A Shift in the Cold War Balance
With the launch of Sputnik, The Soviets open a new Frontier and catch America off guard
In the 1950s, as the only two states armed with atomic weapons and the means to deliver them, the Soviet Union and the United States occupied similarly nervous psychological positions. In a constant state of stalemate, they planned attacks while knowing that any first move would bring massive retaliation and death. The Soviets scanned American military bases and saw threats in every direction. For their part, American leaders considered the U.S.S.R. to be devoted to the annihilation of the United States. Everyone knew there was no defense against missiles armed with atomic bombs. Worse, the bombs were controlled by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchevbelieved to be emotional, shrewd, unreliable, and dangerous.
It was against this Cold War context that the very same Soviets who had so much trouble making decent beer and gasoline stunned the Americans by launching the first satellite into outer space. Suddenly, the Soviets had opened a new frontier for explorationand changed the balance of Cold War competition.
in the fall of 1957, a determined Soviet engineer arrived in the capital with a historic purpose. Short and heavy, with deeply set eyes, the 51-year-old had devoted his life to achieving a fantastic goal, which was at last within his grasp. Although his work would soon be hailed around the world, his name remained a mystery for years. For security reasons and so that the state would get credit for his achievements, he was referred to only as "the Chief Designer."
To reach this moment, the Chief Designer had suffered in ways that were possible only in a totalitarian world. In 1938, he had been caught up in one of the many purges carried out by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Tortured and beaten until he confessed to trumped-up charges, the Chief Designer spent six years in prison. Along the way, he came close to starving to death and nearly died from exposure.
He was "rehabilitated" after he completed studies in Marxism and Leninism. And in the spring of 1957, the Soviet government officially acknowledged that he had been wrongly imprisoned. Remarkably, his loyalty to communism remained unshaken. Only those who knew him well recognized the subtle signslike his tendency to collect and consume the crumbs around his dinner platethat betrayed his past suffering.
Atomic bombs. Obsessed with flight, the Chief Designer had helped lead the development of a series of rockets that culminated with the R-7, a giant capable of hurling atomic bombs a distance of 4,350 miles. In August of 1957, an R-7 flew for more than 4,000 miles. For the world, the flight of "Old No. 7" was ominous: As the first launch vehicle capable of carrying a nuclear weapon from one hemisphere to another, it put all of Europe and parts of North America within range of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
The hawks in the U.S. Defense Department immediately saw military superiority shifting to the East. Worried as it was about atomic attack, America's defense community was less focused on the Chief Designer's other purpose: the conquest of space. Yet space was the obsession that had helped him endure the gulag, the frustrations of the Soviet system, and the hardships at the U.S.S.R.'s isolated rocket facilities; at the main launch center, winters were so severe that a man who lost his way in a storm would literally freeze to death.