Sharp-eyed stargazers on the night of October 4, 1957, would have noticed a tiny unblinking point of light moving silently across the night sky, its glow waxing and waning.
The world in those days was far less polluted by background light than it is today: interstate freeways were still a theoretical idea, electric lighting had yet to spread to many parts of the world, and 24-hour businesses were virtually unheard of. Much of the world remained agrarian and used premodern lighting by candle or kerosene. Yet the tiny light that tracked across the unpolluted cosmos of 1957 was a herald of the future.
The next morning, Pravda, and other Soviet newspapers, announced “the first successful launch of a satellite” to the world. Pravda put a distinctively communist spin on the news, arguing that “artificial satellites from the Earth will pave the way to interplanetary travel… our contemporaries are destined to witness how the freed and meaningful labor of the people of the new, socialist society will transform humanity’s most daring dreams into a reality.”
American officials – who surely numbered among the unnamed “contemporaries” that Pravda had in mind – were flabbergasted. Although both the Soviets and the United States had been preparing long-distance rocket programs since the early 1950s, the launch of Sputnik caught President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration by surprise. In public, of course, the President sought to downplay the news, laconically describing it as “one small ball in the air.” A presidential aide, Sherman Adams, took an even more disdainful stance: he quipped that American satellites (when they appeared) would be used for legitimate research and not for competition in what he called “an outer-space basketball game.”