Energy and Education
During the early years of the cold war era, the United States fell behind in an important race with its most dangerous adversary. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched its globelike Sputnik satellite into an elliptical orbit around our planet. Using just a radio beacon’s beeping to signal its position as it reached heights of 583 miles (939 kilometers), the world’s first artificial moon changed the course of human history. When Americans first learned about Sputnik, many felt alarmed that the Soviets now had the rocket power and technology to send satellites high into orbit, and the ability to bomb our cities with nuclear warheads. We also felt humiliated that our great country had been beaten by a communist system of government in the politically motivated contest to cross first into the frontier of the stars.
If we look back half a century, however, the embarrassment of coming in second behind the Soviet Union at the start of the space race proved to be a blessing for America. It forced us to accept the painful truth that we had to radically improve our educational system if we wanted to successfully compete with foreign countries. Sputnik woke us up to the fact that we needed to make American students smarter in all academic fields, but especially in science and mathematics—the cornerstone subjects for all technological innovations. A year after Sputnik’s launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which infused our nation’s public and private schools with