On this day in 1957, the Soviet Union announced that it had staged a successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which Radio Moscow claimed was capable of hitting “any spot on the globe.”
According to this 1957 Associated Press article, Radio Moscow described the weapon as a “super-range, multi-stage” missile, and boasted, somewhat vaguely, that it had flown at a record altitude, covered a vast distance in a brief time, and had reached the target area. The announcement did not reveal whether the test missile carried a nuclear warhead, but the implication was all too clear that it could nuke a distant target. The Soviets also boasted that new weapon was invulnerable to conventional antiaircraft defenses. The AP described the ICBM as “the ultimate weapon” and ominously noted the US was still trying to perfect its own version. US politicians immediately reacted with alarming quotes. Sen. Russell Long, D-LA, warned that “if it is true, it will require a complete re-evaluation of our defense plans. Any nation with a sufficient number of intercontinental missiles could deliver death anywhere in the world.” The rising alarm about the threat of Soviet missile superiority would haunt the subsequent 1960 Presidential election, in which the Democratic candidate, Sen. John F. Kennedy, would chide the GOP about the development of a “missile gap” during its hold on the White House. And it no doubt put an extra bit of urgency into “duck n’ cover” civil defense drills in schools and spurred sales of civilian backyard bomb shelters.
In truth, the Soviet missile, the R-7, launched from a base in Kazakhstan, had a range of 4,700 miles, which while impressive, wasn’t enough to justify the Soviets’ braggadocio about hitting any target on the planet. Subsequent versions developed over the next few years doubled that range, but even so, the primitive ICBM wasn’t anywhere near as menacing as its hype. For one thing, the missile was so expensive that the Soviets only built a few. Additionally, it could only be launched from large, conspicuous complexes—easily kept under surveillance by the high-flying American U-2 spy planes—and required nearly a day’s worth of preparation for a launch. By the time the Soviets deployed the R-7 in early 1960, the U.S. had successfully tested its own ICBM, the Atlas D, and was rushing to put it into service. As historian Stephen L. Schwartz recounts in his book “Atomic Audit: The costs and consequences of U.S. nuclear weapons since 1940,” when JFK entered the Oval Office in January 1961, he was shocked to discover that not only did the “missile gap” not exist, but that the US actually had six times as many of the weapons as the Soviets did. And with that, here are the science stories of the day.