Space history is one of my specialties, so I apologize for being overly distracted this past week: October 4, of course, is Sputnik Day: It marks 56 years after the Space Age began. NBC News has some new stuff on what it was like to watch the first orbital launch. While Sputnik 1 did NOT start the nationwide panic some writers have assumed, it caused some serious concern, as it should have. After all, the Russians were backward barbarians, right?
Wrong. Americans should have looked back to the war years, when Russia produced superb weapons like the T-34/85 tanks and the Yak-9 fighter. The difference between the nations was that manufacturing know-how, the latest alloys, and then-advanced machine tools were present throughout US industry, while in Russia they were in more limited supply and a program had to get top-level attention to compete for the resources it needed. Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Chief Designer, was a master of politics as well as engineering. He got what he needed. And, fueled in equal parts by patriotism and the desire for exploration, he put the world into space. (The R-7 booster he and his colleagues produced is still in service in modified form.)
Just short of a year later, on 1 October 1958, NASA was born after President Eisenhower chose a civilian, rather than a military body to lead space exploration. (The Sputnik program was always military, with the Academy of Sciences as a figurehead: Russian spokesmen, asked whether Sputnik 1 was military or civilian, insisted it was simply "a Soviet satellite." )
The definitive English-language biography of Korolev this one by James Harford..
As a look back at the history of history, here's how the always-excellent Alan Boyle covered the 40th anniversary in 1997.
The best book on the early Space Age? Well, you could nominate Asif Siddiqi's momentous Challenge to Apollo. But we have a soft spot for a more modest effort called The First Space Race.