The drama of Sputnik

The Soviet Union’s Sputnik rocket, launched in late 1957, impacted mightily on both the Cold War arms race and the efforts to bring in nuclear power. It suddenly and unexpectedly announced to the world that the East, regarded as technologically backward, might well be leading the space race. I love skilful, exuberant prose, and no doubt you do also, so I bring to you a delightful couple of sections of Stephen Walker’s 2021 book, Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space:

Sputnik’s success unleashed an unprecedented orgy of self-laceration and hysteria in the American press, not only because it was so manifestly a technological triumph but because, quite literally overhead, it appeared to leave the United States’ citizens hideously vulnerable to the possibility of other, more unambiguously hostile, Soviet machines that might very soon be coming their way, flying at terrific speeds and unassailable altitudes way above their head. … The navy was still working on that job when Sputnik was launched, and it did not help that Eisenhower not only hopelessly underestimated the public’s anger at the whole affair but also hopelessly underplayed its significance. Airily claiming that ‘Sputnik does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota,’ and wondering what all the fuss was about over ‘one small ball in the air,’ he went on to enjoy a game of golf when the story first broke.

Walker, Stephen. 2021. Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave our Planet and Journey into Space. William Collins, London, pp. 52-53.
Stephen Walker Beyond cover