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.
But such problems were less challenging than getting high-quality work out of the Soviet industrial system. To put an object into space, the designer would need revolutionary electronics, and machine work done to exquisite tolerances. For funds, he would have to compete with projects like a single-stage nuclear-tipped missile, a submarine that launched nuclear-tipped missiles, improved nuclear bombs, and defensive radar and missile systems.
Compromise was unavoidable. Unable to produce the lighter materials and smaller payloads envisioned by American rocketeers, the Soviets were forced to build a much more powerful rocket, so it could lift extremely heavy weights. As for sophisticated satellite instruments, the Chief Designer had to build a simpler setup with radio equipment, batteries, and a cooling system, which would be sealed inside a 30-pound metal ball less than 2 feet in diameter.
But here he reached the end of all possible compromises. To protect the instruments from heat, the ball would have to be extremely reflective, so the sun's rays would bounce away. No flaws, smudges, or inconsistencies could be tolerated. He put his satellite on a stand, wrapped it in velvet, and announced that it should be made with the care that would go into an artist's masterwork.
By mid-September 1957, the first shiny ball was done, and workers had attached to it four long antennas, giving it the appearance of a spider. The satellite weighed about 180 pounds. It was formally named Prosteshyy Sputnik"simplest fellow traveler."
Besides choosing a place that could only be described as Godforsaken, the Soviets had gone to great lengths to hide the largest of its cosmodromesit covered 660 square milesfrom the outside world. Its very name, Baykonur, was a lie. The real Baykonur was 200 miles away. Although the treeless terrain was ideal for tracking missiles, it punished inhabitants with swirling dust, searing summer heat, and brutal winter cold.
On October 3, all was ready at Baykonur. The R-7 was moved by locomotive along a short railroad track from its hangar to the launchpad. Once it was set in place, huge metal struts that angled up from the pad to the rocket's flanks were raised and secured. Just before 6 a.m. on October 4, crews began to load the machine with liquid oxygen and kerosene, which, when combined and ignited, would provide 876,000 pounds of thrust.
When night fell, the countdown continued. The steel supports were drawn back from the rocket. As the Chief Designer watched and waited for signs that would force him to halt the countdown, he could only trust that his decades of sacrifice and suffering had been enough. But according to reliable sources, he had also performed a good-luck ritual: Hours before, he had stood beside his towering creation and relieved himself on it.
Around midnight, when the countdown reached zero, a young lieutenant pressed the button to ignite the R-7. Fire and smoke poured out of the roaring engine as the massive rocket lifted off and picked up speed. Racing into the night sky at roughly 18,000 miles per hour, it carried Sputnik on a roaring flame that could be seen by precious few as it arced over scattered farms and a vast desert, racing toward Siberia.
Beeping. The observers waited for a report from a tracking station on the Kamchatka peninsula, more than 3,000 miles to the east. Soon word came that this listening post had picked up the distinctive beep of the satellite's radio transmitter. Excitement swept through the crowd. But the Chief Designer would not celebrate until his creation returned from the other side of the world.
Soon one listening post and then another reported hearing Sputnik's return to the sky over the U.S.S.R. [All told, it completed 1,400 orbits around the Earth, about 1 every 90 minutes.] Tears filled the Chief Designer's eyes as his dream was achieved. "The road to the stars," he told the crowd at Baykonur, "is now open."
Some say Khrushchev was beaming as he made a brief announcement from Kiev's Mariyinsky Palace. "The Americans have proclaimed to the world that they are preparing to launch a satellite of the Earth," he said, according to one source. "Theirs is only the size of an orange. We, on the other hand, now have a satellite circling the planet. And not a little one, but one that weighs 80 kilos."
Others say that Khrushchev didn't immediately grasp the significance of the accomplishment and its propaganda value. The Soviet leader, they say, prized only advances with apparent practical purposes, like new tractors and airplanes. The party newspaper Pravda published a mere three paragraphs on the event, and the item did not even lead the front page.
Soon enough, though, all that the Chief Designer had done would be obvious to the rest of the world.
From A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey by Michael D'Antonio. Copyright © 2007 by Michael D'Antonio. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York.