Sputnik I, the First Satellite to Orbit Earth, Turns 50 In 1957, a little beeping ball stunned the world. Sputnik I, launched 50 years ago on Oct. 4, set the stage for many more satellites to follow and marked the dawn of the space age. Guests discuss Sputnik and its effects on science, education, and the way we view the world.
NPR logo

Sputnik I, the First Satellite to Orbit Earth, Turns 50

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14799200/14799195" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Sputnik I, the First Satellite to Orbit Earth, Turns 50

Sputnik I, the First Satellite to Orbit Earth, Turns 50

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14799200/14799195" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript



Fifty years ago, October 4, 1957, news bulletins around the world ushered in a new era.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Man #1: The news in brief. Radio Moscow says the Soviet has already launched an Earth satellite.

Unidentified Man #2: The Russians, in another display of bad faith, announced tonight they have launched a satellite, which is now circling the Earth without saying anything about it until they were sure it was going to work.

Unidentified Man #3: The Russian space satellite, the first launched by man, is circling at 560 miles altitude, and its radio signals are being received now by RCA in New York. Standby and listen, here is the sound.

(Soundbite of beeping sound)

FLATOW: To some, hearing those beeps coming down from the skies meant, hey, look what we can do. To others, it was a warning shot in the cold world. If the Soviets could launch a satellite into orbit, could it not launch a nuclear missile, too?

Though the U.S. was actively developing its own satellite, the Explorer Program, the Russians were of several months ahead of them. American rockets kept blowing up on the launching pad. A U.S. satellite would finally be put into orbit in January of 1958. And with it, the space race was born.

Now, long after, President Kennedy would issue a challenge to the nation to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade.

This hour, we're going to look at Sputnik and its effects. Maybe you have a story about where you were when you heard about Sputnik, and how it affected you and your world. Maybe, you know, you were spurred to become an engineer. Because, as you remember, when it happened in the'60s, everybody was taking science courses. Well, if you got something you'd like to share with us, please, give us a call.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And as always, you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com. Also in "Second Life," you can find us giving out T-shirts there. So we'll look for you.

Let me introduce my guests. You've seen him on television for many decades. Jay Barbree is the space correspondent for NBC News. He's been covering space for about 50 years, I imagine, and author of the new book, "Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race, from Sputnik to Today." And he joins us from our studios of member station WUCF in Orlando, Florida.

Welcome to the program, Jay.

Mr. JAY BARBREE (Space Correspondent, NBC News; Author, "Live From Cape Canaveral: Covering The Space Race, From Sputnik To Today") Glad to have - glad to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Michael D'Antonio is a journalist and author of new book, "A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins." It's just out from Simon & Schuster. He's with me in our New York studios.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL D'ANTONIO (Journalist; Author, "A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957 -The Space Race Begins"): Delighted.

FLATOW: And Leon Lederman, director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Fermilab. He's also the Pritzker Professor of Physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology and a Nobel Laureate in Physics. And Dr. Lederman joins us from Illinois.

Welcome back to the program, Leon.

Dr. LEON LEDERMAN (Director Emeritus, Fermilab; Pritzker Professor of Physics, Illinois Institute of Technology): Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: Do you remember were you where when that happened?

Dr. LEDERMAN Not a clue. But I certainly heard about it.

FLATOW: I bet. Jay, were where you when that happened?

Mr. BARBREE: Well, I was out on a double date in Albany, Georgia. I came down from our affiliate up there to work here a few months later, but that's where we're out, we were out on a double date, we heard about it, and I just happened to be, Ira, with a guy by the name of Gene McCall. He grew up to be a Princeton physicist and he had just retired as the chief scientist of the Air Force and also scientist to the chief of staff, and he's still a senior scientist at Los Alamos.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARBREE: But it was a great night.

FLATOW: Michael, what's your reaction to that?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: You know, I was a little boy, and I lived between an atomic submarine base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire and a SAC bomber base. And so - although I didn't have any memory of it, when I went to look at this book, I certainly knew how key the development of rockets and satellites and our atomic arsenal were, and I understood what it meant to the Cold War effort.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Who were the Russians that were responsible for Sputnik?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Well, the thing that I loved is that for a long time, all anyone knew was that it was a program directed by the chief designer, as if he was the Wizard of Oz. And it took, until after his death for the rest of the world to understand that this was Sergei Korolev, and a rocketeer who actually was trained by pioneers in rocketry in the Soviet Union, spent time in the gulag.

He was punished during World War II because Soviet authorities thought that he was distracted by rockets when he should be making weapons. Almost died in those cold Russian prisons. Came back and was such a devoted communist that he rehabilitated himself, led this program, and didn't give a wit that he didn't get any credit.

FLATOW: Why was this such a surprise to everybody?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Well, you know, it wasn't a surprise to folks in the know. You know, if you were in space science or in part of the geophysical year, which is a big yearlong series of events related to Earth science, you might have seen notice that the Soviets were about to do this. In fact, they published the radio frequency they are going to use. But the average citizen didn't grasp this.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Had some sense that there was a space race underway, but this was really the firing shot. You know, it was - here it is, a shock that goes across the world. And remarkably, even Krustev didn't know what a big deal it was. At first, it probably just had a two-inch item on the front page. But when he saw the world respond, he knew what he had.

FLATOW: Jay, what was it like down there on the space coast?

Mr. BARBREE: Well, I was still in Georgia when it happened. And, of course, we got very interested in it in a hurry. And it was the driving engine that sent me down here to cover to get into the Cape Canaveral Press Corps, if you will.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARBREE: And I just wanted to say here that what has been said, Michael has brought up a lot of good points there. The Russians weren't really ahead of us. It's just that we weren't working on it.

Now, Dr. von Braun tried to launch a satellite a year earlier in 1956. In fact, he rolled Redstone #29 to the launch pad. He had fashioned a couple of rockets up on the - for upper stages, he's using the sergeants and the corporals that they used in the Army in those days. And he was going to put a satellite in orbit, and they wouldn't allow him to do it. They told him, no, and then he was going to do it anyway and say it was an accident.

Well, Lieutenant Colonel Asa Gibbs ordered him to take it off the stand. Gibbs was in charge of the Cape in those days, and he was trying to make fool of colonels, so he made him take it off, won't let him go ahead and do it.

And when he finally got the opportunity, when they tried to go with Vanguard on December the 6th, 1957, it rose a tremendous four feet, collapsed back on itself. And when they failed there, there were so much pressure on the Eisenhower White House that he decided to let von Braun go ahead and do it. And von Braun said, well, I can do it 90 days. In fact, he did it in 60 days.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARBREE: He rolled out the same rocket he'd had on the launch pad in 1956. He put a new spin bucket-type stage on top and then he used another rocket to - put up a third stage right with the satellite itself, Explorer I, and they had gone to Dr. Van Allen at University - at Iowa State University to come up with an experiment, which was, basically, a Geiger counter. And they actually discovered something with their satellite; they discovered now the famous Van Allen radiation belts, named after Van Allen after the feat, of course. But all of that could have been done a couple of years later.

The problem was, Ira, that everybody thought the Russians were so far ahead of us because they had huge rockets and they were able to put big payloads in the orbit. Well, the only reason that the Russians had huge rockets was that their nuclear warheads were huge. So to send a nuclear warhead in intercontinental ranges of 5,000 miles, they needed 900 to a million pounds of thrust. Those were the rockets that they had built and they were using to put up the early satellites. Excuse me. We needed 360,000 pounds of thrust and we were working on with Atlas getting it ready to go 5,000 miles. And we could have sent the same energy in our nuclear warheads with 360,000 pounds of thrust, a third of it, if you will, and that's why we were putting up little satellites to begin with. So it was the…

FLATOW: So - yeah, let me just interrupt you.

Mr. BARBREE: Oh, go ahead. I'm sorry.

FLATOW: …to make a point. So the point is that Eisenhower did not want to use a military launch. He wanted it to be something else…

Mr. BARBREE: Well, that's right.

FLATOW: …right?

Mr. BARBREE: He wanted to ignore the fact the Vanguard was really a Navy rocket. But they used an IGY and he wanted to go with the IGY, and he held out - even after they put Sputnik into orbit, he held out trying to put up this little three-and-half-pound, six-inch satellite on Vanguard. Vanguard simply wasn't ready yet. Von Braun warned them of this several times, but nobody was listening. So after they made fools out of themselves the second time, then they turned around and they went to von Braun who got the job done.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: You know, Ira, I think one thing that's very interesting is that we look back now and describe Sputnik as a shock or maybe that people were panicked by this. People were concerned, but there were surveys done at the time and 60 percent of Americans were confident we would catch up. It just was that we were doing our experiments in public and any failures we had were very well known.

FLATOW: Well, if I remember exactly…

Dr. LEDERMAN: Excuse me, isn't it true, though, that the Russians' success turned out to be our success, because without that Russian success, we wouldn't have done all the things that we then did in a fantastic short time like creating NASA and DARPA and National Defense Education Act? And the country reacted strenuously so much so that today, everybody's saying, gee, if we only had a Sputnik to spur us to fix our educational system.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Oh, I agree, Dr. Lederman. You know, one of the things that I'm really struck by is the leadership that was shown by Eisenhower and the Democrats in the Senate and Congress. They didn't have the kind of divisive finger pointing. You know, they did a little bit of that; they indulged in it. But eventually, you saw fairly soon the Congress and the President came together. The pursuit of our goal was really magnificent. And I give Laika, the dog, a lot of credit for…

FLATOW: The second satellite.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: …the second satellite for stimulating us because she proved - her orbit proved that it wasn't a one-off accomplishment by the Soviets, that they had this tested(ph) down. And I think Americans were really startled when it happened again so quickly.

FLATOW: I also want to point out that - remembering back and reading about it -there was a fear that because the Soviets had the bomb, that this was also a way to deliver it to some other place on the planet.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Right.

FLATOW: That was - besides the space accomplishment, it was the national security problem (unintelligible).

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Well, what I loved and I pursued - people like Jay. Jay is actually a character in my book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. D'ANTONIO: And so are some of the fellows that were the first to hear the Sputnik, including a guy who now lives in New Hampshire, who was among the first to hear it at an air force listening post in Germany, got so personally offended, that months later, when some security agents asked him if he'd like to go on a caper, he helped them steal a model Sputnik from the expo in Brussels in 1958. People took this personally and anything they could do to help, they did.

FLATOW: All right. We have to take a break. We're going to come back and talk lots more with author Michael D'Antonio, author of "A Ball, A Dog and a Monkey: The 1957 Space Race Begins." Also, we're talking with Jay Barbree, author of "Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space race from Sputnik to Today," and with Leon Lederman. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking the - can you believe it, the 50th anniversary of Sputnik? It just seems like yesterday to those of us who lived through it. Let's go to this interesting clip about it.

(Soundbite of archived news clip)

Unidentified Man #4: In fact, a bulletin has just come in, which - from Cambridge, Massachusetts, which says that the Russian satellite has been reported seen for the first time in the United States. Astronomers at Moonwatch Headquarters in Cambridge report that it was spotted over Columbus, Ohio.

FLATOW: Almost sounds like "War of the Worlds," doesn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARBREE: Yes, the whole (unintelligible) radio…

FLATOW: It was. Yeah.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: I think you got it, Ira. I think you got it.

FLATOW: Talking with Jay Barbree who is a space correspondent for NBC News and author of "Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race, from Sputnik to Today," Michael D'Antonio, whose new book is "A Ball, A Dog and A Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins," and Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate in Physics, who was probably - and, Leon, you were probably most affected by, you know, by this, by the education side.

Dr. LEDERMAN: Yes, I think so. I think the country was, too. I think it had a tremendous effect. And boy, we - as I already mentioned, we would love to have an equivalent happening now with as much menace as…


DR. LEDERMAN: …or apparent menace as we had then. It was having an enormous - I mean, the effect to us was incalculable, not only the budgets for research, not only the determination that we would win the race. After all, the race, in some sense, didn't have too much point except the potential military effect. But the influence on young people like, what was his name, Homer Hickam, remember, he wrote a book called…

FLATOW: "October Sky." That was the movie.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: "Rocket Boys."

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: "Rocket Boys" is the name of the book.

Dr. LEDERMAN: Was the movie. And he was absolutely transfixed by the notion of this beeping satellite. That humans could accomplish something like putting the satellite into orbit around the Earth. That's a fantastic thing to think about.

FLATOW: Let me bring on another guest, Konrad Dannenberg. He was a member of one of Wernher von Braun's original rocket development team. He later came to the U.S. and went on to become, among other things, the deputy manager of the Saturn Program. He is 95 years old, but still active in the field as a consultant to the Alabama Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. Welcome to the program.

Mr. KONRAD DANNENBERG (Former Deputy Manager, Saturn Program; Consultant, Alabama Space and Rocket Center): Yes. This is Konrad Dannenberg.

FLATOW: Nice to talk with you. Did you know any of the German rocket scientists who were working for the Soviets at the time?

Mr. DANNENBERG: I knew quite a number of them. The top man was, of course, Grottrup. And I know also a number of people who worked on the team. And the Russians had many more people than we had. And many of the Russian scientists often lead us, even admitted that the Germans made a major contribution in the Russian program. Some other people who are still around today deny it. But I personally am convinced that these people made a major contribution. You probably know that Russians initially reactivated the V2 plan in Germany, in Nordhausen, and put up a similar facility in the Moscow area. And they even stepped by us from the V2 design to larger and more efficient vehicles.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DANNENBERG: And that's why they're very ahead of us. And as somebody else remarked earlier, they're using these relatively large launch vehicle, and that was in the long run their advantage. Our people here in the United States felt that this micro-miniaturization, they wouldn't get away with relatively small launch vehicles. One general man who saw the need for large launch vehicles was our military boss here in Huntsville, Alabama, General John Bruce Medaris.

He saw the need for a much bigger launch vehicle (unintelligible). But, yet, at that time, the Atlas was the biggest. That was the first ICBM, the first in the condor ballistic missile and it had tremendous problems.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How…

Mr. DANNENBERG: And for that reason, finally, the von Braun team got the task to build our own satellite and launch our own satellite. By the way, when Sputnik was launched, I was in a meeting with General John Bruce Medaris. The new defense secretary McElroy happened to be Huntsville, and Medaris, of course, had arranged for a big dinner meeting and when we were ready for sitting down, and the aide of Medaris came in and mentioned that the Russians had just launched a satellite. He didn't call it immediately Sputnik, but that name, of course, became pretty soon, very, very known. And the reaction was at this time…

FLATOW: What was your - I'm sorry.

Mr. DANNENBERG: …so he planned here on Huntsville to have on the fourth of October this year a big meeting arranged by the local chapter of the National Space Society. We called it a celebration, because somebody else mentioned earlier, Sputnik had a tremendous effect on all our activities here in Russia. And I personally mark(ph) the opinion without Sputnik we probably would not have started the space race. We probably would not have had a lunar program. So the impact on society in general on the world is tremendous.

FLATOW: How did your team react to Sputnik? You heard Jay Barbree say that you could have launched it much earlier than the Russians if you had the permission and the right to do that. How did your team react when you heard about the Sputnik?

Mr. DANNENBERG: And what you say, oh, yeah, that's, of course, what General Medaris and von Braun used immediately to brief the new defense secretary, McElroy. He apparently did not know too much about our capability, but they convinced him that within a relatively short time, we could launch our own satellite because a launch vehicle was already in storage. So it had been built. And since von Braun had been turned down earlier to launch this vehicle as a satellite, he used two very similar configurations and he used the Jupiter money, that's why many people called the launch vehicle for the explorer satellite, the Jupiter Sea, the Jupiter configuration.

This is a three-stage version of Redstone vehicle with two (unintelligible) upper stages could launch a modest space model reentry cone of the Jupiter over this of about three and a half miles. And these two launches were made. They were both successful, so von Braun had the vehicles beckoned to convince McElroy that he could do it in a very short time.

Now, ElRoy did not immediately give us ahead. He said, I have to go back to Washington. I have to check this whole matter to our people. And, of course, after the Vanguard had the mishap that there was this (unintelligible) we finally got the go ahead to launch our own satellite.

Von Braun had initially told McElroy we could do it in 30 days, but General Medaris was obvious very careful and he said, Wernher, let's be careful, we still have a lot of work to do. Our vehicle, which is in storage, is to be tested off. It has to be shipped to the Cape, and I'm sure the people at the Cape want to check it over again before they launch it to be sure that nothing happened during the test part.

And for that reason, he proposed to schedule the launch of our explorer satellite in about 90 days. And that was about the time that we needed to eventually launch it. And, of course, here in Huntsville, we would all have a very big celebration that we finally launched our own satellite in January '58. And at the same time, we are also opening a new building for our Saturn V. And, of course, these two items are really closely related.

As I said earlier, without the Sputnik satellite, we probably would might never have launched our own Explorer 1, we probably would not have gotten into the space race, and then, of course, was the essential reason for building the Saturn V big launch vehicle and using it in the Apollo Program to do the lunar landings.

FLATOW: Konrad Dannenberg, I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us. Konrad Dannenberg was a member of the Von Brown original rocket development team, former deputy manager of the Saturn Program, and currently, a consultant to the Alabama Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.

Let me bring back my other guests, Jay Barbree who is a space correspondent for NBC News and author of "Live From Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race from Sputnik to Today" just out from Smithsonian Books. Michael D'Antonio, journalist and author of several books including the new one, "A Ball, A Dog and A Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins." Also, Leon Lederman who is director emeritus of Fermilab. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Let's go to the phones to Richard(ph) in Windham, New Hampshire. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi. Well…

RICAHRD: I was part of the three-man team, of course, I was only 15 at the time, down in New Haven, Connecticut, Southern Connecticut State College, who was able to spot the Sputnik early morning of October 10th at around 6 o'clock. And it was quite a thrilling time for sure to be standing there off a chilly air and staring at the sky then being able to see just for a few seconds because it was very low on the horizon as it passed on by.

FLATOW: Were you assigned to do that?

RICHARD: My father was professor of sciences at Southern Connecticut State College, formerly New Haven State Teacher's College. And he taught astronomy among other things, and that was his hobby. We also had a telescope in our backyard, and he was a member of the astronomy club. And when he had heard that the satellite had been launched, I was a ham radio operator so I got out my radio and tuned in and listened to the satellite, which was clearly audible.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

RICAHRD: And then he spent time with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory getting the data to calculate when and where it would be first visible in the United States. Then after many days of calculating and a lot of long nights, we went up to the top of the Engleman Hall at the college and - at about 4 a.m. and started watching the sky.

And, as they say, about 6:20, the other gentleman who was with us, Mr. Plato(ph), that's - he first yelled out that he saw it. And my father of course went, where, where? And as Mr. Plato pointed to it, my father spotted it. And then I got to turn away from the area I was looking at and looked at the area he was pointing at and managed to spot it also. So for a period of, you know, only five or 10 seconds, it was visible. It was quite a thrilling thing just to see something moving through the sky.

FLATOW: Thank you for that great remembrance. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

We're talking about the 50th anniversary of Sputnik this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Jay Barbree, Michael D'Antonio and Leon Lederman.

I remember that being - ushering in the age of lying on your grass, you know, lying on a hood of a car and looking up at the sky. I mean, Jay?

Mr. BARBREE: Ira. Yeah. This is Jay. Listen, I think it's important we point out here. People spotting Sputnik, most people actually spotted the rocket trailing it. Because Sputnik was the only size of a basketball and you needed the aide of a telescope to actually see it as the gentleman was just talking about. But a lot of people spotted the rocket following it through the same orbit, of course, and it would be tumbling.

And what is significant here is the only time you can spot anything in space that doesn't have the lights on it, of course, and there are none of them that I know of, is when the object is in the sunlight and you're in dark on the Earth. So therefore, the early morning he was talking about would have been the primetime or the early evening. And that's how we figured it out in Georgia. I didn't figure it out, Dr. Gene McCall did. And he calculated it from the orbits.

And what we spotted was, we spotted a tumbling rocket stage following Sputnik through orbit. And anything that you want to see up there today, you have to do it. You see the space station going over or you see the Hubble Space Telescope, that people see them quite frequently. I had my grandson in Illinois call me one time all excited when the Space Station came over. It is when that station or that satellite or spacecraft is lit by the sun and you're on a dark Earth and then a slack of star, of course, moving through the space.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones again. Do you want to say anything, Michael?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Well, you know, one of the things that I thought was really charming was that during the start of the space race, newspapers would print charts of when the satellite was expected to go near your town.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Sort of like tidal charts. And there also was, in the year following Sputnik, an incredible explosion of UFO reports, because so many people were looking at the sky that they saw all kinds of things. That gradually died down. But we all became so space conscious. It probably was the first time that we were all so transfixed by the sky.

FLATOW: Leon, were physicists in great demand? Did they start rounding them up and saying, what can you do for us?

Dr. LEDERMAN: Yup. That's right. I mean, the broader implications of Sputnik had to do with a warning to the nation about its science, its technology and its education. And it's interesting to speculate as to whether we have anything like Sputnik going on now warning us about science, technology and education. Obviously, you can find some parallels, some warnings from the sky like global climate change, which requires much more science, technology, public understanding of science and education. The parallel is pretty startling.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255.

We're talking about Sputnik this hour and your remembrances; lots of people have remembrances. We're going to take a short break.

Let me tell you who my guests are. Jay Barbree, space correspondent for NBC News, author of the new book, "Live From Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race from Sputnik to Today." Michael D'Antonio, journalist and author whose new book is "A Ball, A Dog and A Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins." And you just heard the voice of Leon Lederman, director emeritus of Fermilab, Pritzker Professor of Physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and a Nobel Laureate in Physics.

We're going to take a short break. Go to the phones. Get your remembrances, your questions. Also, we'll take some questions from "Second Life" if you're there, and if you want to ask us a question, look for folks with the SCIENCE FRIDAY T-shirts on there. Your avatar - come on over and ask us a question. We'll be right back after this short break. Stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about Sputnik.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. JAMES KILLIAN (President, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: former Science Advisor for President Eisenhower): Tough-minded, thoughtful people got somewhat frantic about the episode. A number of statements were made that these had been another Pearl Harbor for the United States. Someone asked Edward Teller, it's been frequently reported, what will the Americans find when they get to the moon? And he said Russians.

FLATOW: Anybody know who that was? Any of my guests guess who that was?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Not me.

Mr. BARBREE: Well, I've heard it and I can't remember.

FLATOW: It's James Killian.

Mr. BARBREE: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: It was President Eisenhower's - I interviewed him in 1977 on the 20th anniversary.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Well, you know what's remarkable is so many of these men are still around. Herbert York who was Eisenhower's science advisor lives in a beautiful house in La Joya and has vivid memories of this. And James Van Allen, I saw him just before he passed away. And when you asked did anybody remember where they were when Sputnik went up, I asked him and he turned behind him and there were 50 notebooks.


Mr. D'ANTONIO: One for each year.


Mr. D'ANTONIO: And he could go to the day, and he had written in the margin of the date, wow.

FLATOW: You know what's also interesting is that - I remember going to the archives and reading this - Killian was asked to explain what a satellite was. And he came up with a beautiful, very simple, for-the-public definition of how a satellite remains in orbit. What does it mean to be in orbit? And his definition was, it's going - it's falling over the horizon. It's going so fast that you know it's falling all the time and never reach the Earth. It goes over the horizon. Which, Leon?


FLATOW: You can't you have a better explanation than that, can you?

Dr. LEDERMAN: Well, that looks pretty good. I'll accept it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARBREE: Hey, Ira.

Dr. LEDERMAN: A B-plus.

FLATOW: Yes, Jay.

Mr. BARBREE: Listen. I have to put this in here. There was a man by the name of Rubin Frank. I think you may have heard of him.

FLATOW: He's my uncle-in-law.

Mr. BARBREE: Right. Your uncle-in-law.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. BARBREE: Well, let me tell you. He - arguably, he was the father of television news. But he was the executive producer of "Huntley-Brinkley" in 1957, a 15-minute television cast, a newscast that was number one. And he was the guy who put Huntley and Brinkley on. He was the guy who said, we don't need readers anymore on here and broadcasters and announcers. We need to take journalists and put journalists on the air. And that's what he did.

Well, during his lifetime, he was president of NBC News twice. I worked for him. I had the utmost respect for the man because he was a driving force in the coverage of space and also in another big story of the '60s, the Civil Rights Movement. I worked for him as a civil rights reporter and I also worked for him as a space reporter. And I covered a lot of Dr. King and all, but, you know, this man saw how important all of these was.

And he was very selective in what we covered. And NBC was up front covering all the time on everything going to the moon with Apollo and all, and one-hour shows of Emmys. And, you know, to find today that you are a nephew of Rubin Frank? Well, you picked a great uncle. He was one of the greatest.

FLATOW: Well, I have to say that he died recently. I knew him for over 20 years. I got married into the family, and we spoke a lot about the news business. And he said to me not too long ago that he would not know how - what he would do if he had to get into the news business today. It has fallen down so far.

Mr. BARBREE: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: He was so embarrassed by the state of the news business. But…

Mr. BARBREE: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: But he did talk about…

Mr. BARBREE: Can I tell you one fast little joke about him?

FLATOW: Sure. Sure.

Mr. BARBREE: See, Rubin was such a, you know, he was very particular about most things. And that was great in the news business because in those days, if we made a mistake, we couldn't wait to get on a microphone and correct it. Today, if there's a mistake made in television news, they simply forget about it and hopefully won't repeat it again, but you'll never them apologize for it or acknowledge the fact that they made a mistake. Maybe on some of the networks like Brian Williams' show, you might get that. But you're not going to get it on most of them.

But Rubin, in those days, he got on our reporter out in Detroit for using initials instead of the name. And he says, we do not cover GM, we cover General Motors. So, therefore, any report that you put on this network you will identify the company by their title. So when that reporter signed off that night, and he later went to a public television and all, his real name was Robin McNeil, but he later took the name of Robert McNeil. But when he signed off that night, he said this is Robin MacNeil, National Broadcasting Company News, Detroit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That was a - that's a great story.

Mr. BARBREE: And Rubin Franks says, touche, you know.

FLATOW: Yeah. He understood it. 1-800-989-8255. Talking about Sputnik on the 50th anniversary of that date.

Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Annette(ph) in Vancouver. Hi, Annette.

ANNETTE (Caller): Hi, there. I was - just wanted to tell you, though, that the Sputnik started an interesting set of memories in my mind. And that was sharing with my dad, watching the sky at night. And when they started televising the rocket ships taking off in the United States, he would wake me up no matter what time it was - generally, since we lived on the West Coast, it was like 3 a.m. And I'd get to get out of bed and stay up all night with my dad watching TV. But we really enjoyed that together. And I had another good memory come from it. And that was starting my interest in science and astronomy just as a hobby.

FLATOW: You got inspired in the '60s there.



ANNETTE: It was wonderful.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's a great memory. Thanks for calling.

ANNETTE: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. In "Second Life," we have a question from Prospero Linden(ph) who says, when China gets serious about going to the moon, the US might wake up again. What do you think of that? China - we hear India is going. Japan is going, right?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Well…

Mr. BARBREE: I think the evidence already, Ira, is that China is very serious about going. And I think that the program that President Bush has set up is the proper program at this time. And we're down to about 11 missions left for the shuttle to finish building the International Space Station and they're under presidential order to do so by September the 30th, 2010. And the ARIES Program is underway. It's going very strong right now. And we're going back to the simpler version of the rockets and the spacecraft that can do these multiple assignments, whereas the shuttle can only carry out an assignment in lower Earth orbit.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARBREE: And so I think that they're trying to do it on the same - on the very same budget that NASA has now, an annual budget, without an increase in their budget. They can do it. They need a little more money, but they can do it. So the taxpayer doesn't realize a rise in it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARBREE: And they'll be going back to the moon and I think that you will see that China will be going at the same time. But hopefully in the 2030s, this planet will be off to Mars. And it'll be off in a flotilla of International Space Station, I mean, space vehicles that will be manned by all of the countries of this planet - the Europeans, China, all of it. I think that's what will happen and hopefully that will be the case.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Well, you know, Ira, I think it's possible…

FLATOW: Michael.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: …that a Chinese challenge would inspire Americans. We don't have quite the same Cold War fear that we had. Dr. Lederman was talking about how we could use an inspiration. We could use a competitor. But, Ira, you know, even someone like James Van Allen, by the time of his death, was very skeptical about spending money on man's space flight. We may have so many competing interests in our country that politically it couldn't be the same as it was back then in the '50s. I'd like to see us mobilize ourselves towards science and engineering and solve our problems. But I'm not sure that China is going to do it for us.


Dr. LEDERMAN: We could take a lesson from all the things we've learned that came out of our ability to conquer space in that sense. The Hubble Telescope has been an enormously fruitful instrument in teaching us about the universe -dark energy and dark matter, and the combination of a phenomenon that give us an understanding of the world in which we live, the Voyagers that are running around on Mars and doing all kinds of things. I think that sending a human being is, to me - my community thinks largely, not unanimously, that the instruments can do almost anything that you want to have done and it's so much less expensive. And it's not a race because there'll be a community of scientists - Chinese, Indians - great. Because we want to learn as much about the world as we can. It's profitable to do that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones. Mark(ph) in Boston. Hi. Welcome, Mark.

MARK (Caller): Hi, thank you for having me. I just like to make a comment supporting what Dr. Lederman said that the implications of Sputnik extended far beyond the space program. They stood up an enormous interest in science in the whole nation. And I was only a student at that time in high school shortly after that and the beneficiary of a National Science Foundation Program that sent first generation students - whose parents had never gone to college - off to universities to pursue science. And I was part of one of a group 30 students who wound up in university studying biology and chemistry at that time.

And it made an enormous impact on my life and I know of the 30 students in that group, ten years after that program, three of us wound up as interns at Mass General Hospital in Boston. And virtually, the entire group has gone on (unintelligible) careers in biology or chemistry or medicine.

FLATOW: So you really were influenced by it?

MARK: Absolutely. I think the whole nation was so upset that we were behind in science, that it stood an invest - a small investment by the government in the science education that I think had enormous influence on many young students, including myself. I think there's lessons from today, too. I think with a small investment in education, one could probably spur students nowadays into similar activities.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You agree, Michael?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Yeah. You know, I - one of the things that always stands out to me…

FLATOW: Thank you, Mark.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: …I study at this time, is that people believed that the government could do something good back then. They understood about bureaucracies. They thought, well, yeah, they're going to waste some of the money and some of the things are going to be foolish. But Eisenhower was president at a time - you know, maybe it was because the greatest generation had won the war. And we had seen the success of the Manhattan Project and then the development of atomic energy all led by the government.

For some reason, people believed that they could do good, and that they did. And I wouldn't mind and I would think that even most people would support a national effort, in one direction or another, if they were called to support it. But we have seemed to have gotten away from the idea of doing big things.

FLATOW: Exactly. And not only that. We - there was a time where we had big ideas that would go through administrations, right? They would…

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Republican, Democrat. Right.

FLATOW: They would span it. I mean, to get to the moon, we had to span multiple administrations, you know. That's not so easy to do anymore with these big projects.


FLATOW: Yeah. Let me just remind everybody that this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Jay, you were about to agree with me on that?

Mr. BARBREE: I sure was. And the problem I think today is, and I say this often, I'm apolitical, I don't belong to any party. What I see today that I - in what Michael was talking about, I'm fully in agreement about what it was like during John F. Kennedy following President Eisenhower. But what I see today is that I see a devotion more to these politicians' party than to their country. And the biggest problem that each party has is - if one party is in, they have to make sure that that party doesn't achieve anything, that that party doesn't get credit for anything. It doesn't matter which party he's in.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARBREE: And they instantly start running for reelection the day that they get in there. Now, for example, the Democrats took over Congress back about a year ago, and I was reading the other day - I don't know if this is accurate - that they haven't passed one thing, but they've had over 600 investigations. And it's investigations into the Republicans or what they're doing. Nobody seems to be doing the country's business.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARBREE: And until we get in a situation, whereas, that we go back to love of country and we're - and we are more concerned about the country and this planet and the families, we're not going to see that. And that is one of the problems because we have to realize that the Earth is only a spacecraft 8,000 miles in diameter. It has about 10,000 feet of a life support on top of it. And one day, it's not going to be able support us. And we've all have been here about four-tenths or one percent of this history, the human race, and if we want to survive, we got to get out of this cradle. We've got to take our diapers off, climb out, and we've got to go out and populate other world. Otherwise, we're going to have a very brief history as a race.

FLATOW: Leon, you get the last word today.

Dr. LEDERMAN: Well, that's good. Well, I think that we do have major problems on this planet. And we need collaboration in solving these problems and I do believe that the idea of reviving and reviewing Sputnik was very powerful because it reminds us how much humans can accomplish by thinking clearly and addressing the problems we have. So, again, science, research, education will be the saviors, I think, of this planet once again.

FLATOW: But as you said before, we need some sort of unifying inspirational event like Sputnik was.

Dr. LEDERMAN: And we expect SCIENCE FRIDAY will continue to contribute to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARBREE: Your show, doctor.

FLATOW: I hope my funders are still listening. Thank you all very much for taking time to be with us today. Leon Lederman is director emeritus of the Fermilab and a Pritzker Professor of Physics at Illinois Institute of Technology and Nobel Laureate in Physics. Jay Barbree is space correspondent for NBC News. How many years have you been there now, Jay?

Mr. BARBREE: I'm in my 50th year with them now.


Mr. BARBREE: 50th year.

FLATOW: Congratulations.

Mr. BARBREE: Covered all of the missions. I haven't missed one. I haven't been sick.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you. Author of a new book, "Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race, from Sputnik to Today." Michael D'Antonio is a journalist and author of several books. His new book is "A Ball, A Dog, And A Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins."

Mr. BARBREE: A great book, Michael. A great book.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Thank you, sir.

FLATOW: Mike, you chose those symbols with real meanings?

Mr. BARBREE: I do. I love Michael. He knows that. We're buddies. We're buddies.

FLATOW: All right. Well…

Dr. LEDERMAN: When is the paperback due?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Yeah. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Okay. All right. Thank you all for taking the time to be with us today.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.