"Comrades," [Sergey Korolev, the Soviet Union's chief rocket designer] cried, rousing his sleepy colleagues. "You can't imagine what's happening. The whole world is talking about our little satellite. Apparently we have caused quite a stir."Today (October 4) is the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the world's first baby steps into space. To observe this anniversary, last week I read Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age. This is an impressively-written history that almost reads like a good novel rather than just dry facts.
—Matthew Brzezinski, Red Moon Rising, 199
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the Soviets actually didn't think much of it at the time. (The quotation at the beginning of this post is an expression of real surprise.) To them, it was just a way of demonstrating that they had the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead without using the huge fleet of bombers that the US had massed in the 1950s. However, the Western world went ballistic (OK, that's probably a bad pun). The US had felt relatively safe from nuclear attack until then, since our bombers were superior both in quality and quantity.
Sputnik shattered that complacency, and Brzezinski quotes the historian Asif A. Siddiqi: "With only a ball of metal, the Soviets had managed to achieve what they were unable to convey with decades of rhetoric." Ironically, it also had a bigger impact on advancing the US's technological development than it did on the Soviet Union's, since it awoke the sleeping dragon out of its post-WWII self-satisfaction and spurred it into a large research effort to catch up in the new, scary "missile gap".
The Soviet Union launched Laika the space dog only a month later to send the message that they could keep lobbing these things over our heads any time they wanted. At the time, no one realized that this was a bluff, since they had expended their last rocket on that stunt, but it was a huge kick in the rear for the US.
Many of the things we take for granted today and that seem like they have been around forever are actually direct descendants of the influence Sputnik had on us those tense months in late 1957: the federal student loan program was created in 1958 to encourage Americans to go to college to study math and engineering; the Internet you're reading this on was developed by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was a small government agency before then and was increased immensely in size the year after Sputnik, and the satellites of our own that we rely on for GPS navigation and weather forecasting.
As a pilot, I used satellite technology twice just today on the job: I shot a GPS approach into Albany and used ACARS (a satellite-based communications system) to communicate with dispatch. Since I'm based at Washington-Dulles, I have another little reminder of Sputnik every day at work: the airport is named after John Foster Dulles, who was Eisenhower's Secretary of State when it was launched, and is a major character in the book.
As the Soviet Union developed surface-to-air missile technology that made the US's U-2 spy plane vulnerable and obsolete, the CIA pushed for a satellite program of our own even before Sputnik. At the time, they thought this wouldn't be possible until the mid-to-late 1970s. Once Sputnik was launched, this was pushed forward all the way up to 1959, almost two decades ahead of schedule!
Weather satellites that pilots and airline operations centers use every hour of the day are a direct civilian relative of these early spy satellites: after all, if you can create a satellite that can take detailed pictures of military targets on the ground, you can easily create one that can take pictures of the large-scale weather fronts that are responsible for hurricanes, blizzards, and thunderstorms, and so on.
Today, we can flick on the cable TV (usually delivered to the cable provider by satellite and then piped to your house by a cable) and watch the Weather Channel show the latest hurricane path predictions, whose impressive accuracy is only possible due to the constellation of weather satellites in orbit. The Delta rescue flight into Hurricane Irma last month wouldn't have been possible without satellite data. You can thank a little 134-pound aluminum beachball that was launched 60 years ago yesterday for over 80% of the weather forecasting you probably take for granted today.
Brzezinski even has a humorous bit about the aftermath of the first Vanguard rocket, our counterpunch to take on the Rooskies, embarrassingly blowing up on the pad on world-wide TV:
Hope had been dashed, Vanguard Fries had been stricken from the nation's menus, replaced by Sputnik Cocktails—one part vodka, two parts sour grapes—and the vengeful media, having angrily crowned Vanguard "our worst humiliation since Custer's last stand," were searching for scapegoats. Already, the Glenn L. Martin Company, Vanguard's general contractor, had been punished. Its stock had taken such a beating that it had been forced to suspend trading. 
Time Magazine would eloquently sum up this historic year in its end-of-the-year issue:
The symbols of 1957 were two pale, clear streaks of light that slashed across the world's night skies and a Vanguard rocket toppling into a roiling mass of flame on a Florida beach.... On any score 1957 was a year of retreat and disarray for the West. In 1957, under the orbits of a horned sphere and a half-ton tomb for a dead dog, the world's balance of power lurched and swung toward the free world's enemies. Unquestionably, in the deadly give and take of the cold war, the high score of the year belongs to Russia. And, unquestionably, the Man of the Year was Russia's stubby and bald, garrulous and brilliant ruler: Nikita Khrushchev. 
If you like cold war history, politics, and/or space, you'll probably like Red Moon Rising. See you next Wednesday!
Like Larry the Flying Guy on Facebook:
The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.
It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.