We Really Are the Children of Sputnik

Fifty years ago, the world was a simpler place. It was not a less hostile place, but it certainly was simpler. Many of the concerns we have today were with us then, and many of the routines we have today, we had then too. But then along came a little, shiny satellite -- which Saswato R. Das and I wrote about yesterday ("Sputnik: Fifty Years Later") -- and things began to change rapidly. Looking back to early October 1957 reminds us of how far we have progressed and, yet, how little we have changed.

Here are a few examples. In the U.S., the news of the day was dominated by a crisis in Little Rock, Ark., where nine African-American students had attempted to attend classes at a previously segregated high school. They were denied entrance by local forces. It took an order from the President of the United States to ensure the so-called Little Rock Nine received the justice of an equal opportunity for an education.

In Miami, Fla., the Teamsters labor union elected James Riddle Hoffa, under investigation for wiretapping and perjury, to be their new president. On American TV, CBS premiered a new family sitcom called "Leave It to Beaver". In sports, the 1957 World Series pitted the Milwaukee Braves against the iconic New York Yankees, but the Braves prevailed. At the movies, the biggest hit was "The Bridge on the River Kwai", but "Jailhouse Rock" with Elvis Presley would soon give it a run for its money (and the title song also ended up the smash hit of the year).

So distant and yet so familiar. I bring this all up because my writing partner on the Sputnik package, Saswato Das, yesterday penned an op-ed for the Newark Star Ledger called "We Are the Children of Sputnik". In it, Das writes that people in the old days expected the new Space Age to deliver fantastic discoveries and achievements, leading to the stars. He has them wondering, though, fifty years later: 'Where are the moon bases, the hotels in orbit, and spaceports catering to regular spaceflights? Shouldn't we have been vacationing on Mars, or at least the moon, by now?'

Yet, as people, we can only progress so far and change so much before we return to our old ways.

Das reminds us of this in his summation of what happened to the excitement that the space race engendered in the years after the launch of Sputnik:

In the years after Sputnik I, Space Age progress was driven by the competition and macho posturing between two superpowers engaged in the Cold War. Having lost primacy in launching the first satellite, the U.S. took on the challenge to be first to set foot on the moon. The two nations raced to be first not only to prove their technological prowess but to win the hearts and minds of the world. Once the race ended in 1969, the urgency changed, and the Space Age suddenly seemed old news.

What a shame.

Das is a little younger than I am, so he doesn't remember first-hand what the early days of spaceflight felt like. I was just a little boy living in the Sierra Mountain region of California when news of Sputnik arrived. My father was a field surveyor for the U.S. Geological Survey, measuring maps of the rugged region. One night he took me out to look at the stars, which were particularly clear in that part of the country. He had his professional field glasses with him, and after staring up at the sky for a while, he pointed up and handed the binoculars to me, after adjusting the eyepieces. And after a bit of fumbling, I finally saw in the lenses what he had been pointing at: two little moving lights. One was tiny, the other was bigger and longer. "That's the Sputnik," he said, with little emotion. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, though.

Fifty years later, in speaking with the legendary Fred Durant, I mentioned this story. He replied, "Oh, you saw the dot in the 'i'." Then he explained how most early observers who trudged out into the night to see what the first satellite looked like in person, stared up at the heavens and only saw the longer shape of the two, the orbiting booster rocket, which would soon fall back to Earth, and mistook it for Sputnik. That comment made me almost as thrilled now as I was then.

Das is completely right about how the public has grown bored over the years by the prospects of spaceflight. In a way, we have all fallen back to the Earth. We have problems we need to address right here: Black children and white children still have trouble getting along in high school, for instance. We have our distractions: movies and TV shows and songs to download (not to mention the World Series).

When I recently asked an old Space Age veteran, Bert Fowler, what he thought it would take to re-energize the American public's interest in the space program, he said, "Perhaps another Sputnik would help?"

Maybe we'll get one. The Chinese are planning for some fairly ambitious missions in the coming years. And a couple of days ago NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian apace agency) announced plans to share equipment in future programs. So maybe what seems so old now will become new again.

As Das wrote in his piece yesterday: 'One thing is for sure: Space is now part of our destiny. We are all children of Sputnik.... For a child in school today, it may not be wrong to dream of a vacation on the moon.'

Let's hope he's right, for the sake of future kids.

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