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Sputnik at 50

November 29, 2007 By:
Ben G. Frank, JE Feature
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Steve Savitt, a freshman studying engineering at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, was riding in a crowded subway in early October 1957, when he read that the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth.

That news, 50 years ago, stunned the world and affected Savitt, too.

"The enormity of what was done," recounted former engineer Savitt, now a lawyer, "shocked us. It was beyond our imagination that a satellite could be launched into orbit and actually stay up there."

Several hundred miles away, another engineering student at the University of New Hampshire, Dr. Stephen Wolnek, who would later become president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, recalled that all around him was the feeling that "it was important to be an engineer."

But millions of Americans also had a sense of self-doubt and even fear that this Sputnik had created in the United States, which then was in the thick of the Cold War with the USSR.

"We were not first," said Savitt in an interview.

"The whole concept that a backward country was out in front of us depressed the country," remembered Wolnek.

In the middle of the Cold War, this "sting of defeat," these "frightening ramifications," this "being bested on the international stage," had, at the time, "shattered America's sense of invulnerability," writes Matthew Brzezinski in his new book Red Moon Rising.

Sputnik was also a propaganda coup for the Soviets, and American public opinion was furious at its own government.

American scientists were fairly unanimous in criticizing government inactivity. Sputnik was a clear signal of Soviet space superiority -- though, in actuality, two months before Sputnik, the Russians had launched an R-7 ICBM missile.

One fear linked to the Sputnik launch on Oct. 4, 1957, was that the Soviets had advanced rockets that might be able to carry a nuclear warhead thousands of miles. It also meant that other conquests of space might easily be within reach for the USSR, achievements beyond the dreams of U.S. scientists at the time.

On his part, Savitt joined the space program at Grumman aerospace, assigned to work on the Lunar Excursion Modular, known as LEM. He recalls that at the time of Sputnik, entering science "excited a lot of Jewish kids." Here was "a good profession," even a "high paying" one, and, he added, he soon began seeing young men with yarmulkes in classes and later entering the space program.

Moon Dancing

The launching of Sputnik actually resulted in the United States reaching the moon 12 years later. "Sputnik did light a fire under the American space program," recently wrote Sharon Begley in Newsweek magazine.

Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer and Planetarium programs director of Philadelphia's world-renowned Franklin Institute, said the excitement of Sputnik and what followed had a "direct influence" on his own interests. He pointed out that, at the time, the Franklin Institute had a number of research labs involved in a space program.

Pitts also cited the "incredible media" work of the late Dr. I. M. Levitt of the institute in galvanizing support for America's space program. "Many people who ended up in the space industry in this area were there because of I.M. Levitt," declared Pitts.

Gene Sosin, author of Sparks of Liberty: An Insider's Memoir of Radio Liberty, recalls another aspect of the effect of Sputnik. The "shock and awe" of it "became a driving force to awaken a knowledge about Russia and the Russian language," recalled Sosin, who was former director of program planning for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

He related that his wife, Gloria, became a Russian language teacher at the time in the Westchester, N.Y., school system. In 1958, the National Defense Education Act was passed, initiating college loan programs, and revamping elementary and high school curricula with an emphasis on science and foreign languages so Americans could compete with Soviet engineers.

After Sputnik I launched in October, the U.S. Defense Department responded to the political furor by approving funding for other U.S. satellite projects.

But Sputnik was not a one-shot deal. The Soviets struck again. On Nov. 3, 1957, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier payload, including a dog named Laika.

After an unsuccessful U.S. launch in December 1957, the tide turned on Jan. 31, 1958, when America successfully launched Explorer I.

The Explorer program continued as a successful ongoing series of lightweight, scientifically useful spacecraft was produced and launched.

Sputnik led directly to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. The late 1950s and early 1960s, therefore, saw the beginning of a space race.

The interest and excitement among young people to get into the space program did not end in the first years after Sputnik, however. Students, then and afterwards, caught the excitement and kept it alive in succeeding decades.

In the final analysis, for those born long after the 1957 satellite launch, Sputnik set in motion events that led not only to the moon landing, but also to cell phones, federally guaranteed student loans and the wireless Internet. Satellites today govern virtually every aspect of modern life, from communications to credit-card transactions, to avoiding traffic with GPS receivers.

Welcome to the space age.

 

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