On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union became the first nation to successfully place an object into orbit around the Earth. That object was Sputnik-1 and it scared the crap out of us. At the time, most people felt very secure in the technological superiority of our country, a belief that still persists with many, but hearing that the Soviets had beat us to orbit, and then SEEING the small little basketball-sized satellite as it passed overhead stripped away the arrogant confidence that many had that we would prevail against our Cold War enemy in every single endeavor, including being the first to Space. This spawned a movement within the Western World, including the US, to “step up to the plate” and push science and engineering hard in the classroom. Teachers, students, and industry were strongly motivated to bring young, bright minds into the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Seeing where STEM enrollment and participation is today, perhaps we need another Sputnik. While I wouldn’t normally suggest a fictional movie as a reference, especially one from Hollywood, the movie, October Sky does an excellent job of capturing the attitudes and emotions of the time.
Related to all this is story that was relayed to be my by long-time mentor, Dr. Thomas Armstrong, a space science researcher and educator who has been involved in the space science business since it was a business, and studied at the University of Iowa under the great James Van Allen. Sputnik’s successful orbits, and the Soviets’ great achievement, wasn’t really the wasn’t the signal of our technological inferiority as many had feared. President Eisenhower had played a very shrewd and clever game. We had a launch vehicle and a payload quite capable of reaching low-Earth orbit before the Soviets. The Vanguard project was an effort designed to launch a civilian satellite into orbit, which it eventually succeeded in doing, but there was a military effort in place before Vanguard. That effort quite possibly could have succeeded, but the political costs of that success would far outweight any strategic or propaganda-based benefit. Eisenhower had ordered that the test launch absolutely, under no circumstances, be allowed to achieve orbit. In response to that order, the third-stage fuel tank was drained, and the planned flight to orbit failed as planned.
The reaction by the American public to Sputnik, driving students and industry to STEM education, lead to a flood of young, bright, eager, and highly motivated scientists, technicians, and engineers, and America surged forward. Not even a year after the launch of Sputnik, Eisenhower formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). From that moment forward, NASA was the unrivaled leader of space exploration and rocket engineering. In a very real way, not launching a satellite when we could have and allowing the Soviets to be the first into space, allowed for an environment that would see the US surge forward by leaps and bounds with scientists and engineers being seen as rock stars! We can have those days back again, all we need is to value science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the same way now as we did in the 50s and 60s.