33 thoughts on “The Strategic Blunder Of Sputnik”

  1. The great conservative historian, Sarah Palin, also criticized the Obama speech claiming that it was the Soviet investment in space that caused the economic collapse of the Soviet Union!

    What an absolutely brilliant woman:-)

  2. Starting a technology war you really can’t win (not that the Soviets would have known that) does sound like a bad idea.

  3. I quite enjoyed Dinerman’s essay, and he’s quite right, particularly that Sputnik was a big mistake on the part of the Soviets. He could have additionally adduced the evidence of the world reaction to Hiroshima. Everyone holds the United States responsible for a world in which nuclear weapons exist, even though the Brits, French and Soviets were all independently racing for the same goal, and reached it at about the same time, plus or minus a few years.

    But because the US used nuclear weapons first, it’s our fault, and this immunized the Soviet Union against any blame for developing and stockpiling them. From the Soviet point of view, then, it was a propaganda blunder of the first magnitude for the Americans to have been the first to drop an atomic bomb on someone.

    I don’t think he’s quite right that Eisenhower had to guess Soviet capabilities in the dark. In fact, Eisenhower commanded an extensive (and very intrusive) array of overflight surveillance, by means of which he was quite well informed about Soviet missile and anti-aircraft capabilities. He knew very much what he was talking about. Unfortunately it was impossible for him to share the sources of his information with the general public — the Soviets would have to have taken great and violent exception to gross violations of their airspace had they been general public knowledge. But of course Democratic leaders in Congress knew, too, so their cynical exploitation of the public’s ignorance on the putative “missile gap” was remarkably reprehensible, even for them.

  4. I think she was technically wrong, and let us not overlook her minor booboos in admiration of her sound instincts. She was trying to argue that when you are burying in Federal debt, more Federal debt in pursuit of Great Pyramid show-projects, in the hopes that this will inspire people, “create jobs,” or through some other statist delusional Ponzi scheme make things better, is a bad idea. Who can argue with this? Her opponents are reduced to picking nits in her supporting evidence.

    But the nit is real, I think. I doubt what the Soviet Union spent on Sputnik alone led directly, in an accounting sense, to the collapse of the country 25 years later. Oberg draws a line connecting the space race in general to military and quasi-military competition in general which is sound, if tenuous, and argues that the usually proposed straw that broke the camel’s back, SDI, was a natural result of all this. It’s not a bad argument, but I find it a little tenuous, like the counterfactual histories where people say if Longstreet hadn’t been wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, then this and that would have happened, and Lee would have stood off Grant long enough to win the Civil War. Well…maybe…but it’s a long, long chain of logic. It’s hard to believe so much history turns on small decisions — and wouldn’t be thrust back into its familiar channels by larger forces still at work.

    Id est, it strains my credulity to believe that if the Soviets had not tried to put up a satellite first, they would still be with us today. That removes Sputnik from any possibility of being the direct or principal cause, and returns it to the broad diffuse class of possible contributory causes.

    And returning to her larger point, the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union are subtle, but I’m skeptical of direct comparison to American Federal borrowing and debt. For one thing, the Soviet Union didn’t borrow money in the sense the American government does. There was no risk of creditors, domestic or foreign, calling in the debt, or refusing to buy more, and paralyzing the government. (Indeed, if the Soviet government had needed to sell its programs to skeptical lenders, it’s possible it might have had enough reality checks to forestall the eventual disaster.)

  5. G’day,

    Well, in the interview she said Sputnik lead to the ” inevitable ” collapse of the Soviet Union. Just how “inevitable” Sputnik made the collapse may be debated. But she clarified her thoughts in a recent Facebook essay:

    “Now, in a recent interview I mentioned analogies that could relate to solutions to our economic challenges, including the difference between a communist government’s “Sputnik” and the private sector’s “Spudnut.” The analogies I mentioned obviously aren’t comparable in size, but highlight a clear difference in economic focus: big government command and control economies vs. America’s small businesses.”

    With this I have no problem. I just wish she take a look at NASA because the National Aerospace Socialism Administration is a perfect example of a big government controlled economy.



  6. Command and control always _looks_ good — until it fails so spectacularly that even its advocates can’t cover it up. Authoritarian plus totalitarian societies screw up badly and are in decline long before it becomes obvious. The Soviet Union was actually in an irreversible decline even before Sputnik. Similar things can be said about Nazi Germany.

    American command and control entities not only are governmental, but also too many large private corporations as well. That’s why I am glad some libertarians are paying attention to that as well.

    We need authority to be limited by the norms of free, democratic cultures. In such cases it can be of some use.

  7. I suspect that, had the US not used the bomb, the Soviets would not have felt the least bit hesitant to develop and stockpile their own bombs.

    In the same vein it’s hard to imagine an orbit that would not take you over the other’s territory, given the technology of the late 50’s early 60’s. We and they struggled to make orbit, never mind specialized ones. If we made orbit first they might have used the opportunity to complain, but that wouldn’t have stopped them from launching.

    And we’d be right where we are now.

    I think that notion is pretty specious

  8. Sarah Palin … an absolutely brilliant woman.

    You said it and I have to agree (you don’t like how I edited your comment?)

    Historians agree that “the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union” was a financial debt problem. She said the space race was a contributor to that debt which is absolutely true.

    It’s so nice to see you appreciate Sarah even if she may not be as eloquent as Obama’s teleprompter, but then… she doesn’t need one… she has something Obama lacks… principles.

  9. Mr. Simberg, this is OT, but I was wondering about a position you have given previously in several of the comment threads – that we shouldn’t be pursuing any sort of HLV.

    I may be misunderstanding. I agree that shuttle-deriving everything is probably the wrong way to go about generating a cargo launcher. I also believe that NASA should be buying launches from commercial companies where possible.

    However, I don’t see how you accomplish anything other than small robotic missions without some sort of HLV. To realize any sort of mars mission, moon-base, manned anything, you need to be able to shlep mass into orbit. Getting mass into orbit in any sort of quantity requires large rockets, be they reusable or otherwise.

    If I am misunderstanding, I apologise, but how do you manage the logistics of putting what amounts to thousands of tons (for a base or propellant depot or even an in-situ propellant factory) or hundreds of tons (for a one-shot mars mission) without HLVs? You could use ten times the amount of smaller launchers, which may involve operational learning-curve gains, but you would end up facing inefficiencies due to minimum gage.

  10. To me that essay of Taylor’s is him at the pinnacle of his writing. An excellent article that goes to the heart of what Eisenhower feared in his farewell speech a couple of years later.

    He was worried about both the military industrial complex as many parrot but he was also concerned about….

    Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

  11. That’s a tricky counterfactual, Gregg. The only way I can see the United States not using the atomic bomb on Japan is if its development comes much too late to affect the war in the Pacific, which pretty much means the invasion of Japan succeeds before the bomb is finished.

    That isn’t too implausible. After all, every nation understood immediately the military applications of nuclear fission as soon as it was demonstrated in 1939, but every nation except the United States proceeded relatively indifferently, convinced the bomb would not affect the war. That this was not the case in the United States is in part a matter of luck — Szilard’s beating of the drums, driven perhaps by the fear Hungarian ex-pats had of both the Nazis and the Soviets, and Fermi’s making the correct estimate of the critical mass (Heisenberg, in charge of the Nazi nuclear research program, estimated it was a matter of tons and this pessimism resulted in a desultory Nazi program).

    So let’s assume the Hungarian influence is less, or Fermi makes the same mistake Heisenberg did, and tells everyone the critical mass of U-235 is tons, far too much to acquire by the end of the war, and resulting in a bomb too big to deliver by air. Presumably at some point the wish to have the bomb to counter Stalin’s divisions sets in, and research begins, but if we assume it’s as late as, say, 1944 or 1945, then the invasion of Japan takes off first. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that the Americans have to make more concessions and deals with Stalin to moderate the appalling cost of the invasion — to get the Soviets to take some of the heat, as they did in Germany. They’d be less inclined to, since they did not fear the Japanese in the same way, but for sufficient bribes — a free hand in all of Germany? — it might’ve been done. Stalin drove a hard bargain whenever he could.

    Delaying the program until it is driven by fears of the Soviets rather than fears of the Germans probably means lower probability of atomic espionage (much of which, it seems, was driven by a feeling among the spies that the US was “unfairly” withholding important weapons technology from a suffering ally). Whether the Soviets can successfully begin a nuclear program at all without espionage is unclear. Stalin was paranoid and profoundly conservative, and without the clear proof from atomic espionage that the bomb was practical, it’s not clear he would have dumped so many resources into it. He had, after all, a clear conventional advantage in Europe, and we are imagining he could have extracted a high price for participating in the invasion of Japan, something enough to convince him he had nothing to fear from the Germans ever again.

    What we end up with, I think, is a considerably angrier and embittered America in the early 50s — casualties in the invasion of Japan would have doubled those in the previous 4 years of war, and the Soviets would be far stronger in Europe, probably dominating all the way to the Rhine. Given the French might well have come to an accomodation, the only reliable European ally might have been the exhausted Brits. The American atomic bomb program would have proceeded in considerable paranoia and secrecy. The Soviet program would be much further behind, perhaps 5 or 6 years, through the poorer espionage haul and Stalin’s conservatism and reduced fear of Western Europe.

    My feeling is that at least until Stalin dies the result makes it more likely the US develops a bomb and uses it on the Soviets, perhaps triggered by Soviet aggression in the Mediterranean or the Far East (presumably Japan is the Axis that ends up divided, so the tension over Berlin is transferred there; the Americans have fewer qualms about nuclearizing conflicts with the Soviets in Japan, because of fewer cultural ties). That leads, I think, to a sense of normalization of the use of nuclear weapons, since their first use against the Soviets, instead of the Japanese, would not be so appallingly conclusive. It’s even possible the Soviets might win or draw through conventional means whatever limited conflict they’re first used in. I think it would be limited because it’s not until deep into the 60s that the Americans develop the capability to completely win a war with the Soviets entirely through nuclear weapons. But with Stalin alive, it’s hard to see open conflict waiting that long.

  12. In the same vein it’s hard to imagine an orbit that would not take you over the other’s territory, given the technology of the late 50′s early 60′s. We and they struggled to make orbit, never mind specialized ones. If we made orbit first they might have used the opportunity to complain, but that wouldn’t have stopped them from launching.

    If you launch due east from the Cape, you can put a satellite into an orbit with a 28 degree inclination (the same as the launch site latitude). That orbit would not overfly Soviet territory. Due to their higher latitudes, they could not have put anything in orbit from their territory that would not overfly the US.

  13. It is a known fact that president Eisenhower sent one of his military attaches to the cape in August 1956 to personally verify that the upper stage of a redstone vehicle had sand in it rather than a live stage to preclude Von Braun and the Army from “accidentally” launching something into orbit.

    What Eisenhower never considered was the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the MSM of the time who were even then in the tank for the democrats and wanted something to beat the administration over the head with, which Taylor in his article brilliantly outlines.

  14. Carl Pham Says:
    January 29th, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Fascinating, thanks for that. But under that scenario I would have missed out on all the “duck and cover” fun of my elementary school years. Not a bad idea as I have never liked the puke green or masking tape brown that they painted the legs of those really small bomb shelters.

  15. However, I don’t see how you accomplish anything other than small robotic missions without some sort of HLV. To realize any sort of mars mission, moon-base, manned anything, you need to be able to shlep mass into orbit. Getting mass into orbit in any sort of quantity requires large rockets, be they reusable or otherwise.

    So what’s size is HLV? We already have rockets that can put 10-25 tons in LEO. If the ISS components were thinner, we wouldn’t need to use the Shuttle at all. In other words, we’ve already demonstrated that we can assemble a 300 ton object in LEO. Why can’t we assemble a Mars mission in the same way?

    The second observation is that while there is some economy of scale to larger rockets, there is a substantially bigger one to higher launch frequency.

  16. Well, 25 tons might be on the low end of an acceptable HLV. I was imagining somewhere in the 50-100 ton range.

    It depends on where launch costs bottom out as a function of the learning curve: If you have a properly designed vehicle, I don’t see why the manufacturing and launch support personnel required would be a function of it’s size. In the limit of a large number of launches, your costs should be constrained by the personnel required to manufacture and launch the thing. It would seem then that would be a pressure for larger launch vehicles.

    You also want to spend a good portion of the effort (hopefully a sustained effort) in space flying the mission, rather than having the vast majority of your money, time, and manpower spent on the first leg of getting things to LEO. That would seem to be a pressure for a small number of launches per assembled final base/vehicle.

    Granted that the economies of scale come into play as the launch rate increases. For an effort to set up a moon-base or mars-base though, I would think the number of launches would be large anyway.

    Materials and structural limits also put an upper bound on vehicle size.

    Still, for something like a 500 ton mars vehicle, if you need 50 launches as opposed to 20 or 10 to assemble it, it will take years to get it all up there, unless you also have a revolution in launch rate and are launching every week.

  17. Well, 25 tons might be on the low end of an acceptable HLV. I was imagining somewhere in the 50-100 ton range.

    HLV is completely irrelevant in the age of lunar resource development, the space station, and high thrust to weight ratio Solar Electric tugs.

  18. Aaron, I think a relevant consideration here is that rockets blow up and destroy themselves and their cargoes. Which is not surprising, a launch to orbit being the very high energy event it is. But since the value of the cargo grows with its mass to some power greater than 1, and the expense of the rocket grows with its required failure rate to some power considerably more negative than -1, at some point it becomes uneconomical to build a basket safe enough to put all your eggs into.

  19. Yawn. The simple fact is that a super heavy lift vehicle is necessarily a big government single supplier jobs program. If you have no understanding of economics in general and the economics of the launch industry in particular, then you see an HLV as the simple solution to doing pointless flags and footprints missions in space. If, on the other hand, your goal is to actually seed and encourage the development of space for the betterment of the economy then it makes no sense to empower a big government agency to take away the workers and incentives that make industry function.

    If you want another Apollo, build another HLV. If you want cities on the Moon, say it with me: no new launch vehicles.

  20. A few interesting threads here:

    1. Sarah Palin – I don’t think she is a genius but she is vastly underestimated. We’ve had the supposedly super intelligent Obama along with the elitist leading the way for the past couple of years and what did that do for us? So maybe a little less intelligence and a little more common sense is the way to go.

    2. Nuking Japan – Absolutely, without a doubt, the right decision. Of course, I’m a little biased since my father was an Army infantry combat vet from the Pacific Theater. He certainly would have been involved in any invasion of Japan.

    3. HLVs or Fuel Depots or neither or both – I can only go by the research from others that I have read and obviously there are no definite answers except in the mind of zealots for one side or the other who believe that the other side is just blind or controlled by some special interest. We’re all guilty of this to one degree or another.

    My goal is “boots on the ground” … Get ’em there and keep ’em there this time.

    My mantra is “Better is the enemy of goof enuff” … Don’t wait for some pie-in-the-sky technology or something that is “just around the corner” if you can get moving now. That doesn’t mean that you don’t keep working to develop that technology. It just means that you move forward with have and/or with what you know how to do that works that will get you there now or in the near future.

    My motto is “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” … You must take risks. Space exploration is a risky business. Going to the Moon and to Mars is pushing the envelope. The early astronauts were test pilots who loved being on the edge … Can we still say that? I don’t say that facetiously. I’ve taken a few risks while flying an airplane that many wouldn’t not; I’ve jumped out of airplanes … There are people like me who are willing to be on the edge without quadruple redundant systems. NASA is so risk-averse now that it wouldn’t pull off Apollo the way it was done.

    I’ve gone too long here … to wrap it up … without a definite answer because really there isn’t one. There is only a lot of conjecture and I think we’ve lost faith in NASA to choose the best route (of course we all differ on what that route is) … even worse, NASA dithers. I opposed Constellation at the beginning and didn’t believe NASA when it said that a Saturn V restart or a Shuttle derived HLV would be more costly than Constellation … But I hoped I was wrong … but NASA dithered, delayed, etc …

    So here we are … years later … floundering.

  21. HLVs or Fuel Depots…

    We don’t need either right now (this is central plan thinking.)

    We need entrepreneurial thinking. Gas was purchased for ten cents a gallon in a can from the local feed store when cars first appeared. It wasn’t until cars were in actual general use that gas stations began to appear.

    An entrepreneur would realize that putting either a $300m cislunar or $2b 7+ delta V general purpose spaceship in LEO today would have a large multiple ROI over the next few decades from many customers including both government (probably first) and private companies.

    It just one with enough cash and vision to realize this and do it.

  22. Y’know, a person should not feed the trolls. But the first post of Marcel F Williams merits a response.

    I want to commend Marcel F Williams for commenting under his name instead of under a “handle.” What a person puts out on Web postings or in e-mail is pretty much public anyway given online privacy or the lack thereof. I am not saying a person should not post under a handle, but to post under one’s given name is refreshing and commendable.

    If our Marcel F Williams is The Marcel F Williams of http://newpapyrusmagazine.blogspot.com/, Mr. Williams is a space policy blogger with a side interest in political questions of the day, much as are host Rand is such a blogger. Mr. Williams, according to his Web site, as also published scientific papers on paleontology.

    So I am reconstructing a picture that Mr. Williams is a space blogger of perhaps a left-liberal perspective, Rand is a space blogger of a Libertarian perspective who is receptive to some Conservatives on the comment threads, and Mr. Williams thought it would be nice to “pay a social call” on Rand and Friends, hence the post.

    And there is a perspective shared by many people that Sarah Palin is the dumbest person in public life right now, and that a recent opinion expressed by Ms. Palin, that the Soviet space program effort and the resulting exhaustion of resources led to there no longer being a Soviet anything, well in the words of Steve Allen, what further evidence of dumbth does a person need, and Mr. Williams capped his remark with a Smiley emoticon to let us know that his needling of Rand was all in good fun.

    And I guess many of us who hang out at Rand’s fine Web site, myself included, perhaps take the “trolls” and the “drive-by’s” way too seriously. But Mr. Williams, if the purpose of your first post on this thread was nothing more than to ‘gin up some traffic on your site (I noticed that you have numerous posts with zero comments), um, where do I begin?

    No, I am not convinced that Sarah Palin is the sharpest knife in the drawer. I doubt, Mr. Williams, that she knows the first thing about paleontology, a field in which you have demonstrated expertise, and I doubt that she knows a thing about the connection between Lie groups and the mobility of multi-link mechanisms, a topic on which I have a couple of publications. But she is able to express opinions that resonate with large segments of the American public, and that is also true of President Obama expressing in most cases a different set of opinions.

    As your first post, however, you did not make an impression that you were able to think outside the zone of your personal experience and the social circles you frequent. You might have a promising career in paleontology, but I don’t think you have the skills to get far in politics. No, don’t get me wrong Mr. Williams, your politics are just fine, and your views appeal to many people. It is just that in politics you have to step outside your own comfort zone and at least reason with people “on the outside.”

    Secondly, the point Ms. Palin made about the Space Race bringing down the Soviet Union: that point may be dead wrong, but as other comments that have treated your remarks respectfully and at face value have suggested, the point is arguable, and being arguable, that Ms. Palin makes that point is proof positive, to those of us who don’t know already, that she is dumb, dumb, dumb, well, that point of view is simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

    There are some people who comment here who express the Liberal/Conservative point of view based on talking points, and I don’t want to put anyone down Liberal or Conservative for expressing talking points. We have a few people around here, and I don’t know if I am rightly included in that circle, who express Libertarian or Conservative views at a deep level going well beyond talking points. It seems, however, that the Liberal view point around here is represented at only the talking point level, and I have expressed the view that we need someone to represent the Liberal view as well as our best Conservative commentators around here. Hate to say it, but the opening paragraph of the first post on this thread wasn’t “it.”

  23. Oh, one more thing. The first sentence of the first post ends with an exclamation mark. This mode of expression is something I call “Ramsey Notation” (see http://www.statementanalysis.com/ramseynote/)

    The Ramsey murder case is both tragic as well as perplexing. One perplexing thing is the putative ransom note linked to the killing. I am not saying that Patsey Ramsey wrote that note, but a lot of people think she did, which would link her to the death of her daughter in a way that has not been explained apart from Ms. Ramsey being involved in it.

    I have read that note, and the impression I get from it is that the killer shops at Whole Foods.

  24. If Congress was more interested in exploring space and less interested in maintaining the Shuttle workforce they’d be ordering NASA to figure out how to go beyond LEO without any new launch vehicles. And when NASA came back and said that the only way to get crews into space currently is on the Soyuz, but that exploration could otherwise be done with existing boosters, Congress might finally get on the same page as the rest of the industry and get the funding for commercial crew and technology development for in-space propulsion.

  25. Carl wrote:

    “That’s a tricky counterfactual, Gregg. The only way I can see the United States not using the atomic bomb on Japan is if its development comes much too late to affect the war in the Pacific, which pretty much means the invasion of Japan succeeds before the bomb is finished.”

    You miss my point. I wasn’t talking about the possibility, probability, plausibity or methodology of how the US might NOT have used the bomb.,

    I was addressing the Soviet mind, and was making the point that if (for some unspecified reason which we needn’t concern ourselves with) the US didn’t use the bomb, The Soviets would have worked just as hard to build theirs.

    Likewise, even if we went into orbit first, they might have growled about the violation of the Motherland, but they still would have charged ahead with their program. Making that part, of the otherwise excellent article, specious.

  26. Aaron, I must agree with other comments that 10 to 25 tons per chunk is a sufficiently coarse granularity to support the building of just about anything of any size off-Earth. As for launch rates of one per week, the constraint there would seem to be manufacturing base more than launch facilities.

    As to launch facilities, rockets have to be transported from their points of manufacture, assembled and moved to launch pads. Vehicles the size of current ELV’s are transportable via road or rail. 8.3 or 10 meter HLV parts are not. Further infrastructure expense can be avoided by leveraging componentry available in significant quantity for other purposes. SpaceX assembles its vehicles horizontally in what is, essentially a long shed. It transports them to the pad using a special-purpose vehicle constructed mostly of off-the-shelf heavy truck parts and stands them up using hydraulics borrowed from heavy mining or construction machinery. HLV’s, in contrast, need things like the Cape Canaveral Vertical Assembly Building and the monstrous, all-custom crawler-transporters. Our current rockets are plenty big enough. We don’t need to build a new generation of Brobdignagian ground facilities to do what we need to do in space.

  27. The liberal take-away from Sarah Palin’s response is that she doesn’t (or didn’t) understand what the phrase “Sputnik moment” means. The commonly understood meaning, which you can see in places like Homer Hickam’s book “Rocket Boys”, is that when you consider yourself to be top of the heap, a rival achieves something amazing to upset the status quo. This then stimulates you to emphasize science education, work harder, demand more, etc. When the Japanese Earth Simulator was revealed, it was nicknamed “Computenik” for the same reason.

    It’s no crime to be unfamiliar with common phrases like “Sputnik moment” (some decent portion of Americans probably are), but if you’re out of your element, you shouldn’t bloviate. Sarah Palin doesn’t care what she’s ignorant about. See

    Yeah, I’ve seen some other liberals face-palm about her confused history too, but that’s not the main problem.

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