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Sputnik: The Shock of the Century

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Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. By Paul Dickson. (Walker & Co: 2007. Pg. 320.) ISBN: 0802713653

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 25, 2002

"Beep-beep," was a sound that changed the course of history. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a 184 pound, kerosene-fueled satellite into orbit. This was the first man-made object to achieve orbit. At first, Americans' were fascinated by the tiny object that could be seen streaking through the heavens. This initial fascination was short lived, and it quickly gave way to unfounded terror about what this event might purport. Was it really just a benign satellite, or were the Soviets spying on the U.S. or bombarding the country with some unseen, deadly element?

Sputnik: The Shock of the Century is a riveting account of not just the launch of Sputnik and its aftermath, but it is also a history of the development of rocket technologies, and the race between the Soviet Union and the United States to put a man into space. In writing this book, Paul Dickson has made use of a plethora of previous classified information. He also used traditional resources, including interviews with a host of individuals who worked or where associated with the early space programs in both the Soviet Union and the U.S. This information, combined with Dickson's superb research skills, has enabled him to construct an unparalleled overview of a momentous period in the history of space research and cold war hysteria. This hysteria was engendered, in part, by the launch of Sputnik. He also provides an overview on how the launch of Sputnik was viewed around the world.

Sputnik was to impact American society on a variety of levels. Not only did it touch each person individually, but it also influenced American culture, ranging from a rise in UFO sightings to changing the subjects emphasized in U.S. schools. Sputnik also changed the political outlook and world view of most Americans. As Dickson explains in the book, a number of the changes engendered by the launch of Sputnik arose because the general population was unaware that it was in the offing. However, those at the highest levels of the government were well aware that the Soviet's were going to launch Sputnik. The U.S. had even been offered the opportunity to work with the Soviet's on developing and monitoring the satellite once it was launched. Most were also unaware that the U.S. was working on its own, secret satellite program, called Corona.

Dickson looks at Sputnik from both a Soviet and from an American viewpoint. He investigates how the Soviet and American space programs developed, and how events on one side affected events on the other. For example, when the Soviet's launch Sputnik 2 with a dog onboard, Americans' were appalled by the fact that the dog had been sent on a suicide mission. At this stage there was no way for the Soviet's to retrieve the satellite. Dickson also looks at the failures that each side encountered, and the repercussions for these failures. With precision, Dickson shows how these first test flights of Sputnik, and the American satellites Juno and Vanguard led to the first maned space flight, and man's first steps on the moon.

This mesmerizing account is not only wonderful for its historical and well-balanced content, but also for the biographical sketches of individuals associated with the space race that Dickson has incorporated into the narrative. These sketches include politicians, scientist, spies, and countless individuals whose lives were changed by Sputnik - on both sides. This account is further enhanced by the inclusion of intriguing tidbits of information, such as the fact that the U.S. seriously considered exploding a nuclear device on the moon as part of the ongoing politically asinine game of king of the hill that the US and Soviets played throughout the cold war.

This excellent, well-written book is suitable for general readers and academicians alike. The book is well illustrated and includes extensive endnotes. Dickson has also included a phenomenal bibliography that will keep you reading for years. Sputnik: The Shock of the Century chronicles one of the most significant events of the 20th century, an event that changed our world view and the course of technological development. Even if you are not normally a 'history' afficionado, you will find this account so fascinating that you will have difficulty putting it down.

Related Reviews:

Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, by Matthew Brzezinski.
A riveting account of the early days of the Space Age, and its long term impact on the world.

The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense, By Michael Shermer.
In this intriguing book, he discusses the various "fringe and borderland claims" that abound, and acting as an authoritative umpire, cataloging the claims into their 'correct' category - Real Science, Borderland Science, or Psuedo Science.

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