Sputnik: The greatest thing to ever happen to America

It does not matter what you believe about god, creationism, science, evolution, whatever. If you were raised in a society in which there is an evil enemy that you are convinced intends to arrive some day on your country's shores, take over your government, impose a new social order, marry your sister, and so on, then when this evil foreign government sends the first warning shot in this war and it is an unprecedented and amazing feat of science, then suddenly you love science.

You pay taxes to fund science. Your idolize science. You start demanding that science comes to the rescue. One way to do this is to fund science, fund higher education, build up the universities.

The first Sputnik satellite was launched, and flew over the US multiple times, emitting a cryptic and disturbingly strange sounding radio signal, fifty years ago today.

The headline of this day fifty years ago in the Izvestia Daily:

We Were First

At 22:28 Moscow time on October 4, 1957, humanity entered a new space age. The Soviet Union sent the Earth's first artificial satellite into orbit.

The Sputnik Effect. This is roughly compiled data from a limited number of sources. This shows buildings built per decade at a handful of American campuses. Note the spike in the 1960s, arguably a result of a national will and desire to significantly expand higher education and research, as well as demographic effects.

Sputnik, the little beeping Soviet satellite that flew around the earth with an orbit taking it over the United States, was the single most effective event in framing science to ever happen in this country. American universities underwent the most dramatic expansion of building, especially but not exclusively in the sciences, during the 1960s, when government funding for expanding higher education was much more readily available than any time before or since. Some of this expansion was certainly in response to demographic shifts, but much of it is widely thought to have been a direct or indirect result of the sudden realization that the U.S. was behind the Russians in the space-race.


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"was much more redily [sic] available"--Heh! That happens when you're thinking about them commies...

And those of us sitting innocently in grade school suddenly found ourselves immersed in the New Math; in retrospect the first of many pea-brained schemes to reinvent math teaching. (Tho, truth be told, I think back rather fondly on NM--sets, number lines...)

In larger terms the whole Cold War era probably fostered science. I'm always amazed at the ways it influenced my mundane life, from bomb drills & New Math to a 3-year National Defense Education Act graduate fellowhip...as if we peace-marching, bra-burning, tree-hugging, pot-smoking biology majors were gonna play a big role in national defense...

It was the Cold War era generally that had the US moving ahead faster in science and technology. But Sputnik was like that extra bad hangover for the person trying to stop drinking, or that distant relative you saw at a wedding last year suddenly being dead of lung cancer to the person trying to quit smoking...

I agree that generally, it was the 1960s push for science that got America ahead. But was it Sputnik that was the triggering event ... I wonder? It certainly was an appropriate symbol of those times, but which other symbol was there? Apollo Moon Landings? That couldn't have been the triggering event. Werner Von Braun and his rockets? That could not have the effect on the consciousness as Sputnik? Any other comparable events or personalities?

In larger terms the whole Cold War era probably fostered science.

Do not confuse or conflate science with engineering or technology. As one of the weenies working on MILNET in its infancy, we did nothing to further computer science - we were concerned about making it work, not how it worked or why. Sure there was a bit of applying the concepts, but I assure you, none of the guys I worked with on antenna design or other obscure sections of the project were interesting in furthering science or expanding knowledge. We were earning a paycheck or in my case doing "our duty." If it worked we said "yea," and moved on to the next task. Personally, I learned more science in a semester of color theory in an art class than I did in 10 years of military service.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

The Apollo program was an outcome of the cold war, not an alternative impetus. This is not a hard to do analysis. It is what everyone said and acted on at the time. We were trying to beat the Russians. The term "race" in "space race" was an overt direct reference to the race with the USSR. A space ship in a movie or some other graphic medium with CCCP on the side was scary. I had stamps like that when I was a kid ... soviet space stamps with CCCP on them and they were scary.

Braun was our guy, and again, he was part of the process.

Regarding technology vs. science, I don't want to conflate them, but what did in fact happen is that the higher education system was not world class. Then it was. And the difference was the funding, expansion, and building of many new campuses, new buildings on existing campuses, and the faculty and staff to fund them. All the disciplines gained.

The GI Bill of course was a factor in some of that but the majority of the new students going to those universities were not GI's.

Despite appearances, people at universities are not stupid. Well, not all the time anyway. The cold war generally was used as an impetus to build the U's and all the fields of study were expanded, even the arts. BUt, at the same time, huge,huge, huge amounts of money went into certain areas, and here I'm happy to conflate many areas of engineering with many areas of science. As in the intersection in and around materials science, for instance.

I went to a high school that was located on the old university campus. Our high school had 360 students, and we occupied half the old campus or less, in terms of classrooms. That was the NY State university unit in Albany. There couldn't have been more than a couple of thousand students in that school in 1960. SUNY Albany's new campus opened for classes in 66. The SUNY system went from important to mega over those years from Sputnik to the end of Viet Nam. Same with CA, and so on.

The sad underlying context being that fear for survival is necessary for full appreciation (encouraging, funding, etc.) of science. After all, it wasn't just resentment that Sputnik showed the Russkies were ahead of us intellectually; it was the fear of what they might see/accomplish from their new vantage point...

Quite similar to the impetus for the Manhattan Project...(at which time, von Braun was "their guy." [Germany's, not the USSR's, of course.])

OTOH, what a thrill it's been to live to see the Evil Empire humanized (not to mention dissipated), and for that matter, even "Red China" brought more or less into the fold.

Though come to think of it, the older, more traditional threats were probably easier to live with than terrorism; which doesn't seem to provoke any response other than stupid wars, self-defeating legislation, and general hassles (e.g., TSA idiocy).

And that leaves scientific urgency...where?

Onkel Bob, I couldn't agree more. Which is why my early 70's fellowship amuses me...(tho as soon as epiphytes in old-growth forests become strategic, I'm your gal!).

Two words: space boners

Does anybody remembers "The Martian Shop" by Howard Fast?

Maybe we need some "Martians" to set shop on our pale blue dot to get back this Sputnik effect worldwide.

By El Guerrero de… (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

So using your logic, when your enemies score a hit using ultra-fundamentalist religious dogma, then we should go all right-wing evangelical Xian in response?

Wait, that actually explains a few things...

My point? In the post? My point in the post is that what looked like a major embrace of science in the 1960s in this country wasn't. Thinking it was has led to complacency in relation things like religious fundamentalism, and this, in turn, has left us in the mess we are in.

Or at least, that's my point now.

LOL! Greg, I sure do appreciate the way you stay a part of the discussion in your comment threads; and even let your opinions evolve (along with ours) when appropriate...

Oboy! Do I ever remember those "post-Sputnik" days! People were actually in awe and in fear of the Russians, for a short time, and absolutely fascinated with these satellites(and they went absolutely nuts once the Russians put Yuri Gagarin into space). The things I remember. . . people actually watching the satellites in the sky, on a summer night. . . .and the fears about science, of course. But somehow, we all survived!
Anne G

It was 60 years ago, not 50. We lived in the desert, a long way from any light pollution, and my dad (a USDA scientist) took us out to see it the night after it hit the papers. We waited until Sputnik left the shadow of the Earth and moved, a tiny bright speck, across the sky - one of my earliest memories.

And yes, we started getting more science and math in school after that. The set theory I learned in 8th grade, a New Math innovation, has been extremely useful as an adult; thanks, Sputnik!

By Edgar Carpenter (not verified) on 12 Feb 2017 #permalink

One of the more interesting "secrets" regarding Sputnik is that Werner von Braun was quite able to beat them into space, and chafing at the bit to do so.

Fortunately, he was stopped by his superiors in the Army from doing so -- and the Soviets were allowed to "be first".

It wasn't just that the wiser generals in the military knew that this would light a fire underneath U.S. STEM education -- and provide blank checks for the Apollo mission...

They also had a more important military-political issue to deal with, and allowing the Soviets to succeed solved that problem rather neatly:


By Brainstorms (not verified) on 12 Feb 2017 #permalink