Top-secret documents rewrite the history of the famous satellite and the early space race. Airing November 6, 2007 at 9 pm on PBS Aired November 6, 2007 on PBS
(Program not available for streaming.) On October 4, 1957, the Space Age dawned with the red hue of the Communist flag when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite. Sputnik I stunned the world and spurred a surge in science education and innovation that changed our world forever. But was Sputnik I really a shock to America's leaders, and how close was the U.S. to getting into space first? NOVA draws on previously classified documents to tell the real story behind the opening chapter in the space race.
PBS Airdate: November 6, 2007
NARRATOR: At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union are locked in a nuclear standoff.
SUSAN EISENHOWER (National Security Expert/Granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower): We can't even recreate the terror and the fear that existed at that time.
NARRATOR: In October, 1957, the Soviets stun the world by orbiting the first Earth satellite, Sputnik.
ROGER LAUNIUS (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution): Sputnik signaled a fundamental shift in the Cold War arena. Previously to this, the U.S. had been viewed as having the upper hand; not so much anymore.
JOHN LOGSDON (Space Policy Institute, The George Washington University): Sputnik was defined, not as a Soviet success, but as a U.S. failure.
NARRATOR: Much of the blame for failure is directed at the president.
REPORTER (News Press Conference): Mr. President, Russia has launched an Earth satellite; they also claim to have had a successful firing of the intercontinental ballistic missile, none of which this country's done. I ask you, sir, what are we going to do about it?
MICHAEL NEUFELD (Author, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War): They felt that he was asleep at the switch when Sputnik happened, that it was his fault.
NARRATOR: A major U.S. defeat, a President, taken by surprise, who fails to understand the significance of space: this has long been the popular understanding of Sputnik. But 50 years later, thanks to new evidence, a completely different story is emerging,...
ROGER LAUNIUS: The Soviets have done us a good turn.
NARRATOR: ...how the U.S. had the technical know-how to be first, but chose not to use it,...
ERNST STUHLINGER (Scientist: von Braun Team): Von Braun had the strict order not to build a satellite.
RANDY CLINTON (Physicist: von Braun Team): I actually had the satellite in the trunk of my car.
NARRATOR: ...why America was late getting into the space race...
LEE WEBSTER (Physicist: von Braun Team): We could have beat Sputnik by a year.
NARRATOR: ...and what secrets a president never revealed.
R. CARGILL HALL (Aerospace Historian): All these, he took to the grave.
NARRATOR: The real beginning of the space age: Sputnik Declassified, up next on NOVA.
NARRATOR: Sputnik, the world's first satellite, was simplicity itself: an aluminum sphere, 23 inches across, polished to reflect sunlight. Inside, a battery pack and basic radio, sending out a repeating pulse. It saw nothing and heard nothing. All it did was coast and beep. Its batteries died after three weeks. After three months, it fell back into the atmosphere, burned up and was gone.
Yet Sputnik sent a shockwave through America and the world, not because of what it did, but because of what it meant.
DOUGLAS EDWARDS (CBS Newscaster on television): What the Sputnik's signal means, we still don't know. The Russians haven't said anything about that. Our own experts haven't found any coded information in it. The event itself, the sudden Russian advance to the far frontier, ahead of every other country, that event is full of meanings, clearest of all to scientists whose work is the exploration of space.
WERNHER VON BRAUN (Rocket Scientist – TV Clip): I'm convinced that the Russian concept is very clear. They consider the control of space around the Earth very much like, shall we say, the great maritime powers considered the control of the seas in the 16th through the 18th centuries. And they say, "If we want to control this planet, we have to control the space around it."
R. CARGILL HALL: Americans everywhere viewed Sputnik as a demonstration of Soviet prowess in rocketry that could bring, you know, death from the skies—intercontinental ballistic missiles—into this country.
NARRATOR: Americans are accustomed to being first in scientific and technical achievements. The triumph of Sputnik by our Cold War enemy is an unexpected setback. Within three weeks, the Dow Jones average drops 10 percent.
The shockwave that begins in October, 1957, reverberates through American society. Before it's over, the fallout from Sputnik will transform a German engineer who worked for Adolph Hitler into an American folk hero: Wernher Von Braun.
The Sputnik fallout will also undermine perceptions of a respected general and popular president, Dwight Eisenhower. The man who is president when Sputnik is launched has spent his entire adult life in the military. The peak of Eisenhower's career is leading the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Now, as president, facing the Soviet Union in the Cold War, Eisenhower's greatest fear is a surprise attack on the American homeland, a nightmare burned into his soul by his generation's 9/11, Pearl Harbor.
MICHAEL NEUFELD: This was a deep memory of being caught by surprise, being caught unprepared. And you then put that in the context of the early 1950s, when Eisenhower came into office, and seemed like there was a real danger that the United States could be confronted with a nuclear Pearl Harbor.
SUSAN EISENHOWER: He didn't believe that you could survive a nuclear war. I think that the general feeling was that there wouldn't be a chance of getting out of it.
NARRATOR: What Eisenhower most wants is information about the enemy's forces. Early in 1954, he authorizes illegal military over-flights to photograph the Soviet Union.
R. CARGILL HALL: This was a major presidential decision. These peacetime over-flights of the Soviet Union were very risky, first of all because these aircraft could not operate at altitudes above Soviet air defenses.
NARRATOR: March, 1954: American fighters photograph Soviet air bases near Vladivostok. In April, American planes again enter Soviet airspace. But in May, Eisenhower's strategy backfires. An American bomber flies into Russia and is attacked by Soviet fighters. The damaged bomber barely makes it home.
It is 1954, three years before Sputnik. Eisenhower is committed to surveillance of the Soviet Union. But he needs a better way.
MICHAEL NEUFELD: This led him to appoint a secret committee in 1954, headed by the president of M.I.T., James Killian, to examine this whole surprise attack problem. How real was it, and what did we need to do in order to get the information?
NARRATOR: In early 1955, the top secret Killian Report concludes that science may soon provide an alternative: satellites could give Eisenhower exactly what he needs.
PAUL DICKSON (Author, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century): What Eisenhower's lusting for is a complete overview; the kind of thing that will tell us where they all are. It's like playing a poker game in which you can look over the other guy's shoulder. Eisenhower believes that intelligence and surveillance is the answer to preventing a hot war.
NARRATOR: Unlike aircraft, a satellite could keep the entire Soviet Union under nearly continuous surveillance. From now on, a spy satellite will be Eisenhower's highest priority for space, a project that will take years, and proceed in deepest secrecy.
In the meantime, the Killian Report recommends the U.S. proceed with development of ballistic missiles, rockets used to carry bombs.
In the early 1950s, the most experienced ballistic missile team in the country is in Huntsville, Alabama, working for the U.S. Army. But the roots of this team do not lie in Huntsville. The engineers developing missiles for the Army are primarily German, and many of them have been working on rockets since childhood.
ERNST STUHLINGER: When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I built my first rocket myself. It was very primitive. It was an assembly of some old water pipes which I screwed together and filled with self-mixed powder. And they got off the ground all right, maybe 15 feet or 20 feet, and then fell down again.
KONRAD DANNENBERG (Engineer: von Braun Team): I was still in high school, and we started—I would say it was in the very late 1920s—to build our own rockets and to try to fly them. And I said "to try to fly them," because most of them, of course, didn't work.
NARRATOR: One of these German rocket boys has even bigger dreams, Wernher Von Braun.
MICHAEL NEUFELD: He not only wanted to pioneer space travel, he wanted to go himself. He was obsessed with the idea that he could lead an expedition to the moon. He pictured himself in the seat, you know, in the driver's seat, in a pilot's seat of these spacecraft.
NARRATOR: In 1932, as a 20-year-old graduate student, Von Braun comes to the attention of the German army. The army is searching for an alternative to heavy artillery, which is banned by the Versailles Treaty after World War I. They want Von Braun to develop a ballistic missile, a rocket that will perform the function of artillery.
The project will eventually require a vast new rocket development center. Peenemí¼nde, a coastal town, will be the location; Von Braun will manage the team.
As the project grows, Von Braun demonstrates a genius for engineering management. By the time he's 30, his team numbers in the thousands, yet he still maintains a breathtaking grasp of the smallest detail.
ERNST STUHLINGER: The whole room changed when he came in. He sat down on a box in our laboratory, not on the chairs, just on a box, and a very interesting technical discussion evolved, and it was immediately noticeable how well Von Braun was informed about details. It was very impressive to me.
NARRATOR: In 1939, World War II begins in Europe. The German army is anxious to have Von Braun's rocket available. But a working guided missile is still years away.
The Peenemí¼nde team faces enormous challenges in engines, guidance and aerodynamics. The engine is basically a controlled explosion with an opening at one end. The engineers have to find a way to keep it burning for over a minute without melting itself.
KONRAD DANNENBERG: We had, initially, a lot of heat transfer problems, so the wall of our rocket engines burned through. But Von Braun pointed out that it is good to have failure; in that case, you really learn something. If everything goes the way you had planned it, you haven't really learned anything. So he was not really discouraged when we had, at Peenemí¼nde, mishaps. And we, of course, had many of them.
NARRATOR: Eventually Von Braun's team learns to cool the engine by circulating fuel around the motor on its way to being burned and letting a small amount of fuel trickle down the walls of the chamber, creating an insulating film.
There are also aerodynamic questions; no one is sure what will happen when the rocket exceeds the speed of sound. To get answers, the engineers build a cutting edge supersonic wind tunnel.
The biggest problem is guidance, getting the rocket to steer itself.
MICHAEL NEUFELD: You were going to have to develop something that would launch vertically, and then tilt over. And you were going to keep that thing more or less on course, such that it would land on a target reasonably accurately. And that really was the biggest and most difficult part of the whole thing.
NARRATOR: Von Braun's engineers develop a system of multiple gyroscopes which sense the rocket's position and send steering commands to move control surfaces on its fins and vanes in the exhaust.
Finally, by 1944, Wernher Von Braun's team has conquered every technical obstacle, creating the first reliable, practical rocket, named the A-4, a vehicle that reaches the very edge of space. And even now, 13 years before Sputnik, Von Braun is already thinking about a satellite.
ERNST STUHLINGER: One day, one of us young ones said, "Dr. Von Braun, do you really think that one of these days we can build a little artificial moon that will orbit around the Earth like the moon does?" And Von Braun said, "By all means. When this ordeal is finally over, and when we are lucky enough to survive it, then I'm sure that one of the things we will build will be a little artificial moon going around the Earth."
NARRATOR: But for now, satellites and space travel take a back seat to the war, which is going badly for Germany.
The Hitler government renames Von Braun's A-4, christening it the V-2.
PAUL DICKSON: The V in the V-2 was the German word for vengeance, and these were targeted at civilians, it was meant to be...to create terror and panic among a civilian population.
NARRATOR: In September, 1944, the first V-2s are fired at London, Paris and Antwerp.
Wernher Von Braun has made the ballistic missile a reality.
By the end of the war, 3,200 V-2s have been launched, killing roughly 5,000 people. But the true toll of the V-2 is far higher. To mass produce the rockets, the German S.S. used workers taken from concentration camps. The slave laborers worked in horrendous conditions, a fact which cannot have escaped Von Braun's purview.
MICHAEL NEUFELD: Dozens of people were dying every day from starvation, from disease, from beatings and executions, and Von Braun was in that plant several times. So he was confronted very directly with the horrifying and murderous conditions of the concentration camp workers.
NARRATOR: In the end, the V-2 is an ineffective weapon for Germany. It completely fails to terrorize the Allies. It is also a weapon unique in world history, in that more people die producing it—20,000 workers—than from being hit by it.
However, the strategic significance of Von Braun's creation is what it means for the future. British, Americans and Soviets all want Werner Von Braun's team. Six days before the war ends, Von Braun, his arm broken in a car accident, surrenders to the Americans.
JOHN LOGSDON: At the end of World War II, he moved his whole team from the northeast of Germany, near Peenemí¼nde, to Bavaria, in the closing weeks of the war, so he could surrender to the United States. He told the officer that interrogated him after his surrender, "The U.S. will let me go to Mars." He knew very well that he did not want to operate under Soviet control and chose to associate himself with the United States.
NARRATOR: Von Braun and roughly a hundred German engineers are put to work on rockets for the U.S. Army, first in Texas, then in 1950, in Huntsville, Alabama.
ERNST STUHLINGER: Huntsville was a southern town when we came here; it was a beautiful southern town. It reminded us very much of what we read in Gone with the Wind.
NARRATOR: In Huntsville, the Von Braun team is expanded; American engineers are recruited, many from the deep south.
JULIAN DAVIDSON (Engineer: von Braun Team): I'm a country boy from Alabama. I was a very naive country boy until I went away to college. I was doing farm work. I picked a lot of cotton, and I, of course, hoed corn and chopped cotton.
LEE WEBSTER: There was a lot of us around who had been farm boys, and we'd gone off to school on the GI Bill and got an education. And we wanted to use that education, so it was a real honor to join that team.
NARRATOR: The Von Braun team is charged with building a second-generation V-2, called the Redstone, designed to carry a nuclear bomb 200 miles. But even as he works on a weapon for the Army, Von Braun's dreams of satellites and exploring space are never far from mind.
RANDY CLINTON: The notion of an Earth satellite, really, was pervasive in terms of listening and talking and being and working with the German group that was here. There was never any doubt in my mind of what Wernher Von Braun's vision was: Earth satellite.
NARRATOR: But you can't put up a satellite without a rocket. And the rocket has to be able to reach a minimum speed called orbital velocity, something the Redstone cannot do.
LEE WEBSTER: The Redstone rocket was a single-stage missile. And orbital velocity was difficult to achieve with very much weight back in those days. We didn't have a booster that would do it.
NARRATOR: The concept of orbital velocity was developed by Isaac Newton in the 17th century. Newton figured out what would happen if a cannon fired a projectile from a mountaintop. Each time it fires with more power, the cannonball goes faster and lands farther away.
Eventually, the point of landing is affected by the curvature of the Earth. If the cannonball is propelled fast enough, it never lands at all. As it falls, the Earth curves away beneath it. Gravity keeps it falling; inertia keeps it moving. The cannonball is in orbit.
The necessary speed to achieve orbit, orbital velocity, is roughly 17,000 miles an hour. The top speed of the Redstone is only 4,000 miles an hour, not nearly fast enough to reach orbit. But Wernher Von Braun has an idea.
ERNST STUHLINGER: In 1952, Von Braun and I met in a corridor, and in passing, Von Braun said to me, "Ernst, with the Redstone we could do it." I said, "Do what?" And he said, "Launch a satellite, of course. Can't you see?" And of course I could see immediately.
And then Von Braun, in the corridor, with his fingers out and no paper and no pencil, he drew into this air his plan.
NARRATOR: Von Braun's plan is to add stages, additional rockets stacked on top of the Redstone. They're a way to get more velocity.
When the Redstone reaches maximum speed, the second stage will fire. Once that reaches its maximum, the third stage fires. By adding more speed with each stage, the top stage can finally reach orbital velocity. This small rocket at the very top is actually the satellite.
As the Huntsville team works on the Redstone, Von Braun promotes not only his vision of an eventual satellite, but also his larger dream of space exploration.
ROGER LAUNIUS: Wernher Von Braun was a brilliant popularizer. I don't think there was any question about that. He was able to take his concepts and sell them, both to people who could help him...and he was able to sell it in the United States, to the public. He did so with the famous Hayden Planetarium symposium that took place in 1952, as well as a series of articles in Collier's magazine. Those made him a household name.
NARRATOR: Wernher Von Braun is not the only one with a vision for space. Unknown to Von Braun, in deepest secrecy, president Dwight Eisenhower and his national security advisers are also studying satellites, not for exploration, but for spying on the Soviet Union.
By early 1955, Eisenhower is set on creating a reconnaissance satellite. But the Killian Report has pointed out a problem: the legal status of space has not been defined.
National boundaries extend into the atmosphere, but how far up does territorial airspace go? The answer will be critical to Eisenhower's spy satellite plan.
MICHAEL NEUFELD: The question was would the Soviet Union accept an over-flight by an American satellite over its territory? Would that be a provocation to war? We needed to prove that airspace stopped at the top of the atmosphere, that space was, in fact, a different environment in which there were no limits, which many lawyers, international lawyers, had already been arguing.
NARRATOR: What Eisenhower will do is orbit a small satellite now to set the legal precedent of freedom of space.
ROGER LAUNIUS: You not only have to make the argument from a theoretical perspective, but you have to establish it with some practical application. And launching a satellite into Earth orbit, where it would over-fly all the various nations associated with its flight path, and their not protesting that, would mean that it would help to establish a precedent.
NARRATOR: In May, 1955, the policy is officially adopted. To establish freedom of space, America will proceed with a scientific satellite, and Eisenhower will emphasize the peaceful purposes of the project.
The National Security Council suggests the best way to do that is through the International Geophysical Year, I.G.Y., which is scheduled to run from 1957 through 1958.
JOHN LOGSDON: There was a thing developed, called the International Geophysical Year, that was going to do coordinated international measurements of everything about the Earth. And in both the United States and the Soviet Union, the scientific communities said, "Hey, wouldn't a satellite to do Earth measurements be a good thing to be a part of the I.G.Y.?"
MICHAEL NEUFELD: The idea of the scientific satellite was already out there, but here was a perfect argument for a covert reason to support it on the part of the Eisenhower Administration, to establish the principle of freedom of space.
NARRATOR: In July, 1955, Eisenhower announces the U.S. will launch a scientific satellite as part of I.G.Y.
Within days, the Soviet Union announces it, too, will launch a scientific satellite during I.G.Y.
It is the summer of 1955, two years before Sputnik. The Soviets and Americans have both announced plans for I.G.Y. scientific satellites. President Eisenhower's secret agenda for space is underway.
But Eisenhower has not announced who will build America's first satellite and the rocket to launch it.
One proposal is submitted by Wernher Von Braun's Huntsville team, in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. J.P.L. has pioneered solid fuel rocket technology that will provide the added stages necessary for the Redstone to reach orbital velocity. J.P.L. will also build a satellite, as well as a tracking system to pinpoint the satellite's position in space. Together with Huntsville, it's a winning combination.
The competition is a plan created by a think tank affiliated with the U.S. Navy, the Naval Research Lab.
PAUL DICKSON: It's basically a civilian arm of the Navy. It's a laboratory run by the Navy, paid for by the Navy, but is basically civilian scientists who run it.
NARRATOR: The Navy's proposal, called Vanguard, will also use a multistage rocket. But, whereas the Von Braun/J.P.L. plan uses mostly existing components, the top stage of the Vanguard rocket will be brand new, built from scratch.
RANDY CLINTON: In those days, failures were fairly common with missile systems, so we didn't really think that they would get there right out of the chute. On the other hand, you know, we had a tried and true Redstone booster.
NARRATOR: In early August, 1955, the selection committee picks Vanguard.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: At the Naval Laboratory in Washington, D.C., Dr. John Hagan reveals progress on the manmade satellite of Project Vanguard.
Here's a model of the three-stage carrier rocket...
NARRATOR: The Von Braun team is stunned.
RANDY CLINTON: Oh, there was surprise, and there was anger. We had worked hard to get this thing put together in the short time we had to put it together. And then to lose to what we felt, at the time, was more a political decision less then a merit decision...yeah, there was anger.
LEE WEBSTER: We were pissed off, because we thought we had the best system. And we just thought, you know, somebody didn't know what the hell they were doing to pick this guy, these guys.
NARRATOR: The decision to select Vanguard, made in secret, remains controversial to this day. Historians still debate what went on behind closed doors.
R. CARGILL HALL: The Navy had the better scientific proposal. Their rocket combination, based on a sounding rocket, was weak—the Army had a far better booster to offer—but the Vanguard scientific payload was, by far, superior.
NARRATOR: Ironically, the fact that Vanguard would use a new, unproven rocket may have worked in its favor, because it was a scientific research rocket, not a military weapons carrier, a missile.
JOHN LOGSDON: Eisenhower's first priority was to create a precedent that you could fly satellites over another country's territory. And so we'd adopted a policy of not having a launch vehicle that was also a weapons carrier.
NARRATOR: Others suspect different factors may have been at work.
ROGER LAUNIUS: There may have been some other reasons that were not stated in quite the same way. There was resentment inside the Department of Defense and in other settings in the U.S. government against Wernher Von Braun and the German rocket team that had come to the United States after World War II.
KONRAD DANNENBERG: Some people said President Eisenhower did not want a German team to be the main ingredients of the launch of the first satellite. And I have not seen any written documents on that, but people have mentioned this.
MICHAEL NEUFELD: Von Braun's point of view on all of this was that this was an enormous mistake, because Vanguard was much more difficult to develop. It required more work, more money and more time. As far as he was concerned, objective number one was just to beat the Soviets into orbit.
NARRATOR: For the next two years, Wernher Von Braun and the Huntsville team, working with J.P.L. in California, continue developing their own rocket and satellite project in secret.
JOHN LOGSDON: When the White House chose Vanguard and a Navy program instead, he didn't accept that decision. He kept pushing and pushing through his Army bosses for reconsideration. He stayed in touch with Jim Van Allen, James Van Allen, and the Jet Propulsion Lab, saying kind of, "Just in case the Navy fails, let's have a satellite ready," more or less under the table.
ERNST STUHLINGER: Von Braun had the strict order from Washington not to build a satellite. We were allowed to think about satellites and to make some paper drawings and paper studies, but not more than that. So what we had to do, and what I had to do, was to work at home in my garage, in my garage, and put something together and...because we were not allowed to do it officially.
NARRATOR: In September, 1956, Von Braun and J.P.L. plan a launch to test the ability of a missile warhead to survive high-speed reentry. It's part of their joint work on weapons, but the test uses the same Redstone with added stages that they had proposed for their satellite plan, causing some concern that perhaps Von Braun may be planning to disregard orders.
RANDY CLINTON: We heard that we were going to get an inspection, an audit, a team coming down here to see if we were doing, preparing to do satellite work, because we weren't authorized to do satellite work, okay? So I actually had the satellite in the trunk of my car when the audit team came around. Nobody really gave me an order to do that, but it was sort of like we didn't want the auditors to think we were doing satellite work.
NARRATOR: On September 20, 1956, more than a year before Sputnik, the Redstone with extra stages, called Jupiter-C, is successfully launched, carrying a dummy top stage. Had it carried a satellite instead, history would be different.
LEE WEBSTER: When we fired that, we knew we could put a vehicle in orbit, because we had the velocity that it required. If we'd been given the go-ahead, we could have beat Sputnik by a year. We had the hardware over in Redstone, sitting in warehouses ready to go.
RANDY CLINTON: We could have beat them. And that's the thing that grabbed us, hurt the most, is we knew, ahead of time, that we could have beat them.
NARRATOR: For the next year, the Von Braun team keeps a Redstone rocket stored, ready to put up a satellite, but they conceal what they're doing.
ERNST STUHLINGER: Officially, it was a Redstone, out of the production line, with which we had to check and test the ability of the rocket to stand long-time storage, do you see? That was militarily justifiable. But for us, silently, it was the launcher for the satellite.
NARRATOR: In the Soviet Union, the Russians are working on their I.G.Y. satellite and on missiles. It is now July, 1957, three months before Sputnik.
On July 5, C.I.A. Director Allen Dulles warns the administration that the Soviets are probably capable of launching a satellite soon. The C.I.A. is getting information from U-2 spy planes photographing Russia, a stopgap measure until reconnaissance satellites are ready.
In August, the Soviets announce they have successfully flown the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, a rocket capable of delivering a nuclear bomb halfway across the planet.
The Russian engineer responsible for the Soviet I.C.B.M., the father of the Soviet space program, is Sergei Korolev.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV (Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International Studies): He was like a general. He was like a bright general who know what he want, who can bring all these people together and make them doing what he want, on all levels.
NARRATOR: What Korolev wants is to orbit a satellite. And now that he's tested his I.C.B.M., he'll get the chance.
JOHN LOGSDON: After that successful launch, and only after that, did Sergei Korolev go to Khrushchev and say, "If you give me authorization, I can have, in a couple of months, some small satellite. And we will beat the United States into space."
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: Korolev want to win this race, and he did everything for this. He wanted to be the first. It was a race not between two countries, it was a race between United States and Korolev, personally.
NARRATOR: Korolev knows the West will demand proof of the Soviet accomplishment. He plans to provide it with a simple beeping sound, able to be heard by amateur radio operators all over the world.
ROALD SAGDEEV (Russian Space Physicist): He, from the very beginning, understood that there might be interesting international impact. And he simply installed a little transmitter and antenna to communicate with radio amateurs. And he assumed that they will be able to pick up the signals of the Sputnik. If some of the Western propaganda would cast doubt that Russians launch such an object in space, these independent amateurs would be able to confirm.
NARRATOR: On October 4, 1957, Korolev's plan is set in motion. Sputnik, the world's first satellite, reaches orbit.
As Korolev predicted, amateur radio operators all around the world track the signal and confirm what the Soviets have done.
Having been warned by the C.I.A., Eisenhower is neither surprised nor alarmed. On October 8, four days after Sputnik, he meets with his advisers.
ROGER LAUNIUS: Just a few days after Sputnik was launched, Donald Quarles, from the Department of Defense, is in the Oval Office talking to Eisenhower. And one of the points that he makes is that he thinks that the Soviets have done us a good turn. They had established a precedent of over-flight, exactly what Eisenhower wanted to do initially, and now the Soviets had done it for us.
NARRATOR: But the public doesn't care about legal precedents; all they know is that the Soviets have beaten the U.S. to a major technical milestone.
REPORTER: I ask you, sir, what are we going to do about it?
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (President of the United States, 1953-1961, Press Conference on film): Well, let's take first the Earth satellite, as opposed to the missile, because they're related only indirectly in the physical sense, and in our case, not at all.
JOHN LOGSDON: I think Eisenhower made a very first rate political misjudgment about the impact, both within the United States and in the world, of space achievement.
MICHAEL NEUFELD: Because of the secret intelligence that he had, because of the U-2, he knew for a fact that the Soviet Union was not nearly as big a threat as the hawks and the hysteria mongers seemed to think it was. But the American public couldn't know that, they didn't have this information, and therefore they felt that Eisenhower was asleep at the switch.
NARRATOR: Four weeks later: a second Russian satellite, Sputnik 2, carrying a live dog.
The strong public reaction forces the administration's hand. Now the Von Braun/J.P.L. team gets permission to try and launch their satellite, named Explorer. Von Braun promises to get it done by the end of January.
RANDY CLINTON: We were told, "Whatever component you have on the bird, it better be the best you can do." So it was a mad scramble, people were taking parts off and putting new ones on, and all kinds of things like that. So there was a lot of pressure to be sure that that bird was as well as we could get it and ready for launch.
NARRATOR: At the same time, the Vanguard team is also under pressure, preparing to launch their satellite.
JULIAN DAVIDSON: They were working all night long. I'd leave at night, and they were still working. I'd come in in the morning, and they were still working. I learned a valuable lesson there. If you work people long hours, they'll make mistakes.
NARRATOR: Eight weeks after Sputnik 1, December 6, 1957, on live television, Vanguard rises a few feet, loses power and explodes.
LEE WEBSTER: I hate to say this, but I think we were happy to see it blow up, because we knew that the only other chance that the United States had of getting anything into orbit in a reasonable length of time was our bird.
NARRATOR: By late January, 1958, the Von Braun team is ready with Explorer. The rocket is the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone with extra stages added. The upper stages are built by J.P.L., as is the satellite, which contains scientific instruments designed by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa.
Shortly before midnight, on January 31, 1958, the Jupiter-C lifts off, carrying the Explorer satellite.
LEE WEBSTER: They waited for 90 minutes, and here's the signal coming over, it was...it had made it around and was coming back.
RANDY CLINTON: Once we heard, it was just jumping-up-and-down-pop-the-corks time. And it's hard to describe the feeling.
NARRATOR: Four months after Sputnik, America has its own satellite in orbit.
Explorer will go on to do more science than either Sputnik 1 or 2, detecting bands of radiation surrounding the Earth—the Van Allen belts, named for James Van Allen.
With Explorer, the U.S. has entered what comes to be known as "the space race," a competition Dwight Eisenhower didn't believe in. He wanted spy satellites for national security, but was skeptical whether moving toward a manned space program would be worth the cost.
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (News Press Conference): There never has been one nickel asked for accelerating the program. Never has it been considered as a race.
SUSAN EISENHOWER: I think that he just felt that it was most important to make sure the United States embarked on a sensible, cost-effective program. He never believed in space spectaculars. He always thought it was important to move meticulously forward.
NARRATOR: But the public and the media saw things differently.
JOHN LOGSDON: Once the Soviet Union declared that its space success was an indication of the superiority of the communist way of life, the United States had little chance but to say, "Well, we can do it better." Now, Eisenhower resisted that pretty strongly, but he was fighting a losing battle.
NARRATOR: In 1958, Eisenhower creates a new civilian agency to run America's space program: N.A.S.A. Federal funding for American science and education is also increased, to better compete with the Russians.
In March, 1958, Project Vanguard tries again. Vanguard becomes the second American satellite. Its data proved that the Earth is not perfectly round but slightly pear-shaped. Today, Vanguard remains in space, the oldest artificial satellite still in orbit.
The success of Explorer cements Wernher Von Braun's image as an American hero, the man who put the U.S. back in the race. The U.S. government keeps secret the details of Von Braun's World War II past, which only emerge after his death.
Von Braun's greatest legacy is not the V-2 or Explorer. When Americans reach the moon, in July, 1969, ending the space race, it is a Von Braun rocket, the mighty Saturn 5 that gets them there.
Dwight Eisenhower's space legacy remains largely unknown. Just before he leaves office, in 1960, the spy satellite he wanted, code-named CORONA, finally becomes reality. CORONA begins a revolution in American intelligence gathering.
PAUL DICKSON: The first batch of film, first 20 pounds of film, back from CORONA, in 1960, have more information on them—that one first load of film—than all of the U-2 flights combined.
NARRATOR: Just as Eisenhower hoped, reconnaissance satellites prove to be a bonanza, not only for him, but for every president who follows.
PAUL DICKSON: What he hands off to the presidents who come after him is an amazing amount of information. We know when we go to arms limitations talks, S.A.L.T. talks, all the sort of talks we would go to with the Russians, face to face...we knew exactly where everything was because of these satellites. And they become our trump card.
NARRATOR: For the rest of his life, Dwight Eisenhower never discloses his role in creating one of America's most valuable intelligence tools.
R. CARGILL HALL: If you read Eisenhower's memoirs, the CORONA satellite program, and the other intelligence satellite programs he had approved, all these he took to the grave. He and his advisers didn't say a word.
MICHAEL NEUFELD: The popular understanding of Eisenhower in the late '50s was he was this nice old grandfather who played golf, and other people were running the administration. And, of course, we now know, in fact, that he was very much in command of what was going on behind the scenes—he was paying very close attention to secret intelligence—but that he preferred to keep his hand in this rather hidden.
NARRATOR: For people born after Sputnik, its legacy is technology: satellite weather forecasts, cell phones, GPS and personal computers. But for those who lived through the fall of 1957, Sputnik will always have a deeper, more profound meaning.
ROGER LAUNIUS: For the first time ever, we leave this planet, we go into Earth orbit with a human-made object, and that signals the beginning of a new era, a new age which we call the space age. And the world has fundamentally changed in the 50 years since that took place.
R. CARGILL HALL: I was in college, at that time, and outside my dorm one evening at sunset. And I looked at that in awe thinking that man made this! Sputnik 1 changed everything; it just changed everything.
- Produced by
- Rushmore DeNooyer and Kirk Wolfinger
- Written and Directed by
- Rushmore DeNooyer
- Edited by
- Ryan Shepheard
- Associate Producers
- Melanie Cunningham
- Production Manager
- Donna Huttemann
- Joseph Brunette
- Sound Recordists
- Bob Sullivan
- Narrated by
- Neil Ross
- Robert Neufeld
- Sputnik Animation
- Additional Camera
- Sean Glenn
- Post Department Manager
- Corey Norman
- Online Editor
- Jed Rauscher
- Audio Mix
- Christopher D. Anderson
- Color Correction
- Stephen Baldwin, National Boston
- Archival Material
- Aba Media
Jones Entertainment Group
Lone Wolf Documentary Group
National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institute
New York Public Library
UCLA Film & Television Archive
University of Iowa
Varied Directions INC
- Special Thanks
- Blaine Baggett
Erik M. Conway
Roger & Barbara Easton
R. Cargill Hall
- For Lone Wolf DG
- Chief Consultant and Colleague
- David Hoffman
- NOVA Series Graphics
- yU + co.
- NOVA Theme Music
- Walter Werzowa
- Additional NOVA Theme Music
- Ray Loring
- Post Production Online Editor
- Spencer Gentry
- Closed Captioning
- The Caption Center
- NOVA Administrator
- Ashley King
- Eileen Campion
Lindsay de la Rigaudiere
- Gaia Remerowski
- Production Coordinator
- Linda Callahan
- Raphael Nemes
- Talent Relations
- Scott Kardel, Esq.
- Legal Counsel
- Susan Rosen Shishko
- Assistant Editor
- Alex Kreuter
- Associate Producer, Post Production
- Post Production Supervisor
- Regina O'Toole
- Post Production Editor
- Rebecca Nieto
- Post Production Manager
- Nathan Gunner
- Supervising Producer
- Stephen Sweigart
- Business Manager
- Joseph P. Tracy
- Producers, Special Projects
- Lisa Mirowitz
- Coordinating Producer
- Laurie Cahalane
- Senior Science Editor
- Evan Hadingham
- Senior Series Producer
- Melanie Wallace
- Managing Director
- Alan Ritsko
- Senior Executive Producer
- Paula S. Apsell
A NOVA Production by Lone Wolf Documentary Group for WGBH/Boston
© 2007 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
- (Sputnik I satellite)
- Â© Bettmann/CORBIS
- Â© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation
- Randy Clinton
- Physicist: von Braun Team
- Konrad Dannenberg
- Engineer: von Braun Team
- Julian Davidson
- Engineer: von Braun Team
- Paul Dickson
- Author, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century pauldicksonbooks.com/
- Susan Eisenhower
- National Security Expert/Dwight Eisenhower's Granddaughter www.eisenhowerinstitute.org/about/board/susan_eisenhower.dot
- R. Cargill Hall
- Aerospace Historian
- Sergei Khrushcev
- Senior Fellow, Watson Institute www.watsoninstitute.org/contacts_detail.cfm?id=26
- Roger Launius
- National Air & Space Museum
- John Logsdon
- Space Policy Institute, The George Washington University www.gwu.edu/~spi/
- Michael Neufeld
- Author, Von Braun www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=77317
- Roald Sagdeev
- Russian Space Physicist www.eisenhowerinstitute.org/about/staff/roald_sagdeev.dot
- Ernst Stuhlinger
- Scientist: von Braun Team
- Lee Webster
- Physicist: von Braun Team
50th Anniversary of the Space Age
This NASA multimedia site covers the launch of Sputnik and its effects on the development of the American space program. Browse archival photographs, see 3-D models of Sputnik and its American counterparts, and watch interviews with former astronauts.
The Early Satellites
On this Web site, read about the first manned satellite, the first weather satellite, and the first communications satellite—a 100-foot metal balloon!
Wernher von Braun
German-born scientist Wernher von Braun was instrumental in the development of the early American space program. On this Web site, learn about his life, his discoveries, his work with Walt Disney, and more.
The Times Looks Back: Sputnik
The New York Times offers this collection of its headlines and cover stories from the week Sputnik launched in October 1957.
Sputnik Left Legacy for U.S. Science Education
In this report from NPR's All Things Considered, learn how Sputnik's launch affected science instruction in American schools.
The True Story of Laika the Dog
In this article, learn about the first living animal to enter space with the launch of Sputnik 2.
Sputnik: The Shock of the Century
by Paul Dickson. Walker and Co., 2007.
Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War
by Michael Neufeld. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited
the Space Age
by Matthew Brzezinski. Henry Holt and Co., 2003.
Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race
by Von Hardesty and Gene Eisman. National Geographic Books, 2007.
Our Changing Planet: The View From Space
Edited by Michael D. King, Claire L. Parkinson, Kim C. Partington, and Robin G. Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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