Case Number 15922: Small Claims Court


History Channel // 2008 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // March 14th, 2009

The Charge


The Case

In 1950, a group of preeminent scientists met at the house of physicist James Van Allen, then a fellow at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, to talk shop. The result of that meet-up was a decision to propose to the International Council of Scientific Unions that it declare an International Geophysical Year, dedicated to international cooperation in the study of the Earth.

(If you're playing at home, now is the time you should put on track one of Donald Fagen's "Nightfly" album...)

The IGY was set to run from July 1957 to December 1958. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower announced that the US would sponsor a joint military-civilian program to orbit an artificial earth satellite as part of the United States' contribution to the IGY. The resulting effort, called Project Vanguard, was spearheaded by the Navy, who were selected to design and build the launch vehicle. While the scientific motivation was genuine, the civilian effort masked an ulterior motive for the government: satellites had been identified as the future of intelligence gathering, and establishing outer space as "international waters" would open the door to establishing the validity of overflights by satellites under international law. (At the time, it was not clear whether a country's sovereign airspace rights extended into outer space.)

The Soviet Union promptly announced that they would launch a satellite for the IGY, too. The American public paid little attention. Russia had only spasmodically lurched into the Modern Era from a near-feudal society right before World War I, and had been devastated in every way possible by the twin horrors of World War II and Josef Stalin. In the eyes of most Americans, the Soviets could barely build a workable plane or tank, let alone a spaceship. The Soviets' main threat was the sheer size of their armies, not their technology. And safe behind two oceans, a nuclear arsenal, and scores of bombers, fighters, and Nike anti-aircraft missiles, that Red Army threat was remote to the average American.

The US military was paying attention, though. They knew that satellite launches were just a proxy for something more significant: ballistic missile capability. A rocket that can orbit a satellite can also loft an atomic warhead a great distance. There was no doubt that the USSR was seeking what America was already developing: an intercontinental ballistic missile that could loft an atomic warhead 5000-6000 miles. Intelligence indicated that the Soviets were actively pursuing rocket technology based on captured German V-2s. However, given that the US had spirited away all of the top German rocket scientists after the war, the US military felt that the Russians would lag behind the Americans technologically for the foreseeable future, and that hopefully a Soviet ICBM probably would not enter service before the in-development Atlas ICBM project was deployed.

By the summer of 1957, the Cold War had heated up dramatically. The brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 showed not only that the Russian military was both modern and effective, but that the Soviet government was more than willing to use it to further its goals. The Russians had made great advances in rocket technology, and had successfully tested a new long-range missile, the SS-6 "Sapwood" in NATO terminology, that had intercontinental range. Soviet news sources had again started mentioning satellites, stating that the USSR intended to launch a satellite soon. The Soviet newspapers even disclosed the radio frequencies that the satellite would use, asking the world's ham radio operators to help in tracking the satellite.

On October 4, 1957, a radio report out of Moscow indicated that early in the morning, the Soviet Union had launched a 23-inch sphere packed with a radio transmitter, batteries, and some small scientific instruments into orbit. The new "moon" of Earth had been named Sputnik ("companion" or "co-traveler" in Russian) by the Soviets.

And that's when all hell broke loose.

It's also where Sputnik Mania picks up the story. This History Channel documentary -- based on the book Sputnik: The Shock of the Century by Paul Dickson -- doesn't really deal with the "how" or "why" of the Sputnik launch. Instead, it focuses on the near-hysteria that followed the launch of Sputnik, and how it shaped US foreign policy, international relations, and culture on a wholly unexpected scale. If you're looking for a science-heavy retelling of how Sergei Korolov and his singular force of will overcame the red tape of Soviet bureaucracy to build the world's first spacecraft...this isn't it. Instead, it's a fascinating time capsule of the American public's first direct and visceral exposure to the Cold War that had been going on since Yalta and the surrender of Nazi Germany.

Sputnik hit the world like an atomic bomb. Because it was atomic bombs, and not little metal spheres, that the mighty SS-4 was designed to launch. Prior to Sputnik, the average American knew that any Soviet attack would have to come in the form of bombers -- slow, mainly propeller-driven bombers that would have to fly for hours upon hours to reach American targets, passing through squadrons of US fighters and batteries of anti-aircraft missiles along the way. After Sputnik, death and destruction were potentially only minutes away, delivered by a screaming warhead descending at thousands of miles per hour from the fringes of space. In an instant, Fortress America was no more, and the godless Communist hordes were no longer just a threat to continental Europe.

Tempering this doom-and-gloom fear, though, was an inherent sense of wonder at the spectacle and fantasy of it all. Spacemen! Rocketships! It was the stuff of childhood fantasy for kids and adults alike. The satellite (actually the spent body of the booster rocket, if you want to be picky) was easily visible with the naked eye when it passed overhead in the night. Thousands upon thousands of amateur skywatchers could follow its progress. Ham radio operators could listen to its beeps -- from outer space! -- as it orbited the Earth. It captured imaginations worldwide.

Sputnik Mania covers both ends of this strange dichotomy, from the Sputnik-themed lamps and fashions to the Eisenhower Administration's too-measured response to the launch, which drew accusations that Ike was ignoring the threat posed by the Communist missiles. It spends a good deal of time on the two US efforts to orbit a satellite, as well. The ill-fated Project Vanguard was a perfectly decent little rocket design, but one that had not been extensively tested. After Sputnik, the Vanguard team was pushed to launch immediately; testing would have to wait, because America needed its own satellite up there battling the Soviets in the new frontier ASAP. Pathetically, the ill-tested Vanguard 1 rocket rose all of a few feet into the air before spectacularly exploding. (The grapefruit-sized Vanguard 1 satellite was thrown clear of the blast, and began happily beeping its heart out from the sawgrass near the launch pad. It was later repaired, recharged, and successfully launched into orbit.)

The honor of launching the first US satellite -- which is the endpoint of Sputnik Mania's story -- instead fell to an Army-affiliated team based at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. Headed by the creator of the German V-2 rocket, Werner von Braun, the Army group had been quietly (and against orders) preparing a modified Jupiter-C rocket (an enlarged version of the Army's Redstone medium-range missile that was used to test warhead reentry vehicles) that would be capable of lifting a small payload to orbit. When Vanguard failed, the von Braun team got their chance, and launched a small satellite -- Explorer 1 -- into orbit on February 1, 1958.

Sputnik Mania is, on the whole, a fine look at the dawn of the space race, a brief but intense period in the larger Cold War story. If I have a complaint, it's that the documentary is too focused on the societal issues involved. A little more technical background and detail would have fleshed out the tale. The film doesn't really give the viewer a good idea why the Soviet launches -- specifically, the Sputnik 2 launch -- gave the US military such concern. It wasn't that the Soviets had orbited a second satellite -- it was the size of that satellite. Sputnik 2, containing the dog Laika, weighed 1,100 pounds, nearly ten times as much as the first Sputnik. Sputnik 3, launched in May of 1958, was almost three times heavier still. The ability to loft nearly two tons of payload into orbit told military analysts that the SS-6 was more than capable of launching the heavy new Soviet hydrogen bomb (built using plans acquired from the US via spy rings) the 6,000-8,000 miles needed to hit major US cities. Also, while the film does cover the political fallout from Sputnik for the Eisenhower administration, it does not address the recently-released classified records indicating that Eisenhower wanted the Soviets to launch a satellite first -- it established a precedent that overflights by satellites were not violations of foreign airspace. This gave the US carte blanche to freely orbit the planned replacement for the increasingly obsolete U-2 spy plane, a spy satellite program codenamed CORONA, without having to deal with loud Soviet complaints that their territorial sovereignty was being violated. It's true that these nuances aren't necessary to understand the social impact of Sputnik, but they are essential to a full understanding of the historical context of the launch, and would have been a valuable addition here.

Picture and sound are par for the course. The feature is shot in full frame, which is sensible given that all of the original source material is in a similar aspect ratio. Audio is presented in Dolby stereo, which is also more than suitable for the source material. The main feature ships with a second disc of extras, all of which are contemporaneous with the late 1957 -- early 1958 time frame of the documentary feature. (Several segments from these films are used in the main feature.) "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow" is a promotional film for the Civil Defense effort, and makes dealing with a nuclear attack look downright practical, at least for the residents of Reading, PA. "Yankee Go Home" is a turgid roundtable analysis of Soviet propaganda by a bunch of military generals and such. The oh-so-Fifties gravitas on display makes this fantastically funny for all the wrong reasons. Then there's "Communist Society." If you've ever felt that that the main thing lacking in your life was the opportunity to be hectored by a Catholic priest about how lousy Communism is...well, today is your lucky day. "Laica" is an apparently Soviet-produced look at Sputnik 2 that glosses over the whole "the dog dies" bit of it. Finally, there's "Missiles, Missiles, Missiles," which is really just a newsreel that has a bit about missiles in it. None of these are essential, and you'll probably view them only once, but they do help to provide some social context.

The Verdict

It's not perfect, but Sputnik Mania is definitely an entertaining look at its subject. It's not as thorough and comprehensive a look at Sputnik's launch as I'd like, but it provides detail and societal context that most science-based histories of Sputnik lack. It's well worth a look-see for space buffs.

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Scales of Justice
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile
Studio: History Channel
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* English

Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Featurettes

* IMDb

* Official Site