Mission incredible: The day the space age began

Fifty years ago, a 184lb ball called Sputnik became the first man-made object to be launched successfully into orbit. The world was changed for ever. Rupert Cornwell looks back on an achievement that set the tone of geopolitics for a generation
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The Independent Online

Log on to the internet, go to www.history.nasa.gov/sputnik/sputnik.wav and you can listen to the sound that chilled America to its bones. Half a century on, it is utterly unfrightening – a metallic, slightly hissing beep-beep-beep that might come from a boiling kettle.

The object that emitted it, too, from this safe distance is nothing much to write home about. It was rather larger than a basketball, with four antennae, each about eight feet long, resembling nothing so much as the whiskers on a cat. Nor was its Russian name exactly threatening, meaning literally "travelling companion". But if you lived in the seemingly omnipotent United States of America of the late 1950s, and first glimpsed this tiny wayfarer slipping across the night sky, or heard that strange beeping on the radio, you might well have thought it was a sign heralding the end of the world – or rather the beginning of a world in which the Soviet Union and communism would be the masters.

Exactly 50 years ago today, on 4 October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first ever artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. It circled our planet in roughly 96 minutes, at an altitude of about 150 miles, travelling at a speed of 18,000mph, crossing the US seven times a day. Inside the sphere of polished aluminium were two radio transmitters, and batteries.

Compared to the devices that orbit the planet now, it was primitive in the extreme. Yet Sputnik was a watershed in history.

Curiously, in the Soviet Union of the time, it didn't seem that big a deal, at least initially. The country's leader Nikita Khrushchev was told of the successful launch while he was attending a meeting of party functionaries in Kiev. He was delighted, but the others only wanted to talk about the need to boost local electricity supplies. Only when pandemonium ensued in the US did Moscow realise the magnitude of its propaganda coup – technological, but in those days above all military.

Satellites, scientists understood, could be important tools for both peace and war. But what struck such dread into Americans, and provided such a strong card for their opponents, was the R-7 rocket which carried Sputnik into space. As Khrushchev's son Sergei – a 22-year-old engineering student at the time of the launch who later worked on the Soviet space programme – stresses today, the top priority of the day was to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile to deter an American nuclear first strike. Security, not space exploration, was the name of the game: "Back then, we lived in the same situation as Iran is in now," Sergei, now an American citizen and a professor at the Ivy League Brown University in Rhode Island, said this week.

With the R-7 the Soviets had achieved their goal – or so it seemed to a panicked US.

News of Sputnik came as a bombshell – rating one of those across-the-front-page, triple deck headlines that The New York Times reserves for presidential election results and events like 9/11. Ordinary Americans were stunned, caught napping as they luxuriated in their consumer comforts of cars with shiny chrome tail fins and fancy safety razors. The post-war generation had never had it so good. Now, it appeared, the country faced a threat to its very survival as a free nation.

President Dwight Eisenhower himself reacted with restraint, refusing to overdramatise events – indeed, he is said to have put in five rounds of golf in the week after Sputnik was launched – but he was about the only one. With his blue-chip military reputation, Ike could get away with so measured a response, albeit barely. Today, in the pantheon of presidents, Eisenhower stands higher than he ever has. But for decades afterwards, the Sputnik shock seemed to mark him as old, complacent and out-of-touch. His Democratic opponents were merciless. Lyndon Johnson, the then Senate majority leader, conjured up a science fiction nightmare of giant Soviet platforms in space from which they would rain down bombs on America "like kids dropping rocks on to cars from freeway overpasses".

As the Iraq war shows, hysterical over-reaction to threats is a constant of US history. But at the time few considered it an over-reaction to build fall-out shelters across the land, and drill schoolchildren on how to shelter under their classroom desks in the event of nuclear attack.

A couple of months after Sputnik, hysteria merged with outright national humiliation, when the Vanguard rocket supposed to put America's first satellite into space blew up on the launch pad, live on television, having climbed just four feet into the air. The occasion proved that Pentagon spin was as brazen then as it is now. A military spokesman denied an explosion had taken place. What the world had watched, he said, was "rapid burning".

Eventually, in February 1958, the US did successfully launch its first satellite, Explorer-1. By then, however, the Russians had already put an animate object, in the shape of a terrier called Laika, into space in a much larger Sputnik 2. The unfortunate animal is believed to have died of stress and overheating a few hours into her flight, but the headlines paid scant attention to that. "Soviets Orbit Second Artificial Moon: Communist Dog in Space," read one typical specimen.

Even more profound was the political impact. The Democrats made hay of Ike fiddling (or more exactly perfecting his short game) as Washington burnt.

In the popular mythology, America had stood by watching, mesmerised by shallow consumerism, as the Reds vaulted into tomorrow.

In truth, Sputnik was something of a bluff. The R-7 rocket was too big and too expensive to manufacture in any number, nor did the Russians then have the technology to guide an ICBM to its destination. Sputnik, too, was a bluff. The missile, Nikita Khrushchev privately acknowledged, "was only a symbolic counterthreat to the United States". Not until the 1960s, his son would later reveal, did Moscow acquire its first operational ICBMs. But at the time no one knew this – or, to be precise, no one could say so.

The legend of the "missile gap" was born, and may have proved crucial to John F Kennedy's defeat of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, as he hammered on about how the Eisenhower-Nixon team had allowed the Soviet Union to achieve strategic superiority. It was not so, as Eisenhower had known well for years, thanks to secret U-2 spy plane flights at altitudes Soviet air defences were unable to reach.

Indeed, the Sputnik programme was partly conceived as a riposte to the U-2.

But for Eisenhower to have given proof that the Democrats' claim was false, he would have had to admit the U-2's existence (which did of course become public knowledge in 1960, when the Soviets finally managed to shoot down the one flown by Gary Powers). Thus did Sputnik usher in the most dangerous phase of the Cold War, which culminated in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 – after which both countries in effect decided "never again", installing a hotline between their two capitals, and accepting the doctrine of Mad (or mutually assured destruction).

Five decades on, it is even clearer that while the first Soviet satellite most certainly changed the world, it was not in the way expected at the time. Yes, the R-7's legacy persists, in the land- and submarine-launched ICBMs that are the basis of both sides' strategic nuclear weapons: lodged in Trident submarines silently patrolling the oceans, and the missile silos that look like unmanned power grid relay units, eerily dotted across the empty plains of North Dakota.

True, too, Sputnik might be seen as the first step towards a future militarisation of space, where one day lethal weapons may be dropped down on Earth, as LBJ so colourfully imagined. But the SDI "Star Wars" programme announced by Ronald Reagan has shrunk to an uncompleted missile defence system that causes diplomatic ructions with Moscow, is of uncertain reliability, and is of dubious strategic value.

If Sputnik was a poor guide to the military future, the giddy expectations it stirred of man's presence in space have not been met either. At the time, it seemed to prove that science fiction's claims were not fiction at all. Moreover, Nasa was set up within a few months, under intense public pressure.

In retrospect, however, the July 1969 Moon landing remains the defining moment of space exploration. The US had responded to Sputnik and showed that with its mind on the job, it was more than a technological match for the Soviet Union. But the wilder fantasies spawned by Sputnik, of human voyages to the planets and colonies in space, are little more plausible now than then.

In 2004, President George Bush set out a new vision for Nasa, vowing to complete the international space station and to establish a permanent base on the Moon by 2020, from which "human beings are headed for the cosmos". But the plans have struck no public chord. The foreseeable future extends no further than unmanned missions within our own solar system.

In short, the era that Sputnik inaugurated has been not outward-looking, but introspective, focused not on the great dark blue yonder of the universe, but on the needs and problems of our own troubled and fragile planet. Since Sputnik, 6,000-plus satellites have been put into space. Today there are perhaps 900 up there functioning, some monitoring the environment, and at least half of them for communications purposes, both civilian and military.

This is not the "Space Age" that Sputnik was meant to usher in, but an "Information Age" powered by satellites which has led to a new industrial revolution. Yet, paradoxically, it may be of greater military relevance than ever – not to annihilate an enemy power, but in the more subtle defeat of today's terrorist foes. Not with intercontinental missiles, but by intercepting their phone calls and spying on their activities from space – courtesy, ultimately, of Sputnik.

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