Last updated: February 21, 2008 - 9:38am
ONE GIANT LEAP
[SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, AUTHOR: Peter Zimmerman, King's College London]
[Commentary] Fifty years ago this week Sputnik 1 entered space, and the history books, as the first man-made satellite of Earth. It was a Soviet, and not an American, achievement. In all probability the Eisenhower administration was actually glad to have been beaten into space. In deepest secrecy, the U.S. was working on another satellite program -- a system intended to take close-up photos of Russia and replace the U-2 airplane. The U.S. worried that the Soviets would object to any satellite flying over their territory, and would claim that Soviet sovereignty reached to the stars. Since Sputnik 1 orbited over the U.S. without objection, the right of satellites to pass peacefully was firmly established before the first military spacecraft was launched. The humiliation caused by being beaten into space had other consequences. President John F. Kennedy, attempting to seize back the initiative, declared on May 25, 1961, that the U.S. would "[land a] man on the moon and bring him safely back to the Earth" within the decade. Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and returned safely on July 24. But the importance of the space race for the country was far greater. In the wake of Sputnik, Congress quickly passed the National Defense Education Act (the first federal law aiding education generally), contributing large sums to the education of scientists and engineers -- and even linguists. Students were encouraged to choose scientific careers. Many, including me, did. The young men and women who studied science during the post-Sputnik boom created our world. Two fields of science, high-energy particle physics and space research itself, pushed forward technology by asking for ever-smaller electronics, ever-faster computing and ever-faster transfers of data. If your calling plan lets you telephone Europe for two cents a minute, instead of the $12.95 for three minutes it cost me in 1965, thank Sputnik and the geostationary communications satellites that followed in its wake. If your calling plan lets you telephone Europe for two cents a minute, instead of the $12.95 for three minutes it cost me in 1965, thank Sputnik and the geostationary communications satellites that followed in its wake. If your weather forecasts are generally accurate, that's because of the huge amount of data gathered by weather satellites, and the electronics originally built so that more functions could be crammed onto a single satellite. And if you didn't get lost on last weekend's trip, nor have to ask directions, because your SatNav plotted your route, the GPS system is just one more in the constellation of Sputnik's descendants.