Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Sputnik: The Shock of the Century

by Paul Dickson

(Walker, $19.95, 320 pages, 2001, reissued 2007)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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The event signalled, according to nuclear weapons expert Edward Teller, "a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor." A Washington Post reporter wrote of "a sense of foreboding that the city had not known since" December 1941. Life magazine, writes Paul Dickson, "compared it to the first shot at Lexington and Concord, urging Americans to respond like the Minutemen."

It was accompanied not by explosions and death like the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001, but by a steady "beep-beep-beep" from a one-watt radio transmitter circling the globe; yet the launching of Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, as Mr. Dickson calls it, just as surely prompted a concerted and urgent national response. Forty-four years later, October 4, 1957, continues to reverberate in our national policies on science, technology, education, and military preparedness.

In these first months of responding to the recent terrorism, books like this one are particularly valuable, helping us to place the present event in the context of history and to make decisions that future historians will regard as necessary, courageous, and resulting in an enduring positive impact on civilization.

If the events surrounding the launch of Sputnik are a guide, it won't happen without stumbles. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, though beloved as a national hero, was derided for permitting the Soviet Union to beat the U.S. into space. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, having also successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and long-range ballistic missiles in the same year, touted Communism's greatness and the technical prowess of the U.S.S.R. Yet declassified Cold War documents reveal both the limitations and failures of Soviet technology and Eisenhower's plan to let the Soviets to launch first, thereby establishing the principle that national sovereignty does not extend beyond the atmosphere. Sputnik paved the way for the U.S. to orbit spy satellites, which Ike saw as vital to our national security.

Readers who are familiar with the history and politics of the space program may grow impatient with this book, looking for a more detailed presentation than Mr. Dickson has elected to present. They will chafe at his abbreviated history of manned space flights from Mercury through Apollo. They will ache for a whole book devoted to Mr. Dickson's final chapter on Sputnik's legacy. They will crave more insight into the prickly and controversial Wernher von Braun and his high-profile activities. They will want to know more about the inter-service and inter-agency rivalries that both promoted and threatened progress in space and military technology.

This book is not for them but for readers looking for 250 pages of solid overview and extensive backmatter to guide them to more detail. When their emotional response to September 11 gives way to useful action, a look back on the shock of and response to Sputnik's launch will serve them well.

Fred Bortz, author of science books for young readers, was an eighth grader as he watched Sputnik cross the heavens. Nine years later, he was the beneficiary of a Sputnik-inspired government fellowship program that enabled him to earn a Ph.D. in physics.