SCOTT SIMON, host:
Fifty years ago, the skies above has got a little more crowded. The Soviet Union launched a shiny sphere about the size of a basketball into outer space. Radio Moscow made an announcement that stunned the world.
(Soundbite of archived Radio Moscow reporting)
Unidentified Man #1: The first artificial Earth satellite in the world has now been created. This first satellite was today successfully launched in the U.S.S.R.
SIMON: It was Sputnik - the world's first man-made satellite and the birth of the space age. Sputnik spun around the Earth every 96 minutes. Two tiny radio transmitters inside emitted little chirps that could be picked up by ham radio operators around the world.
(Soundbite of Sputnik voice through radio transmission)
DANIEL SCHORR: The voice of the Sputnik.
SIMON: And the voice of the Daniel Schorr, who was Moscow bureau chief for CBS News in 1957. Nikita Khrushchev was the Soviet premier. It was the height of the Cold War.
We've invited Dan Schorr to recall those days along with Nikita Khrushchev's son, Sergei, who was with his father the night that Sputnik was launched.
Sergei Khrushchev is now a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, and he joins us from Providence, Rhode Island.
Mr. Khrushchev, where were you when you found out about Sputnik?
Dr. SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV (Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University): I was with my father in the Kiev - it is the capital for Ukraine - talking with the Ukrainian officials. And my father and I knew that this day they planned to launch the satellite. And that Sergei Korolev will call.
SIMON: Sergei Korolev, we should explain, was the chief designer.
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: Yes. And he usually called Khrushchev the same as other designers after any launch, not only Sputnik. And it was close to the midnight. And then door was half-opened and his aide put his head in and told, Comrade Khrushchev, you have a call. And then in 15 minutes, he came back, smiling on his face and told loudly, gentlemen, I will tell you the news, it is a very good news, we launched the satellite. And then the same aide came and told now Sputnik will be in our area. We can listen beep, beep. And he turned on a receiver that was then the (unintelligible) found this frequency and we just listened to the beep, beep, beep, beep.
(Soundbite of beep)
SIMON: Dan Schorr, where were you?
SCHORR: Oh, I was in Moscow. And so I was among the handful of American correspondents in Moscow, shaking out of their beds, to be told that the Soviets have launched satellite around the Earth. I haven't even knew what the concept meant because we, in the United States, had not gotten that far yet. And I obviously did an awful lot of broadcasting because of a great deal of interest.
(Soundbite of archived news report)
SCHORR: The men in charge of Russia's Earth satellite program says today that Soviet scientists are now working on the problem of launching a satellite that will return to this Earth undamaged. And (unintelligible), though the main Soviet papers today devote more than half their space to the satellite with front page, banner headlines such as, rarely seen in this country, there are precious few scientific details being divulged. The headlines are about glorious victory of Soviet science, or as the communist newspaper says in a banner, the first in the world is ours.
SCHORR: In the early morning queues at newsstands, you could see that something exciting had happened and Russians then were beginning to find out about Sputnik, about which had been no word given in advance that it was going to happen.
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: Really, it isn't true there was no words. It was the publication and the newspapers based in Prague that under the plan of the research of the International Geophysical Year, the Soviet Union planning to launch satellite.
SCHORR: But, Mr. Khrushchev, you will understand if I say that when you say these things about someday there will be a satellite, we did not take it terrible someday going to the moon, and we did not take it terribly seriously.
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: No. They didn't tell some day. They told in the time of the International Geophysical Year. That mean in the 1957 and first part 1958. It was just - but it was no date, of course, because nobody knew when it will be possible to launch.
SIMON: You know, I haven't heard a good Soviet-American argument for years so this really takes me back.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: No. I will not argue with Daniel.
SIMON: Let me - I want Dan Schorr to read a section from his script on October 7 of 1957, if we can. And I think this will give some idea of what Dan and other Americans noticed.
SCHORR: So this is what I said in a report on October 7th to CBS network.
(Reading) The Soviet satellite spinning its elliptical course around the Earth has been reported seen with a naked eye in Alma-Ata in far off Kazakhstan, looking like a little red star. And this may be symbolic for today the uses of this purely scientific fact as an instrument of Soviet policy are becoming clearer, probably saying that the Earth's satellite crossing America seven times a day, twice close to Washington, should teach American ruling circles the necessity of peaceful coexistence.
(Soundbite of archived news report)
SCHORR: The United States is depicted as being in a state of admiration, confusion and surprise. And Russians are told that the American myth of a Soviet lag in science has been exploded.
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: That is true because when we talk about the satellite, we have to remember that the main goal of all these research just to prevent possible American attack against Soviet Union. If we look in the history, you will see a discussion in the Congress, one after another they planned how many Russian cities have to be destroyed by the nuclear attack. And we're living under this fear that they will decide when they will kill you. The general only may wrote in a note to the President Eisenhower that he thinks that will be a good time to sacrifice 100 million of the Russian lives to defend American democracy.
It's very similar in Iraq and I can nderstand the Iranians now; they're living in the same conditions. So our feeling was not about the satellite that we have to have retaliation ability that prevent American to kill us because we want to stay alive.
SCHORR: So you are saying that although it was advertised as being a scientific achievement, the government of your father still wanted to be known especially in Washington, that if you would do this you could also send intercontinental missiles?
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: Yeah. The first it was intercontinental missiles and then my father took me with him to the Korolev design bureau in February 1956. First, Korolev showed his air seven missile and they told that it can reach territory over the continental United States in 40 minutes. And then in the corner, he showed him the stand that he told we can launch satellite too.
SCHORR: Were you aware that there was always the United States who tried to diminish the importance of Sputnik 1? I remembered Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower's secretary of state, saying something like so what's so big about this? Anybody can throw a piece of iron into orbit.
SIMON: President Eisenhower congratulated the Soviets but he minimized the military significance of Sputnik.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
President DWIGHT EISENHOWER: As far as the satellite itself is concerned, that doesn't raise my apprehensions, not one iota. I see nothing at this moment - at this stage of development that is significant as far as security is concern.
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: But, of course, it was the Cold War and especially for the United States is - well, they're shocked because for the first time, Soviet Union really challenged the United States, we can do it and you cannot.
SCHORR: True. We, in the United States, tended to think that Russia was a somewhat backward country.
SCHORR: And the idea that this great, enormous achievement could be done by these people - woke up Americans. For example, we began to examine what was wrong with our education system. And then we had the National Defense Education Act that was signed by President Eisenhower that was directly under the influence of the fear that the United States was being outstripped in a whole range of scientific matters by the Russians.
SIMON: To remark on the obvious as we conclude, something extraordinary in the fact that 50 years after this event, we are all together, electronically sitting at the same table with the American reporter who covered it for CBS News and the son of the man who was then the party chairman and head of the Soviet Union who's now an American.
What does that mean?
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: That means that we are living in the 21st century. The 21st century is very different from the 20th century. And I'm now very proud that I'm American, at the same time I'm a Russian citizen.
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: And that I tried to bring better knowledge to my students about the Russia and the former Soviet Union.
SCHORR: May I mention, in passing, Mr. Khrushchev, if I haven't told you this before, that I spent a lot of time with your father traveling where he traveled - to the United States, to Austria, to France and many, many times at receptions in Moscow. And so when he would see me come up to him somewhere and once he said that, oh there's Mr. Schorr, my sputnik.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: So thanks very much, Dan Schorr and Sergei Khrushchev.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Dr. KHRUSHCHEV: Thank you for the invitation.
SIMON: NPR's coverage of the Sputnik anniversary continues tomorrow morning on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.