October 4, 1957: Sputnik Launches

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It's always a good day to remember Sputnik in my book, but today there is actually a reason to. It was on this date in 1957 that the Soviet Union launched the little round satellite into orbit.

The importance of that event probably cannot be overestimated. The space race, in the specific form we came to know it, was largely sparked by the jolt of the event. It's shocking how often people mention Sputnik both in Congress and the newsmedia of the time. Sometimes people called Sputnik "Russia's moon."


First and foremost, the event sparked wonder. The AP reporter relayed his experience in Cambridge, Massachussets:

The starry object seemed to move about twice the distance across the mouth of the Big Dipper in four or five seconds before it disappeared. It was heading toward the bright east light of dawn and did not reappear.

It seemed to be moving much slower than a so-called shooting star does when it hits the atmosphere, and it maintained a horizontal level.

We looked at our watches. The satellite or its rocket had appeared three minutes earlier than its predicted 5:24 EST arrival.

We waited out the three minutes. A tiny pink cloud, lit by the still hidden sun, floated in the sky--by coincidence in the area where the moonlet had vanished. It seemd [sic] to say, "Sputnik was here.
But everyone on Earth was soon trying to use Sputnik to justify whatever previous agenda they'd been trying to push.

On the day after the launch, the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told reporters "on the subject of Russia's Sputnik and intercontinental missiles that he thinks the Soviets maybe ahead of the United States in this area of weapons," but that we were up on heavy bombers. Nonetheless, "In five or ten years, Dulles said, missiles may be the decisive weapon and it is important for the United States to push ahead in this area."

An associate dean of engineering at MIT downplayed Sputnik's immediate importance, but stressed that "this country must step up its efforts in basic science, research, and development, realizing 'the Soviets are strong.'"

And of course, as a Nevada Daily Mail headline ran it, "Republicans Blame Rocket Lag on Demos."

Meanwhile, the Soviets were celebrating with excellent little films. (If anyone wants to translate this film, I'd be tremendously grateful to you. Holy moly! Someone did translate this thing on the fly. Check it out here.)

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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