The Shock of the Century

Paul Dickson

324 pages
36 photographs, 2 illustrations, 1 map, 1 appendix, index


October 2019


$24.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)

December 2019


$24.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

On October 4, 1957, the day Leave It to Beaver premiered on American television, the Soviet Union launched the space age. Sputnik, all of 184 pounds with only a radio transmitter inside its highly polished shell, became the first artificial satellite in space; while it immediately shocked the world, its long-term impact was even greater, for it profoundly changed the shape of the twentieth century.

Paul Dickson chronicles the dramatic events and developments leading up to and resulting from Sputnik’s launch. Supported by groundbreaking, original research and many declassified documents, Sputnik offers a fascinating profile of the early American and Soviet space programs and a strikingly revised picture of the politics and personalities behind the facade of America’s fledgling efforts to get into space.

The U.S. public reaction to Sputnik was monumental. In a single weekend, Americans were wrenched out of a mood of national smugness and postwar material comfort. Initial shock at and fear of the Soviets’ intentions galvanized the country and swiftly prompted innovative developments that define our world today. Sputnik directly or indirectly influenced nearly every aspect of American life: from an immediate shift toward science in the classroom to the arms race that defined the Cold War, the competition to reach the moon, and the birth of the internet.

By shedding new light on a pivotal era, Dickson expands our knowledge of the world we now inhabit and reminds us that the story of Sputnik goes far beyond technology and the beginning of the space age, and that its implications are still being felt today.

Author Bio

Paul Dickson, who has written more than sixty nonfiction books, covered the Apollo spaceflight program as a reporter leading up to the 1969 moon landing. Among his other works are A Dictionary of the Space Age and Out of This World: American Space Photography.


“A fascinating slice of useful social history.”—USA Today

“Captures the excitement and angst of the dawning of the Space Age.”—Dallas Morning News

“A terrific book.”—Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

“Paul Dickson’s indefatigable research and reportorial lucidity have given us a fascinating history of the event that forever changed our world.”—Walter Cronkite

“Entertaining, admirably straightforward.”—Wilson Quarterly

“[Dickson’s] research is painstaking, his attention to detail exemplary. . . . It flows smoothly and clearly—an admirable quality in writing.”—Philadelphia Inquirer

“An ominous foreign presence suddenly seems to take control of the skies—‘Another Pearl Harbor!’ some shout. Initial fears are replaced by a determination to meet the challenge, and America declares that life has changed forever. Sounds familiar, but the transforming event of Paul Dickson’s book is not the crash of hijacked airliners [on] September 11; it is the Soviet Union’s launch in October 1957 of Sputnik.”—Washington Post Book World

“A superbly detailed account of the people and events that first took us off the surface of the Earth.”—Col. Chris Hadfield, Canadian Space Agency Astronaut

“American arrogance, trumped by the Soviet surprise, led to an unparalleled time of national flagellation and self-doubt. Out of it all came the triumph of Apollo as American determination and spirit responded to the wake-up call of Sputnik. This book vividly reminded me of the powerful events that led me from an impressionable kid to an Apollo 9 astronaut.”—Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 astronaut

“Space exploration is often portrayed as a U.S.-U.S.S.R. race, with the Soviet Union winning the initial lap by launching Sputnik, the earth's first artificial satellite. Yet as Dickson reveals, for the United States, the race was also an internal competition, with the military (particularly Wernher von Braun’s rocket team) and the Eisenhower administration grappling for control of the national space program. Eisenhower, who sought to demilitarize space and thereby open the skies to U.S. espionage satellites, eventually triumphed, establishing NASA as a civilian agency and successfully testing a clandestine satellite launch.”—Library Journal

Table of Contents

1. Sputnik Night
2. Gravity Fighters
3. Vengeance Rocket
4. An Open Sky
5. The Birth of Sputnik
6. Red Monday
7. Dog Days
8. American Birds
9. Ike Scores
10. Sputnik’s Legacy
Appendix: Sputnik’s Long, Lexical Orbit
Author’s Note, Acknowledgments, and Dedication

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