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Declassified Papers Show US Won Sputnik Race After All

For reporters who thought they knew the score, history's lens can be eye-opening. That's what newly declassified secret documents have done for some of us who covered the dawn of the space age.

It seems that neither "savvy" science writers, the scientists who advised them, nor the leadership of the Soviet Union knew that, when Sputnik 1 caught most Americans napping on Oct. 4, 1957, it also helped fulfill one of the Eisenhower administration's secret strategic goals. It helped legalize the future use of spy satellites. Kruschev basked in a propaganda coup. He also implicitly acknowledged a new limit to national sovereignty. It ends short of the lowest orbit in which an earth satellite can travel. And that meant that the Soviet Union had nothing to complain about when the United States later orbited unarmed reconnaissance satellites.

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Establishing that new principle in international law had been Eisenhower's goal all along in the run-up to the space age. Both the United States and the old Soviet Union agreed to launch the world's first scientific satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) exploration of our planet. The American scientific community, acting through the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation enthusiastically promoted the satellite program. What the scientists did not know - and only a handful of tight-lipped administration officials did - was why the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency also backed the effort. Those agencies saw the orbiting of scientific satellites as an unprovocative way to establish freedom of space - a freedom that, like freedom of the high seas, allows both military and civilian craft to go their respective ways.

Dwayne Day at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says this explains why Eisenhower at first took the news of Sputnik so calmly. Declassified documents supplied to Mr. Day as part of an ongoing historical study show that Ike didn't give a fig for being first in space. He knew the United States outmatched the Soviet Union technologically and militarily. Rather, Day says, he "wanted to be sure [America's] legal ducks were in line" when his or future administrations launched spy satellites. That meant having an initial satellite program that would be known for its scientific accomplishments while quietly establishing the principle of orbital freedom.

This also explains more fully why Eisenhower prevented Werhner von Braun and his German rocket team from launching a satellite in January 1957, well ahead of Sputnik. The Redstone missile the team was developing for the US Army had the thrust to do the job. The new documents show that an overriding reason for restraining von Braun was to avoid the appearance of a preemptive strike to be first in space before the IGY began. Eisenhower wanted the world to perceive America's space debut as benign. Interservice rivalry and prejudice against the German rocket engineers were blamed for von Braun's restriction in the recriminations that followed Vanguard's post-Sputnik launch failures.

Eisenhower played a crafty game. But he misjudged Sputnik's impact on an unprepared American public and news media. He saw too late that he had won the freedom of space at the cost of political credibility at home. Yet neither he nor any of the other knowledgeable officials ever let on that what looked like bumbling failure was really a strategic success.

It appears, then, that "savvy" science writers, including myself, weren't as well briefed as we had thought. We smirked when uninformed commentators babbled about a nonexistent "technology gap." We correctly hailed a new era of exploration and cheered the renaissance in American scientific research and education Sputnik sparked. But we never suspected the Machiavellian thinking that underlay Eisenhower's commitment to the IGY. Even the scientists with "inside knowledge" who briefed us confidentially didn't know the real game plan.

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