'Sputnik: The Shock of the Century' Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union's launch of the satellite Sputnik sent shock waves through America, sparked the space race and wrenched the U.S. from its post-war smugness. Author Paul Dickson chronicles the launch and the profound changes in society that followed.

'Sputnik: The Shock of the Century'

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The space age began 50 years ago this Thursday with this sound.

(Soundbite of beeping)

HATTORI: On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first manmade object to orbit the Earth. Radio Moscow broadcast the news to the world.

(Soundbite of archived radio show)

Unidentified Man #1: As a result of intensive work by research institutes and designing bureaus, 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.

(Soundbite of beeping)

HATTORI: Sputnik broadcast this audio signature down to earth. We heard it and we weren't terribly happy about it.

Paul Dickson is the author of the book, "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century." Dickson writes that Sputnik was a shock because we Americans had gotten a little complacent by the time 1957 rolled around.

Mr. PAUL DICKSON (Author, "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century"): We've been told for so many years United States won World War II; we came out of the Depression; we have great science that are producing Salk vaccines; and we got the colored televisions sets; we got cars with big tailfins; and we're the envy of the world. And all of a sudden, boom. And we're also thinking the Russians are inept. The big joke was that they - we didn't have to fear a suitcase bomb from the Russians because they didn't have the technology to build a suitcase.

HATTORI: What's your personal memory of October 4, 1957 when Sputnik was launched?

Mr. DICKSON: On Sputnik night, I was a freshman in college, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. And I was walking across the campus and a friend of mine stopped me and said, the Russians just put a rocket in space - in the orbit - wrong but - and we both instinctively looked up. And I went back and I turned on NBC on the radio and NBC was playing the sound. And the line the NBC guy was using that night and the next day was - listen now for the sound that will forever more separate the old from the new. And then you go, beep, beep, beep, beep.

And about a week later, I heard on the radio - it's going to pass over New Haven, Middletown and Hartford tonight about - at twilight. And I went on the football field, and I stood up and I looked at it. And there it comes right across the sky and I had this feeling of absolute astonishment. It was like - I was, you know, I really felt that I was seeing the turning point in history. It was like being at the Battle of Hastings where the, you know, the discovery of America or something. It was literally seeing it with my own eyes.

And it affected - really affected my life. And then it became a - I wrote about space. I was involved in some of the - in the Navy as in - one of the Mercury recovery crews. And it just - although Sputnik stories always been on my mind, I probably started reporting the story 25 years ago, and started talking to people who were there. And it's just - it sort of defined my life, you know, it was some sort of a something that defined my adult life.

And my initial reaction was not fear, but I was saying, man what a story this is going to be.

HATTORI: This was post World War II, a time of economic growth, but also concerns about Russia as a growing superpower. This is what some Americans were thinking at the time.

Mr. DICKSON: Right.

Unidentified Woman #1: I guess the American people are alarmed that a foreign country, especially an enemy country, can do this. It's - we've feared this. We feel that they have something else that majority of the people don't know about.

Unidentified Man #2: It's frightening. We should find out what they are doing that we're not doing. And we should do something about it very quickly.

Unidentified Woman #2: Russia's getting into space really bothers me, because it's making the cold war between Russia and the United States, you know, more intense. You know, there's going to be more tension.

Mr. DICKSON: What people begin to realize and politicians and newspaper people helped them understand this - if the Russians can send this satellite, which is almost 200 pounds, which is huge by our calculation - if a 200-pound satellite that's going around in elliptical orbit crossing the Monongahela and the Mississippi, then all of a sudden they're saying, well, wait a second, if they can do that, they can send a nuclear warhead into downtown Omaha if they want.

And so our reaction to Sputnik was - I mean one of my favorite ones is Steven King who was, you know, he's a young kid - (unintelligible) movie theater in Connecticut. He's watching one of these Earth versus flying saucers in the skies. It's one of these movies where these aliens have come down and go to Malibu and pick up girls and take them back to spaceships on bikinis.

And they stopped the movie and King says, the theater owner comes out on stage and says, boys and girls, boys and girls, the Russians have put a satellite in space. God save America, God save America, and then he shuts, then the movie goes back on. And King says he walks on that night and he said - he actually wrote this - he said, that was the beginning of the dread. That was the beginning of Steven King.

HATTORI: At the time, President Eisenhower seemed to a lot people to be somewhat disconnective. You write in your book, he's described as passive and unconcerned - at least that was the perception. What were his true feelings about the launch? And what was really going on there?

Mr. DICKSON: Eisenhower had a much larger agenda. In 1955, Dwight Eisenhower goes to Geneva. And he wants to argue for open skies.

HATTORI: With the satellite technology or satellite surveillance.

Mr. DICKSON: Right, right. We really want to have this open skies - we can overfly, you can overfly us. At that point, the Russians said, absolutely no. We're not going to let you do it. It's espionage.

See, what Eisenhower is thinking is, if we go up first, and we are the aggressor nation, we are the ones going to overfly the Soviet Union, then it's innovation of the air space. But if they go up first and cross our country first, then it gives us carte blanche to build spy satellites. And the other thing that was happening almost immediately with this is some politicians begin to realize that the space race can be a surrogate for war, a proxy war.

You can - you have massive public works, massive new doses of technology. You'd have a couple of heroes who die a violent death but on a launch pad, will be true heroes, or they'd be lost in space. And both countries have this sort of, you know, grandstand view of the whole thing. Live televisions from the moon.

And so we - so instead of having a wargasm, as somebody once call it, where you push all the buttons, we end up with this theatrical race to the moon with astronauts and funny guys and tragic guys and Yuri Gagarin, and the Russians putting the first woman in space.

And so, to me, that's what we're celebrating with the fifth - you know, if I would - if I can say something about Sputnik, it would be to propose a toast to Sputnik.

HATTORI: Paul Dickson is the author of "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century." Thanks for joining us on WEEKEND EDITION.

Mr. DICKSON: Thank you, James.

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