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There is something to the theory that some American functionaries had the idea to let the Soviets to launch a satellite first - a "Reichstag fire" excuse might have been in their character, looking from today's perspective. Even that media shock might look somewhat familiarly directed now.

But frankly, there seems to be a bit too much revision going on suddenly. It is way too comfortable an explanation for the American lag up till the Moon landing. Why would Americans weight future events without empirical precedents so objectively only so sporadically?

It is especially suspicious when Charles Krauthammer is making a similiar story.

We had no idea how lucky we were with Sputnik. The subsequent panic turned out to be an enormous boon. The fear of falling behind the Communists induced the federal government to pour a river of money into science and math education. The result was a generation of scientists who gave us not only Apollo and the moon, but the sinews of the information age -- for example, ARPA that created ARPANET that became the Internet -- that have assured American technological dominance to this day.

There was another lucky outcome of Sputnik. Two years earlier, President Eisenhower had proposed "Open Skies" under which the U.S. and Russia would permit spy-plane overflights so each would know the other's military capabilities. The idea was to reduce mutual uncertainty and strengthen deterrence. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rejected the idea out of hand.

The advent of the orbiting satellite circumvented the objection. By 1960, we had launched our first working spy satellite. But our greatest luck was the fact that the Soviets got to space first. Sputnik orbiting over the United States -- and Eisenhower never protesting a violation of U.S. sovereignty -- established forever the principle that orbital space is not national territory but is as free and open as the high seas. Had we beaten the Russians into orbit -- and we were only a few months behind -- Khrushchev might very well have protested our presence over sovereign Soviet territory and reserved the right to one day (the technology was still years away) shoot us down.


His think tank apparently forgot that a government can never be so effective in education... More seriously, I doubt much that it could had been reasonable to object space fly-overs, or expect such objections.

I certainly disagree with this statement in your diary:

Now we also know that the intent of Sputnik was precisely to demonstrate this threat, not to start an era of space exploration, though that was a common dream of some Soviet scientists as well as Americans.

I used reports with the same Chertov's remarks in my diary. Sputnik 1 was spontaneously conceived, with the obvious intent to be first in the space. It does demonstrate the past Soviet threat - once we know what Chertov said recently. But the R-7's were not initially planned for cosmic launches; even if Eisenhauer knew their real purpose then, the demonstration turns out to be not so intentional.

But then again, how much can we trust any new "historical" disclosures? Some devil advocacy of old understanding might be welcome.

by das monde on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 05:05:36 AM EST

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