Sputnik 1, the Space Race and the Role of the US Press: Reporting or Creating Reality?

The “ideological challenge” between the USSR and the US, between communism and (democratic) capitalism or liberalism, which Fukuyama describes, knows many memorable moments (Fukuyama 8). One of these moments is the launch of Sputnik 1. Before October 4th 1957, the date on which Sputnik was launched into orbit, the US, the wealthiest nation on earth, was considered to be “the world’s technological leader” (Mieczkowski 26). “Sputnik” however, “reversed the world’s two great superiority and inferiority complexes. The Sovjet Union … now seemed supreme, while the United States felt inadequate” (Mieczkowski 26). Thus the ‘Space Race’ began. In the years that followed, outer space was to be another front on which the USSR and the US competed for superiority. “Physicist Herbert York remembered that ‘there were a lot of people … in industry and the services everywhere, who were trying to use the Sputnik event and the psychology that followed it to their advantage’” (Mieczkowski 25). I would herein like to focus on the very complex relation of media and truth. I will show that creation of news -often so greatly criticized in totalitarian states- occurs everywhere. Even the US press was not ‘simply’ a crucial element in the using of the aftereffects of Sputnik 1, they also played a highly significant role in the creation thereof.

In the days directly after the launch, Sputnik was editorialized by the New York Times, and other regional papers, as a “major global propaganda and prestige triumph for Russian Communism,” rather than as a grand scientific achievement, or a direct threat to the US (McQuaid 372). Thus initially, to the masses, Sputnik was considered to be a propaganda victory for the Russians, not so much a threat for the US. In the months that followed however, “the press” … “pushed the panic button.” [They created] “a wave of public hysteria” (McDougall 142, 144, 148). The press, in addition to being conceptualized to report news, also need to survive. Herein lies a strong element of competition. In an attempt to sell the greatest number of editions, in order to sell their stories, they will create an appealing version of events, and are thus prone to exaggerate importance and focus on that, which will sell. The rocket the Russians used to launch Sputnik into space would be powerful enough to launch army missiles across the sea to the US. “The symbiosis between space races and arms races,” up until that point, “was more an elite than a mass phenomenon” (McQuaid 375). The International Affairs Seminars of Washington reported that: “if there was any trauma following the Russian Sputnik, it occurred in Washington and not among the general public. Washington, for its part, took its cue from the newspapers and other issue makers.’” (Mieczkowski 23) “The US only became ‘a nation in shock,’ Witkin wrote in 1958, after it had been ‘deluged with news reports’ for months” (Witkin in McQuaid 372). Only then, after the focus of the media on the connection of space races and arms races, did the Sputnik launch led to the public ‘Sputnik panic’.

Eventually, in the press’ exaggeration of Sputnik’s importance and the public connection to the arms race, military- and defense programs sought -and found- solid grounds to ask for more support to develop their programs. Moreover, the impact of Sputnik was influenced and used by politicians, who “recognized that Sputnik presented an opportunity, because Eisenhower was now politically vulnerable, and pounced,” fortifying their own political position by openly criticizing his government (Mieczkowski 23). Aside from these effects for specific groups, “[the] media clamor also generated genuine concern” (Mieczkowski 26, my emphasis). Some say that journalism itself was also influenced by the launch of Sputnik 1. “Sputnik created a new environment for the planet. For the first time the natural world was completely enclosed in a man made container” (McLuhan 49). “The ‘old journalism’ had sought objectivity; in presenting people and events it tried to achieve this by giving ‘both sides’ at once … The ‘new journalism’ offers … a means of immersion” (McLuhan 57). The press would now strive for –creating– an ‘as if you were there’ experience. Thus, if we look more closely, a more prominent role than ‘simply’ reporting events, can be attributed to (even) the US press. Through a specific focus in their stories, the press created the reality of the ‘Sputnik panic’ wherein military- and defense programs could speed their development and certain politicians take the main stage. In the story of Sputnik we have another wonderful example of the complex (bermuda) triangle of media, myth and power, wherein truth is created, vanishes, or has never truly existed.

Bibliography

Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (1989): 3-18.

McDougall, Walter A. Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic (1985).

McLuhan, Marshall. “At the moment of Sputnik the Planet Became a Global Theater in which there are no Spectators but only Actors.” Journal of Communication 24.1 (1974): 48-58.

McQuaid, Kim. “Sputnik reconsidered: Image and Reality in the Early Space Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies 37.3 (2007): 371-401.

Mieczkowski, Yanek. Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013.

Witkin, Richard, ed. The Challenge of the Sputniks. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958.

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