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Sputnik Declassified

Program Overview

Through declassified documents, archival photos, and interviews with historians, participants, and experts, NOVA reveals the story behind America's pursuit of a satellite, and what caused the United States to lag behind Sputnik 1, the first satellite launched in 1957.

The program:

  • points out that the story begins in World War II, with the experiences of two significant figures: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Wernher von Braun.

  • reports on how Eisenhower's 30-plus years in the military made avoiding another war his highest priority.

  • chronicles von Braun's childhood dream of pioneering space travel in order to explore, and reports on how that dream was harnessed by the German military for its own purposes.

  • discloses that Pearl Harbor showed Eisenhower the need for having accurate information about the intentions and capabilities of America's enemies.

  • reviews Eisenhower's formation of a secret committee to determine the best way to avoid a surprise attack by the Soviets.

  • discloses the committee's recommendations to develop reconnaissance satellites to provide reliable information on threats to the United States.

  • explains the committee's directive to establish the freedom of space for all nations through a scientific Earth satellite program, as a means to set a precedent that would allow the spy satellite Eisenhower wanted.

  • illustrates how in 1687 Isaac Newton first described how firing a cannon from the top of a mountain could create a satellite.

  • traces Germany's development of the ballistic missile and reports how the team led by Wernher von Braun tackled propulsion, cooling, aerodynamic, and guidance challenges.

  • recounts how during World War II the German V-2 ballistic missiles were mass-produced in an underground factory staffed by slave laborers from concentration camps.

  • notes how the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year set the stage for development of the first satellite.

  • details the two leading proposals in the U.S. efforts to build a satellite—one by an army team led by von Braun and another by the Naval Research Laboratory—and reports on the controversy surrounding the choice, and secret reasons behind it.

  • chronicles how the Soviets, after experiencing serious delays with their original satellite development, switched gears and quickly assembled and successfully launched the beach-ball sized, 184-pound satellite named Sputnik.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after program is recorded off the air.

Teacher's Guide
Sputnik Declassified