Review: Sputnik Mania
by Jeff Foust
|Prior to Sputnik Americans widely believed that they were technologically superior to the Russians, a belief shattered when they saw Sputnik streak across the night sky and heard the beeps of its radio transmissions.|
About two-thirds of the way into the movie, after Americans breathe a sigh of relief with the successful launch of Explorer 1, the emphasis of the movie shifts from the space race to the nuclear arms race. The rationale behind this change is that the same rockets that put the first satellites into space could also be used to launch nuclear weapons or, eventually, wage war in space. It’s here that President Eisenhower gets some image rehabilitation: shown in the first part of the movie as someone who didn’t really recognize the effect Sputnik had on the nation, in the final portion of the book he’s portrayed as the person who made sure, through the creation of NASA and other efforts, that space was used for peaceful purposes and not turned into another battleground.
For those who are even just somewhat familiar with the events of the late 1950s in space, Sputnik Mania won’t provide any new revelations. The interviews included in the documentary provide some general background on events, but little in the way of novel insights. The collection of people interviewed is also rather eclectic: it’s understandable to interview people like Sergei Khrushchev (son of Nikita), space journalist Jay Barbee, and Paul Dickson, whose book Sputnik: The Shock of the Century served as the basis for the book, but why also include comedian Robert Klein? (His contribution: describing being issued dog tags in school so his body could be identified after a nuclear attack if it was otherwise burned beyond recognition.) The movie, though, does serve as a reminder for those seeking another “Sputnik moment”—especially those who didn’t live through the original—that it may not be desirable to repeat history.