Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.
Loory: Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union launched a polished aluminum ball about the size of a beach ball into space orbit. The beep-beep from its two radio transmitters reverberated around the world, announcing the beginning of the space age. Sputnik, the first orbiting space vehicle, raised Russia’s image as an international superpower. Within four years, the Soviets placed the first living being, the dog Laika, into orbit and launched the first moon probe, Lunar 1. In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. The achievements, to borrow a phrase from contemporary history, brought shock and awe to the United States. The first American attempts to launch a satellite ended in failure. A vanguard rocket, launched two months after Sputnik, rose only four feet before it crashed and exploded on the launch pad. The Soviet Union was off to a fast head start in the space race, an important part of the Cold War. Its achievements brought a new emphasis on scientific education to the U.S. and also a determination to better efforts at space exploration. But things did turn around, and they turned around quickly. Space competition has transformed into space cooperation, and it has settled into a routine that no longer generates the same excitement it once did. John Noble Wilford covered the Apollo program to put a man on the moon. What were the first days of the space program like for the U.S. and for the rest of the world?
John Noble Wilford, science correspondent, The New York Times, New York: There was a great deal of anxiety, surprise and even shock at the Soviet achievement. Americans thought they had technology as their special province and that the Soviets were backward regarding technology. But when the U.S. saw Sputnik and heard the beep, beep, beep going round the world, it raised apprehensions about the U.S.’s ability to compete with the Soviet Union.
Loory: The Soviets never thought that this achievement would be taken so seriously, did they?
Vladimir Isachenkov, reporter, The Associated Press, Moscow: Sergei Korolyov, the father of the space program, realized the magnitude of the event. He had been thinking for years about Russia’s need to be the first in space, to beat the U.S. He persuaded the reluctant Soviet leadership to divert resources from the main effort of building an intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of hitting the U.S. When development of the missile hit a snag in 1957, Korolyov used the window of opportunity to build a simple satellite. The official name for Sputnik in the Soviet Union was PS1, meaning the simplest satellite, and the Russians built it in three months. When they launched it, everyone from engineers to Communist Party big shots failed to realize its importance. Only Korolyov did. When people saw that the entire world was running amok about Sputnik, the Soviet leadership began bragging about it. It was an unforeseen, impromptu offspring of the main effort of building the ballistic missile.
Loory: Korolyov’s identity was kept secret, and he was known throughout the world only as the chief designer. Wernher Von Braun, who came from the German rocket site Peenemunde, was his U.S. equivalent. What is Von Braun’s importance?
Wolfgang Goede, editor, PM magazine, Munich, Germany: Von Braun invented the rockets that made it possible that Sputnik was launched. He was a member of the Nazi Party and had a special relationship with Adolf Hitler. Von Braun convinced Hitler to build these rockets and to hit London with them. He even convinced Hitler that the rockets might be the ultimate weapon to win the war. When the Americans and the Russians won the war, Von Braun surrendered himself. He would have had to stand trial at Nuremburg, but instead he was taken directly to the U.S. to become part of the space program.
Loory: Could the U.S. have achieved what it did in the ’50s and ’60s without Von Braun?
Wilford: Certainly not at the rapid pace that ensued because Von Braun was in the U.S. and was primed to put something into space himself. The Pentagon clamped down on him and said, “Don’t you dare put a satellite on the Jupiter missile you’re developing. We want this to be a civilian program, and the first satellites to go up should be civilian.” But as soon as Sputnik occurred, Von Braun was liberated and proceeded to develop the Explorer I, which was launched in late January of the next year.
Loory: Now many countries are involved in space exploration. Some think the Chinese program represents a threat to the U.S. Is that the case?
Chris Bodeen, correspondent, The Associated Press, Beijing: The program has taken off since about 2003, when China launched its first manned mission, sending a man into orbit around the earth. Next year, China plans to launch its third manned mission, which will include a moon walk — a precursor to docking and launching spacecraft to meet up with space orbiting space stations. So it’s possible China could get a person on the moon before the U.S. gets one there again. That’s a psychological threat, but whether the national security interest is involved is hard to say. The Chinese space program has elements of that Cold War rivalry — national prestige, control of space and control of resources. But it also has elements intent on finding practical purposes.
Loory: Is the U.S. committed to building an international space station and carrying out space programs with Russia and the European Space Agency, or could it go back to an individual program?
Wilford: The international space station probably won’t revert to a singular U.S. project. It’s very expensive and no one has determined its purpose other than drawing other nations into cooperative positions regarding space. Presumably, it would give us capabilities or an understanding of what is required for long-duration human flight, but that is a far-off objective, and the space station doesn’t have a great priority in the U.S. today.
Loory: One rationale for space exploration years ago was the impact it would have in terms of weather and communication satellites. Have there been other benefits to earth-based science?
Wilford: The reconnaissance satellites were great for the U.S. because the Soviet Union was a closed society. The U.S. was able to quickly develop “spy” satellites and that stabilized the Cold War to some extent. The U.S. knew more of what the Russians were doing than it would have known otherwise. We’ve also gone to all of the planets except Pluto with robotic satellites, which has been an enormous achievement.
Goede: A huge deal has been made of exploring the solar system, but the question remains whether it’s a cheap escape to opening one’s eyes and looking at the problems on earth.
Loory: In 1969, Richard Nixon had a state dinner to honor the astronauts who returned from the moon. At that dinner, I noticed Von Braun and Billy Graham sitting together for a long time. Afterward, I approached them and said, “What did you two talk about?” Von Braun said to me, without losing a beat, “We talked about guidance, divine and inertial.” And that sort of summarized what space exploration is all about.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Devin Benton, Yue Li, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.