America woke up on October 4, 1957.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) launched the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit. After successfully putting the shiny ball into orbit, the Soviets trumpeted the news that Sputnik traced the skies over the entire planet, to the shock of most people in the U.S. (Photo of the model in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.)
New Scientist magazine’s website provides significant details about how awake America became, including very good coverage of the Moon landings that were nearly a direct result of Sputnik’s launch — without Sputnik, the U.S. probably wouldn’t have jump started its own space program so, with the creation of NASA and the drive for manned space flight, and without the space race President John F. Kennedy probably wouldn’t have made his dramatic 1961 proposal to put humans on the Moon inside a decade.
Much of the progress to the 1969 Moon landing could not have occurred without the reform of education and science prompted by the Soviets’ triumph. With apathetic parents and the No Child Left Behind Act vexing U.S. education and educators from both sides, more than nostalgia makes one misty-eyed for the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), a direct product of Sputnik-inspired national ambition. Coupled with the GI Bill for veterans of World War II and Korea, NDEA drove U.S. education to be the envy of the world, best in overall achievement (and also drove creationists to try to block such improvements).
(Today NDEA gets little more than a footnote in real history — Wikipedia’s entry is short and frustrating, the U.S. Department of Education gives little more. Educators, you have got to tell your history.)
Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) lists 1957 as among the dozen dates students need to know in U.S. history, for Sputnik. It is the only date Texas officials list for U.S. history that is really an accomplishment by another nation. (The first time I encountered this requirement was in a meeting of social studies teachers gearing up for classes starting the following week. The standards mention the years, but not the events; I asked what the event was in 1957 that we were supposed to teach, noting that if it was the Little Rock school integration attempt, there were probably other more memorable events in civil rights. No one mentioned Sputnik. It was more than two weeks before I got confirmation through our district that Sputnik was the historic event intended. Ouch, ouch, ouch!)
Sputnik was big enough news to drive Elvis Presley off the radio, at least briefly, in southern Idaho. My older brothers headed out after dinner to catch a glimpse of the satellite crossing the sky. In those darker times — literally — rural skies offered a couple of meteoroids before anyone spotted Sputnik. But there it was, slowly painting a path across our skies, over the potato fields, over the Snake River, over America.
Sputnik’s launch changed our lives, mostly for the better.
Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy provides a series of links teachers can rely on for good information, especially if you’re composing a lesson plan quickly.
New Scientist’s broad range of coverage of the space race, up to the current drive to go to Mars, is well worth bookmarking.
Google’s anniversary logo, in use today only, gets you to a good compilation of sources.
How will you mark the anniversary?
[More links below the fold.]
- Moscow Weekly News on the legacy of Sputnik, viewed from Russia
- YouTube video, Bernard Lovell, then head of Jodrell Bank Telescope, on finding the signal and tracking the satellite (link from Al Jazeera, ironically enough)
- AFP story on anniversary commemorations in Russia
- “Sputnik Sweethearts,” editorial in Hindustan Times on the possibilities for space exploration if nations cooperate rather than compete
- Press release from Science Daily
- Associated Press story on 50th anniversary ceremonies at Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside of Moscow; NASA Chief Administrator Michael Griffin spoke (the Cold War is STILL over!)
- USC education prof Karen Symms Gallagher, “Sputnik Redux: What’s changed for K-12?” in Forbes
- Photos from ABC Television News