Why We Let Moscow Win the Satellite Race

by Fred Schwarz

On the homepage today, Taylor Dinerman explains why the Soviet Union’s Sputnik flight of 1957, which seemed so worrisome at the time, actually benefited U.S. national security greatly — by establishing the right to fly satellites (including spy satellites) over other nations. Space-program insiders knew the U.S. had all the necessary rocketry to put a satellite in orbit built and tested a year before Sputnik, but intentionally chose not to launch one, for just that reason. In fact, as the technology historian T. A. Heppenheimer wrote a few years ago, an Army general had to personally order America’s top rocketeer, Wernher von Braun, to refrain from sending up a satellite before the Soviets:

ON SEPTEMBER 20, 1956, MORE THAN A YEAR before the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, a four-stage Jupiter-C rocket stood on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral. It had three stages—sections that fire in turn and then are jettisoned. The rocket was almost identical to the one that would lift America’s first satellite into orbit 16 months later, and Wernher von Braun, director of development for the U.S. Army’s rocket program, was well aware of its capabilities. All he had to do was give it a functioning fourth stage, and with that much more power, the Jupiter-C could launch a small payload into Earth orbit—barely a decade after the end of World War II, and well ahead of anything the Soviet Union might accomplish.

But von Braun was not the only one who knew what the rocket could do. As he sat in his office overseeing the pre-launch preparations, the telephone rang. It was his boss, Maj. Gen. John B. Medaris. “Wernher,” said the general, “I must put you under direct orders personally to inspect that fourth stage to make sure it is not live.”

By the way, the first Sputnik flight was not as great a shock to Americans’ self-image as it is sometimes portrayed:

Ike held a press conference a few days after the Sputnik 1 launch and reassured the nation. He said that the Soviet achievement “does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota.” They had “put one small ball in the air.” Public opinion shared this lack of concern. In Boston, Newsweek found “massive indifference.” In Denver the magazine reported “a vague feeling that we have stepped into a new era, but people aren’t discussing it the way they are football and the Asiatic flu.” On October 5 the front-page headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel read: TODAY WE MAKE HISTORY. It referred to the first-ever World Series game played in that city.

It took Sputnik 2, a few weeks later, which was much bigger and carried poor, doomed, gallant Laika as a passenger, to shake up America’s science and education establishments. Today, of course, the most familiar application of spy-satellite technology is Google Earth — from a company co-founded by Sergey Brin, whose family fled the Soviet Union in 1979, when he was six years old.

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