Thursday, September 27, 2007
Meditation on Sputnik
In reading this week’s Science Times section of the New York Times, I learned that October 4 marks 50 years since the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth.
I was about four years old at the time, and remember being fascinated with the word, saying out loud with great satisfaction: “Sput – Nik!” And I have a very vague recollection of either having, or seeing, a small model of the enemy’s satellite, which was probably some kind of toy of the era.
But the launch of Sputnik had a much more profound effect on the United States than on my four-year-old self. From the NY Times article:
“Sputnik plunged Americans into a crisis of self-confidence. Had the country grown lax with prosperity? Was the education system inadequate, especially in training scientists and engineers? Were the institutions of liberal democracy any match in competition with an authoritarian communist society?
In The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985), Dr. [Walter A.] McDougall wrote that before Sputnik the cold war had been ‘a military and political struggle in which the United States need only lend aid and comfort to its allies in the front lines.’ Now, he continued, the cold war ‘became total, a competition for the loyalty and trust of all peoples fought out in all arenas of social achievement, in which science textbooks and racial harmony were as much tools of foreign policy as missiles and spies.’ ”
Sputnik was America’s wake-up call.
“Critics attacked the administration of President Eisenhower, who at first had dismissed Sputnik as an event of only 'scientific interest.' Soon the Defense Department stepped up missile development. The Democratic Congress established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”
The “missile gap” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was a key issue of the 1960 presidential campaign and may have helped lead to Kennedy’s election.
Once elected, Kennedy made his famous vow to achieve “the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Thus began the space race.
In addition to the progress made in space (the launch of the first successful American satellite, Explorer I, followed by the Mercury and Gemini programs), a new emphasis was placed on science and math in the schools, to train a new generation of scientists who could continue the progress in space.
As the space race continued, it had other influences. The scientific progress associated with the space program resulted in the invention of Velcro, Tang, and about 30,000 other inventions. TV spawned “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space,” which continued to fuel the imaginations of the next generation. And finally, in July of 1969, the Apollo 11 mission achieved Kennedy’s promise: Men landed on the moon. American men.
My parents and I were in Britain on vacation that July. We had just arrived at a small hotel in England and got to watch the moon landing on a black-and-white television in the parlor of the hotel surrounded by English travelers. They warmly congratulated us for the accomplishment of the astronauts, and I still remember one woman saying, “I’m so glad you got there before the Russians!”
Because that is what it was about. It was about the Cold War and trying to make up for the humiliation of the USSR having launched that Sputnik before we had done anything similar. It was about proving to the world that our science was superior, that they didn’t have anything on us.
Once this was accomplished, interest in the space race flagged and Apollo 17, in 1972, was the last manned mission to the Moon.
Since then it’s just been the space shuttles and the space station…no new exploration, no manned flights to Mars. When I was growing up I was sure that by 2007 we would have landed men on Mars, and probably started a colony or two!
Once the Soviet Union broke up and the Cold War was completely dead, interest waned even further. Without the contest between the two world powers, and without a clear mission such as sending a manned flight to another planet, there just doesn’t seem to be much point in it anymore. The space shuttle program just isn’t inspirational, and it relies on 30-year-old technology. And although the unmanned exploration of Mars by the Mars Rover is a practical way to explore Mars, it’s just not the same as “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Thinking about the Cold War almost makes me nostalgic for those days. Yes, I grew up under the shadow of the atomic bomb, with air raid drills in elementary school, hiding under our desks or lying face down on the floor of the school basement with our hands carefully placed over the back of our necks (as if that would have protected us in Nutley, New Jersey, if New York City were obliterated by The Bomb). And yes, that was not fun. I remember begging my parents to build a fallout shelter in our back yard as our neighbor had done.
But at least our rivalry with the Soviet Union had some good outcomes: Better science classes in the schools, a plethora of new technological advances. And at least we were up against a culture that wasn’t that different from us; when push came to shove during the Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides saw the potential for total destruction and pulled back from the brink of nuclear war. The idea of “Mutually Assured Destruction” kept either side from pushing the button. And despite the fear that nuclear war fostered in the population, we had the illusion of control. There were community fallout shelters, CONELRAD on the radio (now called the emergency alert system) and townwide air raid drills - and we got the idea that the government was still running the show and would somehow protect us.
The current “war” is very different from the Cold War. There have been no positive outcomes for either side; no scientific advances, no increase in educational quality in the schools. Fighting this enemy doesn’t involve science. It’s about duct tape on your windows and “reporting suspicious activity.” It’s about men with box cutters. And if a nuclear weapon comes into play, we won’t know it. We won’t be able to track its course through the skies and blow it up before it hits us. We won’t be able to look for the enemy planes and shoot them down. The Bomb is still a threat with this enemy. But it might be brought into our country in a container ship, or in a suitcase.
And this enemy is so different from us or from the former Soviet Union. We are at war with people whose culture we don’t understand and whose idea of honor and principles are very different from ours. Our opponents are not afraid to die for their cause. Destruction is not a deterrent for them.
The result is fear and a feeling of lack of control, since how can you fight people who aren’t afraid to die? How can you prevent destruction if you can’t see it coming?
And because learning and science aren’t key to fighting this new enemy, the emphasis on science and math in the schools has declined. The U.S. is no longer as competitive in scientific fields and is being overtaken and surpassed by other countries. Because science is no longer valued as it was in the 1960’s we are now able to boast of having a president and others highly placed in our government who actually don’t believe in evolution. It would have been hard to imagine this back in the 1960’s. We have actually been going backward instead of forward.
Besides the War on Terror, economic factors are an overriding concern – but only in the realm of that big gambling ring called the Stock Market. Real productivity is leaving this country. We are becoming a service-oriented economy; we don’t make things.
All of our money is being squandered on a war in Iraq rather than being invested in our schools, our children, or the once-cutting-edge space program. And this is a shame, because space travel is our future.
Although manned space travel is dangerous, ultimately we will need to turn to it again. Maybe not in our generation, and maybe it won’t be a country that does it but a private enterprise. But eventually our planet’s resources and open space will start to get used up and we will be facing a crisis of unimaginable proportions. Or some other event will occur to spur new interest in space. (Aliens, anyone?) Then and only then will the exploration resume.
Even beyond the practical reasons to expand to other planets, Mankind needs new worlds to explore or we will stagnate. Once there were new lands to discover on the other side of the planet. Now they’ve all been discovered. Mount Everest has been scaled many times by many people. Hitherto unknown islands have all been found. No wonder the American population doesn’t think about anything beyond Britney Spears. There is nothing to look forward to.
For one brief and shining moment in the 1960’s, space, “The Final Frontier,” seemed to herald mankind’s next journey of discovery. But the dream has faded with the fall of the Soviet Union and has been replaced with a self-centered focus on money, power and greed. Instead of “boldly going where no man has gone before,” our country is mired in a dangerous policy of spreading our religion of capitalism (under the code word “democracy”) to countries that have no interest in it. Something has to change, for the good of America, and the good of humankind. We need another Sputnik.