It is hard to imagine that a metal ball about the size of a basketball could throw the United States into panic. But 50 years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit, Americans went into collective shock. To them, the Soviet Union embodied a nation of collective farms, drab cities and household appliances that rarely worked. Sputnik’s success completely altered this view, as the Soviets took the first baby steps into the final frontier of outer space. Beyond its political and scientific importance, the success of Sputnik also underscored the vulnerability of the United States: After all, if the Soviets could launch a satellite that flew around the world, they could also deliver an atomic bomb to the enemy. U.S. efforts to reach the high frontier were bogged down by fierce inter-service rivalry, major missteps, ill-advised decisions and just plain bad luck. From 1955, Medaris, a veteran of two world wars, consistently advanced von Braun’s idea of using a Redstone long-range rocket to lob a U.S. satellite into space. These entreaties fell on deaf ears, as senior Defense Department officials were interested in neither ICBMs nor satellites. Instead, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration funded a parallel civilian project known as Vanguard. In the aftershock of Sputnik, when Vanguard was launched, it exploded in full view of a television audience of millions. With newspaper headlines screaming “Flopnik!,” Medaris finally extracted permission to go ahead with von Braun’s project. Less than two months later, in January 1958, Medaris and von Braun finally had a satellite, Explorer-1, in orbit.
By Asif Siddiqi to The St. Petersburg Times