The Sputnik Effect; Space Age, at 50, Marks a Milestone
Byline: Kristi Moore, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
To America's greatest generation, it symbolized a U.S. failure, and the very thought of Russian weapons in space was terrifying. To their children - the baby boomers - it made reality of science fiction while the phrase "duck and cover" became a staple of Cold War safety drills.
For America as a nation, the space race had officially begun.
Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, was launched by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. In those 98 minutes, the 184-pound, basketball-size Russian satellite ushered in an era of educational, social and scientific changes that marked the start of the space age and profoundly changed life in the United States.
"We stood outside with thousands of others, staring up. Some cried, some silent," said David Hoffman, director of the movie "Sputnik Mania."
Before long, the haunting "beep, beep, beep" that was heard on the radio by many Americans appeared in songs, Sputnik-related commercials played on television screens and imitation Sputniks decorated front yards.
The effects of Sputnik, however, went well beyond pop culture and home decor. The political and national-security implications were severe.
"Sputnik indicated that a country could drop nuclear weapons on any city, and we had no defense," Mr. Hoffman said. "It convinced Americans that we should spend whatever we could to build weapons."
Of course, all of these notions created a deep fear among the American public, as a certain resentfulness toward the Soviet Union began to emerge.
"The reaction in America can be described by one word: fear," said Saskia Sassen, Lynd professor of sociology at Columbia University. "Imaginations just carried away with terror, thinking of Sputnik."
Some even compare the level of fear to that of September 11, 2001.
"September 11, though absolutely horrible, was not as frightening as Sputnik," Mr. Hoffman said. "Not only weren't we so great, but the guy who was so great was the guy who was our archenemy."
Beyond these political implications, the face of United States education changed dramatically, whose effects still confront America today.
"Sputnik was the beginning of space science," said G. Scott Hubbard, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University. "Sputnik kicked it off in a very definitive way."
The development of space science then translated into the push of math and science education for the average student.
Sputnik "stimulated a very strong movement to improve the quality of math and science education," said Martin Collins, the curator from the space history division of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "That interest has been there ever since Sputnik."
The changes are evident today, as a curriculum focused heavily on math and science is stressed in the school systems. …