Sputnik changed the sky and the psyche Surprise: The U.S.S.R.'s launch of the first man-made satellite 40 years ago shocked America out of its complacency.

Remember When

October 12, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Forty autumns ago, Marylanders, like most people the world over, were spending their evenings and the cool pre-dawn hours standing in back yards, on rooftops and in parks craning their necks skyward.

Armed with binoculars, telescopes and the naked eye, they hoped to catch a glimpse of Sputnik as it made its way across the firmament on one of its 96-minute orbits of the earth.

Sputnik, the 184-pound, 23-inch diameter aluminum ball and first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth, had been launched by the Russians, and the not-so-subtle reality began to seep into the American psyche that we had been beaten into space by what many had considered a backward people.

"There have been times throughout history when people have said: 'Things will never be the same again.' Future historians, with a better perspective, may well mark October 4, 1957, as one of those times," said a 1977 anniversary article in The Sun.

"The Soviet Union, a totalitarian nation where science and technology are the servants of the state, and where individual enterprise is supposedly stifled by Marxist orthodoxy, on that day 20 years ago astonished the world and embarrassed the United States by launching the world's first artificial satellite," observed The Sun.

Years later, Sen. John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit the earth, recalled Sputnik as "a shock, a trauma for most Americans, who had assumed we were the overall technological leaders of the world: 'Here's these barbaric Bolsheviks over there accomplishing something we couldn't do.' "

Clare Booth Luce described Sputnik's radio "beep, beep" sound as "an intercontinental outer space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our national superiority."

Soviet triumph

In addition to Sputnik taking mankind to a new and unexplored frontier, its success also proved to be a diplomatic and propaganda triumph for the Soviet Union.

"In this country, Sputnik set off a round of breast-beating and self-deprecation -- alarm that often generated more heat than light," said The Sun. "It also led to a restructuring of a large part of the American system of education, and less noticeably, to an important shift of emphasis and interest among many physical scientists."

It was the beginning of a 12-year space race that climaxed in 1969, when two American astronauts stepped onto the moon.

"Today's cool and rainless sky may be favorable for football -- or flu -- but all at once a totally new meteorological consideration has risen to push routine fall observances into the background," said an Evening Sun editorial.

"Some watchers, indeed, have been likening the event in importance to that earlier October when Columbus demonstrated the way to reach a new terrestrial realm."

Patricia Moore was a member of Operation Moonwatch, which set up telescopes atop the science building at Goucher College to watch for Sputnik, and was the first Baltimorean to spot the satellite as it coursed 560 miles high over Baltimore two days after its launching.

"I guess I screamed and shouted when I saw the satellite. I just know that I was very excited," she told The Evening Sun in 1967.

Describing the satellite as a "spot of light" streaking across the sky, Moore later said of the experience, "It was funny because my father [Milton B. Moore] had set up the telescopes and was head of the watch out there; but I was not looking through a scope.

"I guess I was lucky. But I really do think it is easier to see them with the naked eye. They go so fast that they get out of range of the telescopes pretty fast," she said.

"Thousands Rise Before Dawn, See Russ Moon Rocket Streak Past," said headlines in The Evening Sun on Oct. 18 as Sputnik's booster rocket passed over the city at 6: 05 a.m.

"The rocket came into view over the north-northwestern horizon and almost exactly bisected the bowl of the Big Dipper as it moved eastward," said The Evening Sun.

The missile, which was described as "tumbling over and over," by astronomer S. H. Dieke, at Goucher College, followed in orbit behind Sputnik.

The newspaper suggested that would-be celestial observers "go outside about 10 minutes ahead of time to get their eyes accustomed to the dark."

Sputnik was very much on the mind of Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin as he addressed the Liberty Republican Club at the Lord Baltimore Hotel.

A 'sputtering sputnik'

"We are gathered here under the sign of Sputnik. Let us not be distracted from the joys, the hopes, the duties and responsibility of free men and women by the 'beep-beep' of a little moon that is soon to vanish in a fast descent," advised McKeldin, who seized the moment to describe Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus as "that sputtering sputnik from the Ozarks."

One of the more bizarre and ludicrous reactions to Sputnik came from Maryland Republican Sen. John Marshall Butler, who thundered that future sputniks be shot down out of the skies as fast as they appear.

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