Already jittery from nuclear drills and the threat of “reds under the bed,” America in 1957 could still find solace in the comforting illusion that the Soviets, while dangerous, were hopelessly backward. “If the Russians built a dam,” an Army officer stationed in Berlin was quoted as saying, “the water would flow backwards.” True, the Soviets had the bomb. But the perception, from the halls of government to John Q. Citizen, was that they had acquired atomic capability not through honest research but through the efforts of American traitors like the Rosenbergs.
The launch of Sputnik, the world’s first space missile, on October 4, 1957, changed all of that. Panic spread across the land, encapsulated perfectly by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson’s avowal that the Soviets now possessed the capability to drop nuclear bombs on the United States “like rocks from a highway overpass.” Soviet science was suddenly seen as a formidable threat. American engineers and test pilots, soon to be labeled astronauts, now had as much importance as bomb makers and the Air Force Interceptor Command. The space race had begun.
Culturally, Sputnik became a code-word for more than American terror. Navy and Army officers wanting to put down their Air Force comrades would ask them, “How are you handling Sputnik, fly boy?” Hollywood soon tried to make a buck on these fears by producing such B-movies as “Red Planet Mars,” whose title echoed the warring superpowers’ ambitions to colonize space.
Sputnik reinforced Khrushchev’s political position in a period when communist hard-liners were attempting to oust him. And he solves the mystery of why America was seemingly behind the Soviet Union in 1957: a cost-conscious Eisenhower, his eye always on slashing the budget, concentrated on building bombers capable of reaching Russian soil — that is, until the public relations fallout from Sputnik forced him to respond.
Eisenhower initially thought that the Democrats were trying to make a campaign issue out of Russian superiority, and he was right. Senator John Kennedy sensed a campaign slogan forming, and his speeches were soon peppered with lines about “getting the country moving again,” which in a sense meant propelling up and away. And the big, deceptively clumsy, American government did get moving again: Werner Von Braun, rehabilitated from making rockets for the Nazis in 1944 to heading America’s space system, was able, after several embarrassing attempts, to launch U.S satellite spaceward.
From the vantage point of the third-world conflict that the Cold War would become, the space race was a non-violent contest in which capitalist America, failing to win hearts and minds in Vietnam, would nevertheless eventually prevail. Never mind Kruschev’s boasts of communists putting the first human footprints on the moon. It was an American boot that touched down on the moon in 1969, placing a plaque bearing the name of Kruschev’s nemesis, Richard Nixon.