Crazy Over Sputnik

Dec. 25, 2008
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On Oct. 4, 1957 the world was startled when a new moon entered the Earth’s orbit. It was an artificial satellite, the first space probe, and its name was Sputnik. The US was frightened because its Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, developed Sputnik in secret. If a Russian missile could send a satellite into space, could Soviet technology also rain nuclear warheads on American cities?

Sputnik Mania is a documentary by David Hoffman, who adapted its themes from a book by Paul Dickson. Composed largely from archival footage narrated by Live Schreiber, Sputnik Mania is a lively and informative if cursory account of public reaction in the US and UK to the abrupt advent of the Space Age. Wounded pride and shattered preconceptions added to America’s sense of injury as the ostensibly backward USSR rocketed ahead of the US into space and America stumbled to catch up.

The Democratic Party came off poorly in all of this, using Sputnik as an excuse to spread anxiety and increase defense spending. The unexpected heroes of Sputnik Mania are GOP President Dwight Eisenhower and his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khruschev, both determined to prevent their military and defense industries from using the Space Race as an excuse for running amok.

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