Can’t believe it. Sputnik is 50.
What’s “Sputnik?” you ask?
No, it’s not a new boy band, survivor show, or wireless gadget…. well, maybe it has characteristics of the latter.
Sputnik, for those under a certain age (like 40), was the first satellite to go into earth’s orbit. Not a big deal, you say, in today’s age with untold pieces of space junk now orbiting overhead?
Yes, it was a very big deal in 1957. Why? Not only because a satellite had actually reached orbit, but more importantly, because another country beat us to it — and that country was Russia, the Soviet Union, then the sworn enemy of the United States. The Space Race was on.
I grew up in those early years of the Space Race. I remember sitting in the back yard searching the night sky for the small blinking light we knew as Telstar, in 1962, the very first communications satellite. We watched breathlessly as John Glenn became the first person to orbit the earth in a space capsule, and later we cheered when Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the desolate moon surface just 12 years after Sputnik.
We have the Space Race to thank for so much of today’s technology, and much of contemporary culture’s excesses as well (like cell phones ringing in class). But in the 1970′s and 1980′s, public interest began to wane in this particular contest, troubles at NASA began to emerge, and then, the Challenger disaster in 1986 seemed to spell the end of the excitement forever. The space exploration program continues, but at a slower pace, with the emphasis now on exploration by robots to far-flung environments (the Mars rover, for example) and the unglamorous work of building the itnernational space station.
One of the most important by-products of Sputnik was a renewed emphasis on math and science education for American students in the 1960′s. But as with the later waning of interest in the space program, the emphasis on developing math/science skills also waned, and today the United States lags other nations considerably in the production of scientists, engineers and mathematicians — and citizens generally — who have the math/science skills necessary for proficiency in the space age.
Let’s hope that this 50th anniversary moment for Sputnik is a time for renewed commitment to math/science education in K-12 schools, so that higher education can welcome more students with the skills necessary to sustain majors in the science disciplines. Let’s also hope that this anniversary provides a time to re-ignite energy and excitement in the idea of exploration and discovery, whether here on earth or on far planets. We wouldn’t be enjoying this remarkably advanced civilization today if someone did not have the curiosity to launch a small boat across a large ocean. We are not at the end of exploration, but rather, on the edge of a whole new era loaded with remarkable potential for new discoveries in distant places.
See Charles Krauthammer’s column today in the Washington Post