"...there is now more reason to wonder whether America can take the steps that would lead it back toward a path of innovation, opportunity, solvency, and promise. William Harris and Steven Beschloss do a systematic and convincing job of showing how Americans can make these changes--and what will happen if we don't."
National correspondent for The Atlantic
It was a tiny speck in the black night sky, 560 miles from earth and traveling at a speed of 18,000 miles an hour. Sputnik 1, a shiny aluminum sphere about twice the size of a basketball and weighing just 184 pounds, rocketed into space on October 4, 1957. Launched by the Soviets, the silver satellite with four radio antennae ushered in the Space Age with a simple message: beep,beep, beep.
That radio transmission was a sound heard round the world, triggering a combination of admiration, confusion, and fear from Americans. Circling the globe every ninety-six minutes, Sputnik provided a vivid symbol of the Soviet Union's capacity for scientific and technological superiority. Millions of Americans, dazzled by this stunning human achievement, gathered at night to try and catch a glimpse of Sputnik traveling overhead. Many, beset by darker concerns about the Soviets' intentions, worried that this was more than a satellite to study space--this was a Cold War demonstration of an intercontinental missile capable of transporting atomic bombs, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
The startling success of Sputnik 1--followed by the launch of Sputnik 2 a month later with the dog Laika on board--was a serious blow to American prestige and morale. It was a wake-up call for Americans who had grown complacent in their presumption of American dominance. It was a shock to the system, representing a "technological Pearl Harbor," as David Halberstam put it, and a worldwide boon to Soviet propaganda hailing Communism as the more advanced system. Yet even though Sputnik wrought havoc with American pride, it also presented the United States with a rare gift, a singular moment for reflection and action--to focus its collective mind, question what it had accomplished and where it was failing, then think boldly about the future. With the calm leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Sputnik spurred a fresh emphasis on basic research and the importance of science and math education to the nation's success, even its very survival.