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It was a tiny speck in the black night sky, 560 miles from Earth and traveling at a speed of 18,000 miles an hour. Sputnik 1, a shiny aluminum sphere about twice the size of a basketball and weighing just 184 pounds, rocketed into space on October 4, 1957. Launched by the Soviets, the silver satellite with four radio antennae ushered in the Space Age with a simple message: beep, beep, beep.
That radio transmission was a sound heard round the world, triggering a combination of admiration, confusion, and fear from Americans. Circling the globe every ninety-six minutes, Sputnik provided a vivid symbol of the Soviet Union's capacity for scientific and technological superiority. Millions of Americans, dazzled by this stunning human achievement, gathered at night to try and catch a glimpse of Sputnik traveling overhead. Many, beset by darker concerns about the Soviets' intentions, worried that this was more than a satellite to study space—this was a Cold War demonstration of an intercontinental missile capable of transporting atomic bombs, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
The startling success of Sputnik 1, followed by the launch of Sputnik 2 a month later with the dog Laika on board, was a serious blow to American prestige and morale. It was a wake-up call for Americans who had grown complacent in their presumption of dominance. It was a shock to the system, representing a kind of "technological Pearl Harbor," as David Halberstam put it, and a worldwide boon to Soviet propaganda hailing communism as the more advanced system. Yet even though Sputnik wrought havoc with American pride, it also presented the United States with a rare gift, a singular moment for reflection and action—to focus its collective mind, question what it had accomplished and where it was failing, and think boldly about the future. With the calm leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Sputnik spurred a fresh emphasis on basic research and the importance of science and math education to the nation's success, even its very survival.
At first this was more about action than reflection. In its terrible haste to respond, the United States prepped the Vanguard rocket for a December 6 launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Yet seven seconds after its engines were ignited that Friday morning, the rocket exploded in flames. A fantastic failure that further shook the nation's confidence, Vanguard was dubbed in the media "Kaputnik" and "Stayputnik" and "Flopnik." Lyndon Johnson, then the Senate Majority Leader, described his reaction to this new blow to American morale: "I shrink a little inside of me when the United States announces a great event—and it blows up in our face. Why don't they perfect the satellite and announce it after it is in the sky?"
Less than two months later, though, the United States celebrated the achievement of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, by then a US citizen and working for the US Army. On January 31, 1958, his Explorer 1 lifted off from Cape Canaveral and became the first US rocket to orbit Earth. The space race with the Russians was officially on.
In the following months, President Eisenhower responded to the growing fear of Soviet domination and the fresh doubt about the quality and focus of American schooling. He named James R. Killian, the president of MIT, as his first special assistant for science and technology. He stressed the importance of education to the nation's security by proposing the creation of the National Defense Education Act to encourage students to pursue degrees in science and technology; Congressional backing of the program led to dramatically increased funding for scientific research and the teaching of science, math, and foreign languages. The civilian-led National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) was formed in July 1958. And the National Science Foundation substantially expanded its funding for new curricula and textbooks as well as scholarships for potential scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.
Suddenly, science education was not only cutting edge—it was at the center of American life. The existential threat posed by the Soviets had focused the nation's collective mind. As we have learned all too well in the post-9/11 world, fear is a powerful motivator.
Yet as deeply felt as the Cold War fears were in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and even decades later, the Sputnik era elicits a remarkable sense of nostalgia, above and beyond the typical gaze at bygone times. It's easy to see why: The children of Sputnik benefited from a strong sense of common purpose and community. They had a clearly defined enemy and an obvious reason for pulling together to achieve shared goals. At their most acute, Americans felt that the nation's existence was at stake. But so too was its pride and identity as a world leader. America's technological prestige and self-confidence had been seriously dented by the Soviets' success; Americans had something to prove.
Something to prove. How far the nation has drifted from that mind-set.
In the coming pages, we will explore the dangerous rise of complacency, the decline of ambition, the growing alienation from government, the failure to educate our children, the deepening pessimism over public solutions, the shrinking confidence of our global peers, the mind-numbing partisanship that is stifling constructive action—and why a turnaround is so urgent. Much of this discussion will spotlight what's broken: how it happened and why we need to fix it. But it's energized by the optimistic belief that we are capable of regaining a sense of purpose and unity.
To be clear, we need a sense of urgency. We need incentives that inspire excellence. We need to compete globally, we need to cooperate locally, and we need to work harder to make change. Yes, our schools are struggling, our economic underpinnings are shaky, our political culture is filled with rancor and cynicism, and our popular culture is fixated on celebrity and easy pleasures. Yet success in the 21st century depends on brains and speed, innovation and new partnerships. It requires long-range thinking and a reinvigorated commitment to hard work, excellence, and purposeful action.
And we need this now. Before it's too late. Because we have something to prove.
Let's recall how a sense of urgency has influenced modern America. Not many years before Sputnik pierced the sky, American leadership demonstrated the ability to take action in a way that could dramatically move the nation. The landmark GI Bill, officially the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, passed by unanimous votes in both the House and the Senate, making it possible for millions of returning US veterans to go to school or college and buy homes. By 1951, more than eight million vets, nearly one out of seven in the labor force of fifty-nine million, had benefited from these government subsidies for education, at a cost of $14 billion—including financial assistance for half a million engineers, 250,000 teachers, 200,000 men with medical training, and 117,000 metal workers. The visionary bill opened the door for a generation to expand their skills and their ambitions. It was an extraordinary national investment that not only smoothed the postwar transition but also spurred a generation of workers to gear up for a changing world and participate in the expansion of American prosperity. This was a far different outcome than many returning vets had feared: one survey found that the majority expected to face an economic depression when they got back.
College students who had not served in the military were often startled by the level of seriousness of these returning vets, their new classmates. "All they care about is their school work," complained one Lehigh College senior to a writer from the New York Times who visited the leafy Pennsylvania campus in 1946. "They're grinds, every one of them. It's books, books all the time with them. They study so hard, we have to slave to keep up with them." From the veterans, there was no apology, even if they showed little interest in the frivolities of college life. "We didn't come to college to play games," explained one new Lehigh student. "We've lost several years out of our lives, and we have to make up for it.... We've come to study."
Like Sputnik, the GI Bill inspired a shared will. Veterans returning from the battlefronts of Europe and Asia acted out of self-interest, but they were determined to put their lives back together and give meaning to the years of sacrifice on foreign soil. The GI Bill recognized this by creating a financial infrastructure that would reinvest them on American soil. Just as Americans would later feel the need for action because of Sputnik, Americans understood that fourteen million returning vets required a clear plan of action. "Think of what the after-effects would have been had there been no G.I. Bill," noted the administrator of Veterans Affairs, Carl Grey Jr., in 1951. "These young men would have returned home hoping to assume their rightful places in their communities and eager to become the leaders of tomorrow —but entirely unprepared for the task." That sense of urgency created the conditions for the nation to showcase its best self.
Nearly a decade later, doubts persisted whether America's best was good enough. On April 12, 1961, the Soviets beat the United States again when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin shot into space, the first human to do so. Gagarin, aboard the spacecraft Vostok, orbited the globe for eighty-nine minutes before returning safely. Only twenty-three days later, on May 5, astronaut Alan B. Shepard became the second human and the first American to travel in space. His fifteen-minute, suborbital flight, inside the Redstone rocket named Freedom VII, ended with a splashdown in the Atlantic. (Shepard's reported thoughts while awaiting liftoff: "The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.")
Shepard's heroic feat only intensified the hunger to surpass the Russians. This was dramatically symbolized by the announcement three weeks later from the new American president, John F. Kennedy, that the United States should commit itself to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. The May 25 speech, before a joint session of Congress, was titled "Urgent National Needs." Kennedy opened by addressing what he believed was at stake: "to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny," he said, adding that the adventures in space were influencing "the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take."
The costs of a mission to the moon would run into the billions, Kennedy acknowledged, and the burdens of achieving success would be heavy; they would require diverting resources and technical manpower from other important projects. And why hadn't this commitment already happened? The United States had "never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership," Kennedy told Congress. "We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment."
Then he summoned a call to action, a goal that he admitted would be difficult and expensive to achieve, an effort that would require a shared commitment: "In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
The speech stunned Robert Gilruth, the director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. "I could hardly believe my ears," he recalled years later. "I was literally aghast at the size of the project.... It was a tremendous act of faith by the President." Gilruth heard Kennedy's address on a radio while flying on a DC-3 with James E. Webb, NASA's top administrator. "I knew how much work was required before an American, or any other spacemen, could set foot on the moon's hostile surface," said Gilruth.
By every measure, this was a major commitment, rooted in a combination of American confidence and competitive fear, as well as a new president struggling with the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. It was by no means certain that the mission would be successful: In contrast to the Soviets, the United States had not yet succeeded at sending an astronaut into orbit. (While astronaut Gus Grissom successfully replicated Alan Shepard's suborbital flight several months after Kennedy's bold decision, Grissom narrowly escaped drowning after splashdown when his capsule hatch opened prematurely and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.) The first manned orbit by a US astronaut was nearly a year later, in February 1962, when John Glenn circled Earth three times in four hours and fifty-six minutes.
It took public opinion a while to catch up with the president's initiative. Before Kennedy's 1961 speech, a Gallup poll found that only a third of Americans supported spending the money to send a man to the moon. By 1963, more than two-thirds believed that the United States should maintain or increase the speed of the lunar effort. The majority's wish was granted. Within three years of Kennedy's commitment, NASA's budget rose more than 500 percent to $5.3 billion in 1965, and the lunar landing program involved more than 34,000 NASA workers and 375,000 employees of university and industrial contractors at its peak. By one estimate, the manned moon mission's total cost exceeded $20 billion (more than $130 billion in 2007 dollars). Kennedy was not reluctant to argue on behalf of the expenditure: Speaking in 1962 at Rice University in Houston, he promised benefits in science and education, industry and medicine. The billions spent that year, he noted, were less than Americans were spending on cigarettes and cigars.
The investment paid off. On July 20, 1969, eight years and two months after Kennedy launched the program, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and American Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. It was a remarkable technical achievement; the success was a testament to America's capacity to respond to a perceived threat, grasp the potential of change, marshal the nation's resources, and act with great urgency.
One small step for man, indeed.
Fast forward to July 1979, exactly one decade after Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon and two decades after Sputnik. The contrast between Kennedy's initiative and President Jimmy Carter's effort for energy reform is like looking in a funhouse mirror: One was robust and energizing, the other was fallow and ultimately dispiriting. It was not what Carter intended when he sat before the hot television lights and a skeptical nation to deliver his fateful "crisis of confidence" speech.
Clad in his modest wool cardigan, Carter called his six-point plan to reduce oil consumption by 4.5 million barrels a day by 1990 "the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation's history." Its purpose: to develop alternative energy sources and reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Sober and determined, Carter's speech came amid the second oil crisis of the 1970s, as the Iranian revolution had cut off oil production and the United States faced gas shortages. It followed a much-publicized ten-day delay during which he gathered views from a diverse collection of Americans, "people from almost every segment of our society," he said, "business and labor, teachers and preachers, governors, mayors, and private citizens."
Yet as strongly as the president aimed to describe the urgency of the moment, he faced a much altered world. He sought to inspire action by describing the conditions gripping the nation, yet his words failed to resonate in the way he had hoped. Typically known as his "malaise" speech, it may well have sunk his chances for reelection the following year against the sunnier Ronald Reagan.
Excerpted from ADRIFT by WILLIAM C. HARRIS STEVEN C. BESCHLOSS Copyright © 2011 by William C. Harris and Steven C. Beschloss. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 27, 2011
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