Monday, October 08, 2007

50 Year Old Thoughts On the Launch of Sputnik

I wanted to post this last week but the news of Bruce Marshall's death caused me to postpone.

Fifty years ago - Oct 5, 1957 - the Soviets won stage 1 of the space race by becoming the first country in the world to launch a man made object into orbit - Sputnik 1. It was unfathomable to many in the United States that a "backwards" communist country could be technologically superior to us. Many were justifiably scared at the prospect of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads all the way to the United States.

After watching our own Project Vanguard failures, the leadership decided this country needed to commit a vast amount of resources to science education and research - they also spawned NASA and DARPA. One could consider this a watershed moment in the nation's rise to technological superiority.

For those of us that weren't around or don't remember the launch of Sputnik, it's hard to imagine a time when the US didn't dominate the space race. I decided to contact a retired civil engineer and friend that was just finishing high school when Sputnik was launched to get his perspective on that historic day. His insight about the dwindling momentum from that event is right on the money in my opinion and I thought readers might enjoy it. If anyone has their own insight then please share:
I was about 17 when Sputnik was launched and in high school. It was the subject of a lot of discussion in the press, but not around our dinner table at home. I don't remember any "panic" among my circle of acquaintances like occurred in the political and media environment. It was the Fifties and we were focused internally on rebuilding our economy from the aftermath of WW II. I don't think a lot of "BIG Picture, Future" thinking was going on other than how to get a part of the "American Dream".

Personally, I wasn't surprised because I had been a fan of science fiction since junior high and had been reading about space flight for years. I expected it to happen as part of the evolution of science and it didn't present the "wonder" to me, just "OK, it finally happened, what's next?" My biggest surprise was how small the actual satellite was.

I assumed that the USA would follow and they did, in spades. I appreciated the renewed emphasis on science and math in the schools since that was my main interest and talent.

We have become complacent in this area over the years and it worries me. We are in danger of losing our technology leadership, if not already. Maybe we need another huge event to slap us in the face. What a shame that the motivation of discovery is not enough to keep national momentum. I blame that on the political and media climate that continually focuses on short term irreverent issues and not the long term good of the nation. Two and Four year planning horizons by the politicians and the drive for "gotcha" stories by the media are not in the best interest of the nation. The Baby Boomers and Gen Xer's are "me first" groups and don't understand or are not interested in hard science for the most part.

I still believe that the future of mankind (I refuse to use the PC humankind) is in space exploration and exploitation.

Well, in looking back over this email, I noticed that I didn't give you a lot of Sputnik era info and a lot of opinion. Sorry, but I don't really have a lot of specific memories, just general impressions. Maybe that is significant in light of my personal interests and how I see the significance of the event.

I hope this helps you. If you have any specific questions, let me know.

1 comment:

J Q Taxpayer said...

Having been around then. I agree with much of what he wrote.

A neighbor of ours was a "ham radio operator" back then. He had a radio that could pick up the "ping" of sputnik's transmitter. If I remember just about every 90 min. it made a orbit of the earth.

A number of us kids would go over there and listen to it come in real weak, grow stronger, and then get weaker before disappearing. That was cool

Yes, we where dumb enough to go outside and try to see if we could see it fly over.

Does anyone remember Echo Ballon the US put into space? It was large enough you could see it right after sun down, when the sun would shine off the polished skin.