Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. A tiny electronic sound coming from a 22 inch diameter silver ball with four antenna hanging off it’s butt end. A tiny electronic sound that changed the world.
Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. October 4, 1957. The Russians had successfully launched an artificial satellite. There was something out there that God hadn’t made, and it had been put there by those Godless commies. The Russians had won a technoloy war that had begun with the race between the Allies and the Russians to reach a little-known German island called Peenemünde less than thirty miles from the Polish border. It was the primary site of the Nazi rocket and missile operation and home to the greatest minds in the field. The Americans managed to snatch Werner von Braun among other scientists. Von Braun became a household name in America in part because of the amount of time he spent giving presentations about space on Disneyland, the first manifestation of a television program by Walt Disney.
Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. God, it was an irritating sound.
I was in fourth grade at Dutch Lane Elementary School in Hicksville, Long Island, New York. It was one of those wonderful schools built by the developers of Levittown as part of the first “planned community” in suburbia. Even at that age, we knew that our school was a consequence of us – the “elephant in the snake” was how the post-war baby boom was visualized. But until that ping! rang out, the focus of our education had been a study called “Why Can’t Johnny Read?” (Funny, no one asked why Jane couldn’t read.) Suddenly, the entire American education system shifted from reading and the social sciences to “science and math.” We were all supposed to be immediately redirected to the space race and technology. We still are, sort of.
Yeah, right. What we got was educational chaos, decades of every expert imaginable trying to restructure our system and make it somehow better without any real goals or even ideas where it was to begin with. To me, the lasting legacy of Sputnik is New Math. We are still pushing science and math in our education system, and subtly paying a horrific price for that in the incredible level of historic ignorance and cultural illiteracy of Americans.
Obviously, America finally caught up, but not until after the Russians had put dogs and men into space. Sputnik made it possible for President Kennedy to promise that by the end of the decade (1969) we would put a man on the moon and bring him home. It was all of a piece with the Cold War and the arms race and the whole culture of “us versus them” that dominated the world view of the first forty years of my life. Today, our space effort is focused on unmanned probes of Mars, curtailed more by budgetary concerns than scientific limitations. Today, co-operation among nations is the only way man will continue to explore because it is much too expensive for any one nation to monopolize.
Sputnik opened the door to exploring our solar system, forced America to look to the stars and think about the future. In an instant, space was no longer the realm of dreamers and fantasy writers but a real place with real potentials – and the dreamers and geeks and fantasy writers became a major industry in our culture generating enough revenue to probably put a man on the moon again.
Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Not only was it an irritating sound, it was more truly earth-shaking than that over-hyped “shot heard round the world” that really only inspired two revolutions. With that sound, mankind “slipped the surly bonds of Earth…Put out [our] hand and touched the Face of God.”
Poem quote abstracted from the first and last lines of John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight”, 1941.