Sputnik: The Shock of the Century

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9781600310249: Sputnik: The Shock of the Century

On October 4, 1957, as Leave It to Beaver premiered on American television, the Soviet Union launched the space age. Sputnik, all of 184 pounds with only a radio transmitter inside its highly polished shell, became the first man-made object in space; while it immediately shocked the world, its long-term impact was even greater, for it profoundly changed the shape of the twentieth century. Washington journalist Paul Dickson chronicles the dramatic events and developments leading up to and emanating from Sputnik's launch. Supported by groundbreaking, original research and many recently declassified documents, Sputnik offers a fascinating profile of the early American and Soviet space programs and a strikingly revised picture of the politics and personalities behind the facade of America's fledgling efforts to get into space. By shedding new light on a pivotal era, Paul Dickson expands our knowledge of the world we now inhabit, and reminds us that the story of Sputnik goes far beyond technology and the beginning of the space age, and that its implications are still being felt today. --Publisher

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About the Author:

Paul Dickson is the author of more than 45 nonfiction books and hundreds of magazine articles. Although he has written on a variety of subjects from ice cream to kite flying to electronic warfare, he now concentrates on writing about the American language, baseball and 20th century history. Dickson, born in Yonkers, NY, graduated from Wesleyan University in 1961 and was honored as a Distinguished Alumnae of that institution in 2001. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy and later worked as a reporter for McGraw-Hill Publications. Since 1968, he has been a full-time freelance writer contributing articles to various magazines and newspapers, including Smithsonian, Esquire, The Nation, Town & Country, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post and writing numerous books on a wide range of subjects. He received a University Fellowship for reporters from the American Political Science Association to do his first book, Think Tanks (1971). For his book The Electronic Battlefield (1976), about the impact automatic weapons systems have had on modern warfare, he received a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to support his efforts to get certain Pentagon files declassified. His book The Bonus Army: An American Epic, written with Thomas B. Allen,was published by Walker and Co on February 1, 2005. It tells the dramatic but largely forgotten story of the approximately 45,000 World War I veterans who marched on Washington in the summer of 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, to demand early payment of a bonus promised them for their wartime service and of how that march eventually changed the course of American history and led to passage of the GI Bill-- the lasting legacy of the Bonus Army. A documentary based on the book aired on PBS stations in May 2006 and an option for a feature film based on the book has been sold. Dickson's most recent baseball book, The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign Stealing Have Influenced the Course of our National Pastime, also by Walker and Co, was first published in May, 2003 and came out in paperback in June, 2005. It follows other works of baseball reference including The Joy of Keeping Score, Baseball s Greatest Quotations, Baseball the President s Game and The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, now in it's second edition. A third edition is currently in the works. The original Dickson Baseball Dictionary was awarded the 1989 Macmillan-SABR Award for Baseball Research. Sputnik: the Shock of the Century, another Walker book, came out in October, 2001 and was subsequently issued in paperback by Berkeley Books. Like his first book, Think Tanks (1971), and his latest, Sputnik was born of his first love investigative journalism. Dickson is working on a feature documentary about Sputnik with acclaimed documentarians David Hoffmanand Kirk Wolfinger. Two of his older language books, Slang and Label For Locals came out in the fall of 2006 in new and expanded versions. Dickson is a founding member and former president of Washington Independent Writers and a member of the National Press Club. He is a contributing editor at Washingtonian magazine and a consulting editor at Merriam-Webster, Inc and is represented by Premier Speakers Bureau, Inc. and the Jonathan Dolger Literary agency. He currently lives in Garrett Park, Maryland with his wife Nancy who works with him as his first line editor, and financial manager.

From Booklist:

October 4, 1957, was my tenth birthday. Long after the festivities, I was in bed, snuggled under my Roy Rogers bedspread and enjoying my best present--a new transistor radio in a snappy leather case. This was a clandestine operation since I had been ordered to go to sleep hours ago. The radio, under the cover of Roy, was playing softly as I scanned the dial. Rather than the rock 'n' roll I sought, what I heard was the excited voice of a newscaster discussing something called Sputnik, a Russian satellite that had just been launched and, judging by the newscaster's agitated tone, should be a cause of great concern to everyone.

At this point, my knowledge of the Russians was a bit sketchy. I knew, of course, that they were the bad guys, responsible for making me practice hiding under my desk to ward off fallout in the event of a nuclear attack. I knew, too, that the Russians were supposed to be very smart and very tough. I knew this because my uncle often chided my cousin and I for our lag-about ways by telling us that someday we were going to have to fight the Russians, and he--a veteran of the European theater in World War II--happened to know that they were "smart, tough sons of bitches." His prediction seemed to be coming true on my tenth birthday. I hadn't expected to be forced to fight the Russians quite so soon, and I certainly hadn't expected to contend with missiles fired from the moon (which the newscaster was saying would be the inevitable next step, after Sputnik). I didn't yet know how to spell Sputnik, but I did know it was big trouble.

In the following days and weeks, I quickly realized that I wasn't the only one worried about the Russians and their satellites, but somehow I never lost the notion that the first Sputnik belonged to me. In some part of my mind, I think I assumed that I was the first private citizen in the U.S. to hear the news. Who else would be up in the middle of the night listening to the radio? (In fact, the launch had occurred some hours before I heard about it, but it was inconceivable to me that anything newsworthy might have taken place during my birthday party.) So even as the decades rolled by, as the word Sputnik first became a part of popular culture and then receded from center stage, I continued to nod quietly to myself every time I heard the name, secure in the belief that, although everyone claimed a knowledge of Sputnik, I had a special, even secret, relationship with it.

About 20 years ago, when I happened to interview Stephen King, I had my first inkling that I might have to share a little bit of Sputnik. It turns out that King was also celebrating his tenth birthday in the fall of 1957 (on September 21, just a few days before the launch) and was also shaken by the idea of the Russians in space--so much so that he contends to this day that Sputnik was a key factor in his becoming a writer of horror fiction. Well, maybe so, but he wasn't born on October 4, and he didn't have a Roy Rogers bedspread.

After reading Paul Dickson's fascinating Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, I'm afraid my illusions are shattered once and for all. Sputnik was a slut, a tramp, and she enjoyed special relationships with virtually the entire population of the U.S. alive on October 4, 1957. Dickson has all the details: the Stephen King story is there, but that's just the beginning. Little Richard was so shocked by the appearance of Sputnik in the sky as he was performing an outdoor concert that he renounced rock 'n' roll (temporarily) and became a preacher. Ross Perot was inspired by Sputnik to create an electronics dynasty. And countless other Americans, great and small, remember the launch of Sputnik as a turning point in their lives. Damn.

As disappointed as I was to read of Sputnik's infidelity, I was also caught up in the scientific and social history surrounding the satellite's creation and its aftermath. Dickson makes the space race come alive in layman's language, and he shows how the shock of the Russians being first at something galvanized this country in all sorts of far-reaching ways. Who would have thought, for example, that Sputnik was responsible for the Summer of Love? Here's how it worked: Sputnik proved the Russians were doing a better job than we were at education, prompting the National Defense Education Act, which stressed science but also advocated creative and independent thought. A generation removed from Sputnik, young people wearied of science but used their NDEA-funded independent thinking skills to challenge the establishment on everything from civil rights and Vietnam to long hair and free love. That Sputnik was some satellite--but I've known that for 44 years. Bill Ott
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