Sputnik boosted our lives!

This post is not directly in the theme of adjusting to vision loss but rather memoir-ish in the wake of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the death of Walter Cronkite. I’ve always wondered how our lives would be different if, just what if, the U.S. had been first instead of Sputnik. I’ll tell my story.

Two burning questions: Why? and What if?

How did Russia come to be first to launch
Sputnik when the space powers were roughly equal?

My knowledge of history, even in my own lifetime, is rather weak, but here’s my take on what happened. See the references below.

1957 was a time of mutual fear between and against two nuclear superpowers. The artificial satellite catalyst was in the works as part of an International Geophysical Year program with a scientific theme. Neither U.S. or Russian government leaders were enthusiastic while war-bred technical tribes were chomping to launch. Mars-minded Von Braun even rolled out a satellite-mounted Redstone missile to the launch pad but got nixed in favor of a Navy Jupiter. Meantime, a Russian technical group managed to design an ultra-simple 180 lb. beeping ball to ride replace a nose cone on monster missiles under test.

News reports shocked first the scientists in the know then informed a confused U.S. public. It was hard to imagine the engineering or purpose of a beeping ball circling the earth, even passing over the U..S. twice without notice before news announcement. With missile fear came the question of whether the satellite could attack, as warned in civil defense pamphlets and school room desk ducking. Apparently, Russian had been working on really big missiles needed for large nuclear payloads that the U.S. had superior technology to miniaturize. Nevertheless, U..S. missile rocketry was faulty and embroiled in military turb battles.

President Eisenhower seemed not to recognize the political whammy of a satellite first launch but rather was more interested in high flying planes and future satellites with reconnaissance capabilities to sort out the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet military forces. With launch of bigger dog carrying Sputnik 2, the American public grew even more scared and impatient. A rushed effort with existing U.S. rocket power failed in public but eventually got up to speed in 1958. Then came the rivalry first man in space and wild-eyed thoughts of progressing rapidly from Earth to the Moon, with Russia setting the pace.

How would our lives be different if America, not Russia, had been first?

And here come the side-effects that changed our lives to this day.

Eisenhower started an Advanced Research Project Agency to execute both catch-up and public assurance projects. Now, remember that the U.S. capability was mostly in place but the Russians made the decision first, not from superiority but rather follow-through. Was the U.S. weakness in public will, leadership, technological prowess, project management, military strategy? Eisenhower had an enormous juggling challenge: secret or public, civilian or military, scientific dominant or engineering demonstrations, private industry or government executed, etc.? Currently, we see a National Science Foundation, NASA, ARPA, and vast military industrial complex created warily during the Sputnik-stimulated space race of the 1950s.

Waves of public education concerns generate institutional opportunities in the belief that the U.S. intellectual and technological weakness had lead to the first satellite defeat and possible future losses in space races. With a sense of investment inn public education infrastructure, U.S. science and technology leaped ahead.
Now, it’s sickening to experience the loss of investment sense in schools.

But look what the whole world got for very little — the Internet, as created and fostered by military and then educational institutions for more than two decades. Would the U.S. have developed the Internet without the Sputnik loss? Who knows, but on balance this seems to have been a great battle to loose at a time when a generally good economy and scary political system forces could let such a technology bloom.

References for History of Sputnik and the Eisenhower era

  1. NBC News reporter Jay Barbree 50 years of space reporting. Good account of Sputnik politics on through the moon and downward. Informative news-eye account of space successes and tragedies. Available on Bookshare.
  2. the Heavens and the Earth: A political History of the Space Age. Dry but very informative trace of politics, personalities, and technologies.
    Available on Bookshare.

  3. Fear of Sputnik: NPR interview with Jay Barbree
  4. Online News Hour: Sputnik revisited. Political historians analyze and recall 40 year anniversary of Sputnik.
  5. The Sputnik Shock effect on education. One academic’s account.
  6. Sputnik, the satellite that inspired generations
  7. sputnik, the satellite that started it all
  8. Happy birthday, sputnik. Thanks for the Internet. Credit to DARPA hence to Sputnik for Internet development.

Personal account: sputnik Launched My career

Sputnik in the sky of teenage minds

Lions roared across the stage under the traffic light in the center of town. Ferris wheels spun in front of apartment windows in the multi-use dwellings that lined Main Street. The country kids stayed in town after the day’s parade to spend their allowances on the rides, carnival games, food booths, and raffle tickets. It was the first weekend in October, 1957, and the annual Utica Homecoming was in full swing.

My friends Sam, Russ, and Marjorie and I were enjoying bashing in fenders on a donated wrecked car. One of us asked about the sputnik news and we all scanned the skies looking for a light that might be the beeping ball that President Ike and his press people were pooh-poohing. Little did we know what it meant to be teenagers at the beginning of the space age.

It’s hard to remember, but the physics and math teachers seemed to gain respect, even rock star status, after Sputnik. However, a nasty principal turned off the TV telecast of Alan Sheppard first manned sub-orbital trip in favor of some stupid test, dampening our connection with the outside world and major events. Well, maybe we did just want to exercise student privilege to barter our way out of one more test.

Early access to computers hooks one kid

I trace my career back to sputnik’s influence on the National science education programs that began to ensure a technologically advanced populace. I attended an NSF-sponsored summer pre-college session. There I met my first computer, an
IBM 650,
which about a dozen students programmed using cards. It was love at first punch for me, I just knew programming was the most delightful intellectual activity. At that time, I had no clue how careers worked, e.g. that there was an engineering field, or what mathematicians did, or how statistical applications were applied in finance or science. coming from that small Ohio town, I was only trying to figure out what was happening at any moment with my peers, books, and opportunities that seemed to propel me ahead.

One key idea rattled around in my head, starting at that very first summer in Carbondale, Illinois. we could write programs that summed a long series of n numbers, using n =100, or n =1000, or n =1000000 if we could actually type in a million numbers to add up. In one loop we could get a total and then print it out. But how could we know it was really the correct answer?

so, I started college with one leg up, whatever that saying means.
I was hooked on computing in 1961, in a way that eliminated alternative career paths in favor of one that would be driven by my inner love of programming. while this was a technical field, my expression of programming has remained as much artistic as utilitarian. This ambiguity has offered a theme for nearly 50 years, but at the cost of many ups and downs as I followed one career opportunity after another, sometimes falling into pits or walking off cliffs.

My college choice, Ohio Wesleyan University, was sparked by an alumnus, principal of the Utica High school, decided by a nice scholarship that supplemented my accountant father’s salary and brought me into contact with a range of east coast and Midwest bred students. I majored in math in those days before computer science or software engineering were named fields. Boy, did I get lucky finding my very own personal computer, an
IBM 1620
that this liberal arts college used for both administration and teaching science and math. It seemed “personal” because it was available to me for hours on end as I taught myself more programming techniques, culminating with a compiler as a senior project.

And the right brand of math made computing interesting

More odd chances for professional development spun off from the sputnik challenge as I tutored high school teachers in the summer as they learned the “new math” and a bit of computing. I loved giving a demo of the 1620, the size of a coffin with a nearby even larger card reader/punch. I showed them games, a few computations, and how to play songs on the line printer — like anchors, Away.

This branch of math, eventually known as discrete structures, was really what I had wanted to study not that dull calculus that dealt with change qualities I didn’t relate to their science underpinnings. Rather I spent hours working out the closed formulas in the appendix of Apostle calc text, like 1+2+…N=N*(N+1)/2, isn’t that cool? as I programmed, I always faced that “is this the correct answer?” dilemma. a course in philosophy of science gave me the inklings of a response, the principle of “induction” and the realization that science wasn’t just a blend of people and ideas I couldn’t fully appreciate, but indeed there were defined concepts like theories and reasoning.

Sometimes it takes decades to know what was important

Meantime, on the political scene, the sputnik shock morphed into Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis. One very serious politically minded upper class student forced our dorm dinner table to listen to sobering words that trickled into our closed campus world from the news on TV and radio. Now, my current reading on the space race tells of roles of cameras launched in satellites or carried on dangerous U2 missions. I really appreciate that a forty-ish aged president and his aides had the energy, wisdom,patience, and world knowledge to bypass a crisis with Russia through Cuba. However, also developing during this time was the massive military-industrial-complex warned by the much older Eisenhower who had generated so many missile,, and defense programs during his term.

My clueless ness about the political forces of the world remained through my active career as I occasionally visited these defense companies and government agencies such as NSA, all seeking the holy grail of program correctness. My innocent love of programming and curiosity about the correctness conundrum were leading to regions of worry about international competition with U.S. and Japan, and backlash against the correctness mission that several times hurt my income while also opening new professional opportunities. I still wonder how much easier programming would be today if the Japanese Fifth Generation project hadn’t succumbed to its national economic failure.

Learning computing before official computer science

Graduate school seemed on my path, but how could I exit gracefully from mathematics?
University of Michigan had a strangely titled program in communication sciences, an eclectic combination of fields that later branched into artificial intelligence, psychology, hardware design, software engineering, and, strangest of all, speech synthesis. the latter field, concentrating on modeling of the human vocal track and units of speech, is actually the technology use most today in my assistive tools.

The programming class was a triumph for me as the major exercise was similar to my undergrad senior project, a translator. In those days, a major university computer ran batches of punched card programs with an ever increasing turn around time as the semester load increased. In this project, we had two tries to get our program to run, with 4 days wait. I checked, double checked, and checked again, hand simulating my code, and indeed got a successful run.

Where would I be without Sputnik?

Who knows, but I believe I was one of those youngsters who, exposed to computing in its purest form, at just the right age, got hooked for a lifetime. The circumstances were traceable to Sputnik after-effects. However, it was my personal curiosity about mathematical induction that took me away from a probably failure as a mathematician to a contributor of some important ideas in computer science. I greatly regret that this central concept got muddled in academic, even international secrecy, squabbles and was deemed too hard for ordinary programmers.

So, that’s one personal reflection on Sputnik as a life-changing event here on earth, leading to a moon I can still pick out in the night sky, but a movie of moon steps I can sometimes amplify by video but most firmly held in my memory and hearing.

Listen to
Audio version of this post and
Sputnik beeps

Do you remember Sputnik? Tell us about it.

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blog collecting Sputnik experiences and opinions


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5 Responses to “Sputnik boosted our lives!”

  1. slger Says:

    Alternative interpretation of who won the space race based on science discoveries:

    Launched on 4 Oct 1957, Sputnik carried no instruments. It just beeped as
    it passed overhead to taunt Americans. But a month later, Sputnik 2
    carried a Geiger tube and a radio transmitter to relay the Geiger output
    back to Earth. It also carried a tape recorder to store data when the
    satellite is over the horizon, but it wasn’t working on launch day. Soviet
    scientists placed a call directly to Premier Nikita Khrushchev requesting
    permission to delay the launch for a day, but Khrushchev refused; he wanted
    to announce another successful launch at a meeting of heads-of-state the
    next day. At the very dawn of the space age, politics was already getting
    in the way of scientific discovery. Thus it was that the Soviet Union
    failed to make the first important discovery in space science,as we see

    On 31 Jan 1958, only four months after Sputnik, the US launched Explorer 1
    carrying an experiment designed by James Van Allen, Physics Chair at the
    University of Iowa. It was just a Geiger tube, a radio transmitter, and a
    recorder — but the recorder worked. Data from a full orbit confirmed the
    existence of charged particle bands around Earth, now known as the Van
    Allen belts. It was the first major discovery from beyond the ionosphere.
    Soviet scientists were crushed; only four months after Sputnik the US had
    taken the lead in space science and has never relinquished it. Manned space
    flight remains a sideshow. In the end, all that will endure is the
    science. James Van Allen was the true American space hero. During a long
    talk with Jim a year before his death in 2006, he summed-up manned space
    flight: “It’s so old-fashioned.”

    What’s New by Robert L. Park July 24 2009

  2. slger Says:


    Do It Yourself Sputnik

    describes the simple architecture of the satellite and compares with modern components and costs

  3. Reading, Ranting, and Computing: 2009 Heroes and Meanies « As Your World Changes Says:

    […] retirees often go through a memoir-ish phase until realizing the hard work involved. For me, post-Sputnik educational opportunities hooked me on computing . I am fascinated by whether NOT being first helped the USA start activities that profoundly […]

  4. What Vision Losers Ask in Searches « As Your World Changes Says:

    […] topic has nothing to do with vision loss or accessibility but rather is a memoir and personal history of Sputnik. For many scientists and technologists in our 50’s and 60’s Sputnik was a notable […]

  5. slger Says:

    Here’s a video of “Sputnik Launched My Career” in the context of an oral history:

    So, if the U.S. rather than Russia, had launched the first Earth satellite, how would history have progressed differently? And, what type of event today could have similar effects of the Sputnik era?

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