Sputnik I at 50 years – oh, how the mighty have fallen

Posted on October 4, 2007


You can see it today at Google’s main page, at NASA’s home page and at in their history pages too, and on the front pages of any number of newspapers around the world (including my local paper, the Denver Post – see the bottom right of the image). On this day 50 years ago, the space race between the USA and the USSR began with the successful launch by the Soviets of Sputnik I.

I’ve heard from people who watched Sputnik orbit the earth after nightfall. They recall fearing that the Soviets were just a stone’s thrown from ICBMs that could rain nuclear bombs down on the U.S. without fear of retaliation. They recall how they felt that their lives were about to change in ways they couldn’t imagine. And the transcripts of discussions between then President Eisenhower, his aides, and the press, corroborate their first-hand recollections.

Sputnik is remembered because it was the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth and because it suggested to the United States that we were already far behind in a race that President Eisenhower and Congress hadn’t even recognized we were in. It wasn’t until President Kennedy’s May 25th, 1961 speech did the government really respond to the threat Sputnik represented – with a major push into space in order to match and, ultimately, to exceed the Soviets. And with his call for “a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities,” President Kennedy midwifed the birth of a new national culture based on science, on technology, on education, and on hope for the future of the nation.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

In order to catch up to the Soviets, the U.S. focused on education, on fundamental scientific research, on developing new technologies and improving existing ones. The education system that came out of the space race was the envy of the world. We’ve rested on our laurels since the Soviet Union collapsed and as a result we’ve allowed the quality of our primary and secondary schools to fall 1st to 9th among the top 30 nations in the world. Sure, our higher education system is still very good, but fewer and fewer of our own citizens are attending our own colleges and earning bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD degrees. Fundamental scientific research is no longer guaranteed by the federal government, and the funding winds are buffeting everything around so much – cancer yesterday, nanotech today, biodiesel and ethanol tomorrow – that very little basic research is even funded by the government anymore. And even when the government does decide to fund a major scientific initiative, it’s funded with long term debt instead of doing the fiscally responsible thing and either cutting existing programs or proposing new taxes.

Only in technology development are we still ahead in the race. And yet our own developments are enabling the rest of the world to catch up to us faster. Our own technologies enabled outsourcing. Our own technologies are now being built, cheaper and faster and occasionally better, beyond our borders. And our own political nearsightedness prevents us from using the very technologies we developed to continue staying ahead of our international competitors (for a discussion of one example of this, see this article in Aviation Week about U.S. export control laws).

And as a result, we now face a triple crisis. The first is a very real crisis of demographics and global heating that will require us to fundamentally change the way we do literally everything about our lives. We’ll need to change how we power our entire civilization in order to effectively address global heating, but when you add the economic realities of our aging population, population growth, and issues like education and health care to the equation, the scale of this crisis is difficult to imagine clearly, never mind to address effectively. The second crisis is a failure of leadership at the highest levels. Our President and many of his advisers don’t even believe that global heating is a real problem and prefer faith-based beliefs and corporate payoffs money to hard science. Congress is content to play petty games over personal power instead of tackling the real problems that they were ostensibly elected to tackle. And the Supreme Court has transitioned from a trusted, largely politically impartial body back to the bad old days of rank judicial partisanship. Only at the state and local levels are there any real leaders left, and most of them are so busy dealing with their own particular issues that they haven’t the time to focus on the bigger picture.

But the third crisis, the devolution of our national culture, is probably the biggest one. Because we more-or-less won the Cold War, we believed that we were too big, too wealthy, too militarily supreme to ever bring down. And so we as a nation lost our focus on the future, on the fact that the race is never won so long as there are other nations to keep racing. As a result the government stripped away public funding for higher education and transfered research funding for basic science and medicine from government labs and taxpayer funded universities to profit-minded private corporations. We became a nation of “what’s in it for me” as opposed to “how do we win together.” Our parents and government coddled us into believing that our self esteem was more important than our knowledge, that everyone was “special”, and that planning for the future was pointless so we should “carpe diem.” In short, we developed a potentially fatal sense of entitlement. But as Syndrome says in the socially biting moving The Incredibles, “…when everyone’s super, no-one will be.”

The reason that the devolution of our national culture is such a big problem is because effective responses to both of the other two crises require some major changes to our national culture first. If all we can focus on is short term personal gain, either in our personal lives, our economy, or our political system, then we can’t even see the longer term problems. Global heating may be a problem 30 years from now, but I can’t be expected to pay even one cent more per kiloWatt-hour for my electricity today. Social Security is going great right now, so what if it bankrupts the entire national government in 2025? No, you can’t hold my kid back in school – it’ll hurt his self esteem not to be promoted with the rest of his friends and besides, he knows everything he needs to know for a job flipping burgers already anyway. No, I can’t be expected to take time out of my busy career to spend time with my kids. Keep government regulations off my farm – where’s my corn ethanol subsidy?

Until we change our culture, until we have the national and local leaders we need as opposed to the beauty queens we have now, until we honesty confront the climate and demographic crisis we ourselves created, until then our “city on the hill” will continue its slow slide toward the valley far below.

Because of a little beeping satellite on October 4, 1957, we as a nation committed to changing our entire national culture. And our parents and grandparents were successful for thirty years. Now its time for us as a nation to again look out beyond our homes, our neighborhoods, our states, and even our borders and change our culture once again. It will take an effort like none most of us have ever experienced, and we may fail. But if we don’t at least try, we are guaranteed to lose.

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