We’re now told that people in the know in Washington were expecting it, and that Eisenhower’s military people welcomed it, specifically because they wanted to spy on the Russians from space, and now the Russians could hardly object when the U.S. sent a satellite over their country. No doubt some also saw it as an opportunity to intensify Cold War fears. We've also learned (according to a recent AP report, )that the military potential for their rockets was far more important to Soviet leaders than starting the Space Age.
Those fears were already in the air, and had been for most of the decade. So as I sat there in the pool of light surrounded by darkness, listening to the grim monotone from above, I opened my brown notebook and wrote about what had just happened. I still have that notebook:
"The Russians, Conquerors of Space. Oct.4, 1957. I have just heard some news which will affect my whole future. Russia has just successfully launched the first man-made satellite into space…How did the Russians do it? Out of their own ingenuity? Did they get information from a spy in America? A traitor? All the work our scientists and top brains did, what for? Will the Russians take advantage of this and use it to start a war?"
I was eleven years old. So was Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Steven Speilberg would turn 11 in a couple of months. George Lucas was 13.
Sputnik changed our lives, in some ways encouraging our dreams of the future, but also introduced a new dose of fear. (Clearly, Cold War paranoia was already in the air.) It gave us more (and more obviously useless) ‘duck and cover’ drills, and it started a national furor over our education, parodied for our generation by the Firesign Theatre pitting Communist Martyrs High School against More Science High. It also led to the National Defense Education Act, which provided loans for college, which is how many of us got there.
But there was also real basis for alarm. Although the U.S. had exploded the first true hydrogen bomb in 1952, it was too large and fragile for a weapon. The bomb the Soviets designed and exploded the next year was not as powerful, but it was already a weapon. The U.S. soon had created usable hydrogen bombs, but the Soviets had a brief advantage which had shaken the military establishment.
Now it seemed the Soviets had leapt ahead and were a much greater threat. Until then, an attack on the U.S. or Russia could be conducted only by using bombers. Although the U.S. was rapidly developing guided missiles, Sputnik (and especially the bigger Sputnik II launched a month later) proved the Soviets had built missiles capable of reaching the U.S. and delivering atomic bombs. Sputnik itself was beeping over America to remind them.Missiles were much more of a threat--they were faster than bombers and harder to detect.
Airplanes could be shot down, but not guided missiles. They didn't have to be particularly accurate, because hydrogen bombs were so powerful they didn’t have to be delivered to precise targets. To destroy New York or Moscow might require as many as 24 atomic bombs. The first hydrogen bombs were each as powerful as a thousand Hiroshima bombs. New York could be destroyed by one of them, which would also produce radiation lethal to the population of Washington, D.C., and would contaminate most of the Northeast, into Canada. The "lethal zone" in H-bomb tests in the Pacific after the Bravo test proved so powerful was equal to 20% of the continental United States.