October 1, 2007

50 Years Ago in News History: Sputnik Launches Space Age

The Baltimore News-Post, Oct. 5, 1957 (Newseum collection)
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The Baltimore News-Post, Oct. 5, 1957 (Newseum collection)

The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville, Oct. 5, 1957 (Newseum collection)
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The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville, Oct. 5, 1957 (Newseum collection)

The Evening Sun, Baltimore, Oct. 7, 1957 (Newseum collection)
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The Evening Sun, Baltimore, Oct. 7, 1957 (Newseum collection)

Los Angeles Evening Herald Express, Oct. 7, 1957 (Newseum collection)
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Los Angeles Evening Herald Express, Oct. 7, 1957 (Newseum collection)

“Russ ‘Moon’ Circling Earth”
                   — The Baltimore News-Post, Oct. 5, 1957

The Soviet Union surprised Americans in 1957 with news of the Oct. 4 launch of the first space satellite, creating excitement about a new scientific era but suspicion about the creators of Sputnik, a globe the size of a basketball that orbited Earth.

“Reds Win Satellite Race,” The Baltimore News-Post said on Oct. 5, 1957. Its United Press story from London reported: “A triumphant Moscow broadcast today hailed the victory as the first stage of projected flights to the moon.”

The satellite could be seen “with naked eye” in the distant sky in some places, and radio signals were picked up, The Evening Sun in Baltimore reported. “The pulsating radio “beep” of the satellite signaled to the world that man had crossed the threshold into the age of space travel,” the News-Post said. (Listen to the original Sputnik signal.)

It was the Cold War, and the United States and the Soviet Union eyed each other cautiously. “Russ” and “Reds” were headline words in the U.S. In a front-page analysis for the News-Post, a science writer asked: “Is this globe-girdling moon dominating every inhabited area of the world a symbol of horror? Or will it become an emblem of a peaceful, co-operative assault on the secrets of outer space?”

Threat or triumph, Sputnik — called a “moon” for lack of another term — tickled the imagination. The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville published an Associated Press wirephoto – an early info graphic – that illustrated the satellite’s predicted orbit.

Two days later, on Oct. 7, the Los Angeles Evening Herald Express reported that “part of the missile which launched Russia’s satellite is also circling the earth in a moon-like orbit of its own.” The newspaper also reported “a new 1957 low … as Wall Street pondered the implications.”

There was foreshadowing. The Evening Herald Express included an artist’s interpretation of a “proposed manned satellite on moon.” The Florida Times-Union printed a picture of the Vanguard rocket, which was being readied to launch the first U.S. satellite. (It burst into flames in failure in December 1957 at Cape Canaveral, Fla.)

The Space Coast’s newspaper, Florida Today, wasn’t launched until nine years after Sputnik, but it will report on the 50th anniversary. In Houston, home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the Chronicle marked the anniversary on Sept. 30 with the article “Soviet-Spawned Fears in U.S. Give Way to Cooperation — and Uncertainty.”

Sputnik’s place in the history of news is illustrated in the Newseum’s News History and Internet, TV and Radio galleries.

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