In case you haven't been paying attention, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the landing of American astronauts on the moon. Neil Armstrong's one small step for a man on the lunar surface has been justly celebrated in 2019 with books, articles, television specials and in many other ways. But almost lost in the lunar hype is how it all began, because the first step that got us on the way was, according to technology historian James Gleick, the launching of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. "Sputnik was on everybody's lips," he noted in a recent article. "If it wasn't for Sputnik we wouldn't have had "beatniks," "peaceniks" or "no-goodniks." And we wouldn't have had an American moon landing in 1969."
Like the rest of the nation and world the Lehigh Valley that year also caught Sputnik fever. It was no secret in science and military circles in October of 1957 that both American and Russian engineers and scientists were looking at the concept of satellites. The two great rivals of the Cold War at its frostiest were facing off around the globe. But for most Americans the concept of satellites was still the stuff of science fiction. Here on earth there was news enough.
On October 1 the Morning Call noted that President Eisenhower had just returned from a 27-day vacation and was spending some time at his Gettysburg farm home before returning to the White House. In a few weeks the President and his wife would be flying to England in response to an invitation from Queen Elizabeth. The biggest thing on Eisenhower's agenda was the continuing crisis over his use of troops to desegregate the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Newspaper columnists were speculating that week over whether Ike's actions were a breach of federal law on the use of troops to take that action. The election of Jimmy Hoffa as head of the Teamster's Union was also drawing headlines.
The biggest local news in the Lehigh Valley was a murder trial. On the evening of October 4th in a courtroom in Easton, Mrs. Ethel Kresge was found not guilty of murder in the death of her husband, Bethlehem Police Capt. Joseph J. Kresge. "It was like touching off a volcano," noted the next day's newspaper story under banner headlines. "The spectator section of the courtroom chorused a loud cheer and there was obligatory handclapping. There didn't seem to be a dry eye in the courtroom." An angry Judge Clinton Budd Palmer ordered the courtroom cleared.
Although it didn't draw quite the headlines of the Kresge verdict, the article that shared the Morning Call's front page was history making.
"1st Earth Satellite Launched By Russia," the headline read. "The Soviet Union announced today it has the first artificial moon streaking around the globe 560 miles out in space."
The satellite, it was noted, was 23 inches in diameter and weighed 185 pounds. It had been launched by a multi-stage rocket traveling at five miles a second and "could be seen with glasses and be followed by radio, sounding a deep beep, beep, beep." An Associated Press story noted that "moon watcher" Larry Ochs in Columbus, Ohio had been the first American to spot the baby moon at 10:23 Eastern Standard Time. Among scientists there was a mixture of awe and appreciation. But the reaction of the general public was reflected it the editorial that appeared on October 5, 1957 in the Morning Call.
"Frankly it has come as a shock to the American people that the initial success was achieved by scientists in the employ of Russia which owns the satellite. Presumably Russia is going to be the only military power which will gain whatever military value is to be derived from the secrets of which highly specialized equipment enclosed in the satellite is believed to be sending back to Russian laboratories."
The editorial went on to speculate about the possibility that larger, armed military satellites could be created in the future to attack the U.S. It hinted darkly the Russians were using German scientists who had been captured during the war to leap ahead. The idea that the "Russians had smarter Germans than we had" was a common one at the time. When a German scientist working on American missile projects was told of this he was unimpressed. "I do believe that Russians have quite enough intelligent scientists to do this on their own," he scoffed.
Missouri Senator Stuart Symington, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who had been engaged in a long-running feud with the Eisenhower administration for funding the U.S. missile program, went so far as to demand an investigation into the lagging nature of the U.S. satellite progress.
A native of Tamaqua, Russell Walters, a structural engineer working on the US Vanguard missile program, was interviewed about the Sputnik by the Morning Call's Ralph Kramer at his home in Baltimore.
Walters noted that although the Russians had "jumped the gun" with their satellite, it was certain that they had cut corners to get it into space first and that their technology was not flawless. "We have no way of knowing whether the Russians took shortcuts and perhaps a few dangerous chances to win credit for the first successful launching," he said.
But although this fear was real there was another thing reflected at the time in the press: the wonder of outer space. The press noted that the chances that local people might get a glimpse of Sputnik were slim.
"Chances are one in a million of an average person seeing the fleeting orbit," said Ralph N. Van Arnam, assistant professor of mathematics and astronomy at Lehigh University. "When you consider that the object is about the size of a large pumpkin and you have to contend with the brilliant rays of the sun then you can realize the odds of seeing it are not of the betting variety."
But the professor did not dismiss the importance of what had occurred. "October 4, 1957 will not be remembered for the World Series or the Little Rock crises but rather the beep-beep-beep that came from the first man-made satellite."
Unlike his colleague, the editorial writer for Sunday October 6's edition of the Morning Call was positively giddy about the future. While not overlooking the Soviet threat, he called it the biggest story in the world's history. "The victory is that of man and his powerful ally, science, and a new era in the history of man was a launched when this little 23-inch globe began orbiting the earth at 18,000 miles per hour."
In less than a year Eisenhower had created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In September 1962 President John F. Kennedy would announce to a cheering crowd of 40,000 at Rice University in Houston plans to send a man to the moon before the decade was out.