Sputnik The Shock of the essay

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If the satellite had successfully entered orbit, this would have put the United States more than a year ahead of the Soviets in the endeavor, which added

In fact, this was not the only rocket and satellite project that many United States scientists and government officials felt had been failures, or at least under-utilized successes. The Soviets increased the pressure on the American rocket program with their launch of Sputnik II on November 3, less than a month after the launch of their first satellite, and political urging from Eisenhower and others forced the early launch of an American Vanguard satellite.

The Vanguard project had actually anticipated a launch date ahead of the Soviets, which may in part have spurred on the Soviet team and helped them to set their deadline, but a series of setbacks delayed the various test launches of the vehicles meant to deliver the Vanguard into orbit, with the third test vehicle not receiving its launch until October 23, 1957. A fourth test vehicle was already under development, but the President was warned that this rocket was strictly experimental. However, in the face of mounting pressure from Soviet advancements, public concern, and political humiliation, Eisenhower insisted that the new and untested rocket, to be known as the Vanguard rocket, would carry the Vanguard satellite on its first launch.

To add pressure to the Vanguard project, the launch was heavily publicized in an effort to combat the mounting fears of Soviet superiority in the Space Race. The result was a complete backfire, causing more disaster to Eisenhower and national and international public opinion of the United States space program than the launches of both Sputnik I and II combined. Dickson notes that "the big day arrived two moths to the day after the Russian launch, on Wednesday, December 4." Reporters from around the world were gathered at the newly constructed Vanguard Hotel nearby, watching the launch from a terrace, and thousands of people gather in chairs on the beaches around Cape Canaveral to witness the launch first hand. The embarrassment that was caused then, by the postponement of the launch to the following day to wind and "bugs," must have been considerable, but it was nothing compared to what happened the next day. In the words of eyewitness and Vanguard propulsion group head Kurt Stehling, "It seemed as if the gates of hell had opened up." Less than two seconds after the rocket began to lift off, it faltered, the rocket itself actually began to bend under the force of its own weight, and then burst into flames and slid back down, collapsing. In a moment of complete absurdity, the small 3.2 pound Vanguard satellite was thrown clear of the flames and functioned just as it was intended to -- it opened up in the brush surrounding the launch site and began emitting a steady and regular beep to allow for tracking.

Meanwhile, Johnson's hearings continued with an increased fervor, and the various observed weaknesses of American society -- namely bureaucratic red tape and political and military infighting and a lack of support for education, specifically for the sciences -- became heated topics of national debate. Sputnik had done much more than cause anxiety about the Russians and the United State's space program; it had caused a massive spate of introspection, evaluation, and eventually blame in regards to the current state of American society. It also, of course, had the direct and obvious effect of spurring on the United States space program, which by no means ended with the Vanguard disaster. In fact, further development of the Vanguard rocket -- which had been urged by those closest to the project from the beginning -- ed to the successful placement into orbit of the Vanguard satellite, the first long-term satellite placed into orbit. The United States had successfully placed the Explorer, meant to remain aloft for only eight weeks, into orbit on the evening of January 31, 1958. The few hectic months between the launch of Sputnik and the first successful launch of an American satellite must have seemed like decades for those not involved, Eisenhower most of all.

The President actually suffered a stroke on November 25, 1957, in the midst of the Sputnik and Vanguard turmoil, which some credit as the primary cause behind Eisenhower's deteriorating health. History still quibbles over his reaction to the Sputnik launch, with claims that his calm and measured response helped to keep the nation from panicking especially in economic terms being countered with the shortsighted and ultimately wasteful blunder of his insistence on an early public launch for the Vanguard project. However Eisenhower is measured in the first two months following Sputnik, he cemented his image as one who is adroit in political maneuvers by creating NASA in the wake of the Explorer and Vanguard successes, gaining support from the formerly outspoken critic Lyndon B. Johnson and the nation as a whole. In the ends, Sputnik did much to advance science on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as much if not more through political persuasion as through the gain in real knowledge.

The politics are also held by Dickson at least as important as the science, and though he does describe the science in basic and understandable laymen's terms, his main concern is with the social and political ramification of the Sputnik launch and the dawn of the space age. His balance in this regard is commended by many reviewers; Rochelle Caviness is careful to point out that "Dickson looks at Sputnik from both a Soviet and from an American viewpoint [...] at the failures that each side encountered, and the repercussions for these failures." Physicist Fred Bortz agrees with this assessment, noting some of the deeper political intricacies that had recently come to light and especially enjoying Dickinson's portrayal of the motivations and relationship between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Soviet Union's premier at the time of the Sputnik launch and subsequent actions, Nikita Khrushchev. Both reviewers found Dickinson's depiction of Eisenhower and the other major personalities involved to be one of the more compelling factors in the book. Indeed, it is Dickinson's ability to see the human motivations and frustrations of the Sputnik event that makes his telling significant.

Eisenhower's personality as depicted by Dickinson is also mentioned by Nancy R. Curtis of the University of Maine Library. Writing for the Library Journal, saw the main struggle as being between Eisenhower and officials in his own government, specifically the Army. This leads to one of the main dilemmas presented by Dickinson's book; though he consistently meets with praise, his argument -- if indeed he has one -- is not entirely clear. Caviness seems to believe that the central struggle Dickinson outlines in the book is between the Soviet and United States space programs, whereas Curtis explicitly states that the main conflict represented in Sputnik is that between Eisenhower and other members of his administration. This is a minor squabble, however, and further evidence of the objectivity which Dickson brings to his subject.

It is not always clear who was on the right side of history, and Dickinson deliberately avoids making such distinctions. He manages to find both praise and criticism for most of the men involved with the various projects, Americans and Soviets alike, which leads to the more apt and only true criticism of Dickinson's book; that "Readers who are familiar with the history and politics of the space program may grow impatient with this book, looking for a more detailed presentation than Mr. Dickson has elected to present." Borz goes on to note, however, that "This book is not for them but for readers looking for 250 pages of solid overview and extensive backmatter," which is one of the most glowing recommendations a book can receive. Indeed, even more than it's objectivity, this book is praised for its accessibility, with Caviness disagreeing with Borz in saying that Sputnik: The Shock of the Century "is suitable for general readers and academicians alike." It certainly proved an eye-opening reading for this reader.

There were three major points that I picked up from my reading of Dickinson's Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. First, it is always surprising to me how slow the advance of science really is. Though things seem to be happening with near-lightning speed these days, especially in the realm of technological advancement, it is important to remember that all ideas had humble beginnings. The theory of rocket flight and the achievability of reaching space was first proved possible by a Russian scientist and mathematician in the 1890s, and seventeenth-century physicist and scientist Sir Isaac Newton postulated how something might be put into orbit two centuries before the feat was actually accomplished. Though Sputnik, Vanguard, and the other missile and space projects might have seemed like a race, they were in fact very slow progressions building on centuries of science…[continue]

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