safely off of it in case it gets into trouble.

When he decided that, over 70 percent of the American people said, yeah, let's do it. Well, the critics at the time start yelling that it'll cost $100 million. Well, let me tell you a little secret. NASA, like all agencies in the federal government, has a national budget.

Now, if NASA is going to continue to operate, it's going to have $11 to $13 billion a year, and that's its budget. And they're going to put the money in the Constellation program, the Ares and the Orion spacecraft - spacecraft and rockets that can do any job. They can go to (unintelligible). They can go to the International Space Station. They can put anything into earth orbit. They go to the moon. They can eventually go on to Mars.

It has that type of versatility. The shuttle does not. It has to stay only in Earth orbit. So they're going to do it within the budget that NASA has been operating under and you're not going, you know, you're not going to notice the difference.

And the fact is that over 70 percent of the people that support it, and down here there's a tourist attraction that has double-decker buses, it's Space Port USA. And did you know in this tourist-laden state of Florida, the number one tourist attraction is Disneyworld, followed by Universal and also Seaworld, Busch Gardens, but number four is the Kennedy Space Center itself - Space Port USA.

Millions of people come here and pay their money to buy tickets to ride buses to go out and look at the rocket launch pads. They'll look at the shuttles now on the pad, and that we haven't been to the moon. We haven't done anything spectacular since we'd launched the Hubble Space Telescope into the Earth orbit, but yet they still come.

Now, if they weren't interested in it, why would they still to come? Why would 70 percent of the people in every poll that was taken would say we should go back to the moon?

STEWART: You make a good case. I think you should maybe get up on Capitol Hill and lobby for the space program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARBREE: (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Hey, Barbree.

Mr. BARBREE: Capitol Hill, Alison, you know, I love you and you know that one of us would be shot (unintelligible).

STEWART: Well, I want you to stick around for a long time. So let's nix that idea. Jay Barbree. His new book is "Live From Cape Canaveral."

Thanks so much for joining us today, Jay.

Mr. BARBREE: And it's my pleasure. You take care yourself, Alison.

STEWART: You, too.

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