The Shock of the Century

By Paul Dickson
(Walker & Company, Hardcover, 9780802713650, 320pp.)

Publication Date: May 29, 2007

Other Editions of This Title: Paperback

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On October 4, 1957, as Leave It to Beaver premiered on American television, the Soviet Union launched the space age. Sputnik, all of 184 pounds with only a radio transmitter inside its highly polished shell, became the first man-made object in space; while it immediately shocked the world, its long-term impact was even greater, for it profoundly changed the shape of the twentieth century.
In his upcoming book, Washington journalist Paul Dickson chronicles the dramatic events and developments leading up to and emanating from Sputnik's launch. Supported by groundbreaking, original research and many recently declassified documents, Sputnik offers a fascinating profile of the early American and Soviet space programs and a strikingly revised picture of the politics and personalities behind the facade of America's fledgling efforts to get into space.
Although Sputnik was unmanned, its story is intensely human. Sputnik owed its success to many people, from the earlier visionary, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose theories were ahead of their time, to the Soviet spokesmen strategically positioned around the world on the day the satellite was launched, who created one of the greatest public-relations events of all time. Its chief designer, however—the brilliant Sergei Korolev—remained a Soviet state secret until after his death.
Equally hidden from view was the political intrigue dominating America's early space program, as the military services jockeyed for control and identity in a peacetime world. For years, former Nazi Wernher von Braun, who ran the U.S. Army's missile program, lobbied incessantly that his Rocket Team should be handed responsibility for the first Earth-orbiting satellite. He was outraged that Sputnik beat him and America into space. For his part, President Eisenhower was secretly pleased that the Russians had launched first, because by orbiting over the United States Sputnik established the principle of "freedom of space" that could justify the spy satellites he thought essential to monitor Soviet missile buildup. As Dickson reveals, Eisenhower was, in fact, much more a master of the Sputnik crisis than he appeared to be at the time and in subsequent accounts.
The U.S. public reaction to Sputnik was monumental. In a single weekend, Americans were wrenched out of a mood of national smugness and post-war material comfort. Initial shock at and fear of the Soviets' intentions galvanized the country and swiftly prompted innovative developments that define our world today. Sputnik directly or indirectly influenced nearly every aspect of American life, from the demise of the suddenly superfluous tail fin and an immediate shift towards science in the classroom to the arms race that defined the cold war, the competition to reach the Moon, and the birth of the Internet.
By shedding new light on a pivotal era, Paul Dickson expands our knowledge of the world we now inhabit, and reminds us that the story of Sputnik goes far beyond technology and the beginning of the space age, and that its implications are still being felt today.

About the Author

Paul Dickson is the author of more than forty books, including The Joy of Keeping Score, The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Baseball's Greatest Quotations, and Baseball: The Presidents' Game. In addition to baseball, his specialties include Americana and language. He lives in Garrett Park, Maryland.

Praise For Sputnik

"An ominous foreign presence suddenly seems to take control of the skies--'Another Pearl Harbor!' some shout. Initial fears are replaced by a determination to meet the challenge, and America declares that life has changed forever. Sounds familiar, but the transforming event of Paul Dickson's book is not the crash of hijacked airliners last  9/11; it is the Soviet Union's launch in October 1957 of Sputnk, the first man-made satellite."-Washington Post  
"Sputnik is a fascinating slice of useful social history...A serious book that is breezily written, Sputnik reviews the scientific history, the Cold War mentality and a media-driven crisis over what headline writers called 'the Red Moon' ."-USA Today
"Dickson examines the impact of Sputnik from all angles, noting the hysteria it incited, minutely detailing the advances--both in science and PR--of the Soviet and U.S. space programs, and delivering an appendix explaining the satellite's influence on the English language. " -Entertainment Weekly

"[Dickson's] research is painstaking, his attention to detail exemplary. . .it flows smoothly and clearly - an admirable quality in history."-Philadelphia Inquirer

"How ironic that the Earth's first artificial satellite launched a sea of change in technology, politics, and society. Dickson's book chronicles the Sputnik event as well as its global effects. Sputnik takes a close look at why Sputnik shocked America and heightened the Cold War. Sprinkled with photos and quotes, this book provides an easy, compelling read. Frequent footnotes containing anecdotes and sidelights add interest throughout." -Astronomy
"The best book on the political shockwaves following Sputnik." -New Scientist
"This is a stunning book that captures the excitement and angst of the dawning of the space age." " -Dallas Morning News
"Paul Dickson skillfully puts the story of Sputnik and its aftermath into this new perspective in his informative and readable book."-Christian Science Monitor

"Dickson is even-handed in his treatment of many clashing agenda and personalities, governmental and military. Sputnik should climb far up the lists, and have a long ride."
-Baltimore Sun

"Culling from recently declassified documents as well as traditional historical assessments and news accounts, [Dickson] resurrects the drama and intrigue surrounding Sputnik with a perspective space junkies will find illuminating and new. "-Houston Chronicle
"Like the best social and scientific histories, Dickson's look back in time sheds a clearer beam on the road ahead." -School Library Journal

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