|THE DAWN OF THE SPACE AGE|
October 13, 1997
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Questions answered in this forum:
What technological advances were achieved by the Russians when they launched Sputnik? Why did the Russians bet America into space? Did Sputnik undermine America's trust in its government? What were servicemen told when Sputnik was launched? Where will the next Sputnik come from? Was Sputnik's real legacy economic? Can anything replace the Cold War as a motivation for space exploration?
Roy B. of Fort Worth, TX, asks:
I was fortunate enough to have seen Sputnik (the rocket casing) come over my home in Fort Worth. It was a shattering experience to me at that very moment. I had yet to see any media hyperbole, but I knew immediately that I was no longer isolated from the world of the future, now present. It was a far cry from the government response (of the former head of GM) that it was only a silly bauble. This, in one stroke made me realize (at age 23) that my government was either incredibly stupid or lying. I decided on stupid. Either way, my concept of the American government changed forever. The legacy is that I, along with, I think, the majority of today's U.S. citizens have lost faith in their own government. Of course, this was only the beginning for me. Many other things resulted: beginning of the space age, questions of technical and ideological supremacy, etc. I would like to know your ideas on this matter.
Haynes Johnson, journalist and author, responds:
Your point about losing faith with your government because of the launching of Sputnik -- and the response of our officials to it -- is fascinating. This kind of cumulative distrust is, in my opinion, the single greatest problem confronting the U.S. today. The absence of faith and pervasive disbelief makes it exceedingly hard to achieve the kind of national consensus necessary to make the kinds of commitments to solving difficult national and international problems.
There are many reasons why Americans feel increasingly distrustful and disconnected from the government--the legacy of Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, racial riots, crumbling, dangerous inner cities, poor public service facilities, and a record of lying from the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon over recent decades. But I do not agree with you that Sputnik was a contributing factor. If anything, the shock of believing us to be "behind" the Russians in space spurred the U.S. to its greatest scientific and technological successes within a matter of a couple of years--a position it has not held, but vastly expanded since.
Dr. Keith Benson of the History of Science Society responds:
While I was too young (9) at the time for the experience to lead me toward disillusionment, my first visit to Russia many years later led me to believe that the American government has been less than candid with its citizens about the extent of the Soviet threat. As we now know, the Russians had an impressive satellite delivery system in development as early as 1957. What we did not know, and I have no idea if the government knew this, was that the price the Soviet people paid for this use of their science was tremendous. In large part, it was the space race and the following military build-up that led to the economic collapse of the Soviet system. In many ways, present-day Russia appears to be much closer to a developing country than an industrialized country. I was extremely surprised to learn this and to learn how much this was understood by the Russian people!
Next: What were servicemen told about Sputnik when it was launched?