A Kick From Sputnik

sputnik1Today’s the 50th anniversary of an event that might be thought of as an extreme way of nationally getting really serious about Science education. Sputnik was launched by the USSR. The little pioneering satellite passed overhead several times a day, sending a powerful beeping signal over a radio channel. America immediately became scared, worried and paranoid and essentially declared it a national emergency to respond by a focus on better education in some science and technical subjects. Songs were written. The entire culture was changed.

Fear and paranoia are certainly not the ways I’d like to see us come back to recognizing the value and urgency of improved science education (not the least because it produces an uneven focus, and forgets that you’re supposed to be doing it for the sheer joy of it), but it is certainly interesting to reflect upon what can get done when a nation puts its mind to it.

Here’s a lovely NPR story by Larry Abramson (with audio and transcript) about the educational impact of Sputnik. NPR did a lot of stories on the anniversary over the last week or so. I recommend them all (from impact on politics to impact on popular culture).

Here are some links to enjoy, with story transcripts and audio:

[Update: A page with them all is here: Sputnik at 50: Looking Back at the Space Race.]



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13 Responses to A Kick From Sputnik

  1. Paranerd says:

    Yeah, all that paranoia and fear about the USSR was so stupid and childish! Of course, if it had been a *right*-wing dictatorship oppressing millions and openly declaring its ambition to rule the world, then paranoia and fear would have been fully understandable…..

  2. spyder says:

    The song that really made the space shift was Telstar, a 1962 instrumental record performed by The Tornados. It was the first single by a British band to reach number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, followed of course within two years by British bands replacing US bands all over the charts (Dave Clark Five, right? hehehe) Telstar was named after the AT&T communications satellite Telstar, and was released five weeks after its launch into orbit in July 1962. I can almost recall it just sitting here after reading your line “Songs were written.” I also remember playing with our shortwave radios to tune into the various satellite signals during that period especially those early attempts by ComSat and others.

  3. John says:

    “The entire culture was changed.”

    Er, no, sorry, that’s not even remotely true. The music stayed the same, movies stayed the same, college campuses were still a beer-sodden dreamscape in those pre-political times. The techtonic changes of the 60s lay in the future, foreshadowed by the gathering civil rights movement (Eisenhower put federal troops into Little Rock the same year Sputnik went up) and, most of all, by the leading edge of the post-war baby boom, which hovered on the edge of puberty as Sputnik passed overhead.

  4. Clifford says:

    Er, sorry, but I’d measure culture by a little more than just the music, movies, and how much beer was consumed on campuses.

    (However, incidentally, the movies and music were affected, among many other things. Did you actually read or listen to any of the things I pointed to, including the interviews with people from the time? Or are you saying that the things they observed did not happen?)

    We could argue about the extent to which there was change, but to say that the culture was not even remotely changed seems a bit strong, to say the least. Have a look at those materials and let us know what you think.

    For example… are you saying that the space program had nothing to do with our culture? And if you agree that it does, then are you saying that sputnik had nothing to do with the space race? I’d be curious to read how you separate these things out.



  5. Maybe there is a need for another Sputnik to increase the nimber of physics majors in US universities…

  6. Clifford says:


    Yes… that was one of the hints of my post, however I said (among other things):

    “Fear and paranoia are certainly not the ways I’d like to see us come back to recognizing the value and urgency of improved science education…”

    I’d like us to arrive at it some other way….



  7. John says:

    Hi Clifford . . .

    I didn’t say the culture was not even remotely changed; I said it’s not even remotely true that the entire culture changed, which was your assertion…

    It was you who linked to a piece about all the music written in response to Sputnik. What it documents is a clutch of novelty songs that never charted, got next to zero airplay, that few were aware of at the time and nobody remembers. The entire culture changed? I don’t think so…

    My trope about beer on campus was an allusion to cultural stability in an environment you claimed was radically transformed. I didn’t realize you’d be so concrete in your associations…

    Of course it’s true that in an era in which everything was seen through the prism of a bipolar world, there was a certain amount of anxiety about U.S. technical education vis-a-vis the Soviets. If you have data showing a tremendous upswing in university engineering and science enrollments attributable to that anxiety, so be it — but 50 years ago most Americans didn’t go to college and, in terms of the larger culture, this was a boutique concern. Not as narrow as the string theory wars currently underway, but hardly ‘the entire culture’…

    Finally, the U.S. had lots of important technical achievements before Sputnik (e.g., at Los Alamos during WW2, the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1948, and so forth) and lots more afterwards. The Soviets ‘beat us’ in 1957 because they focused on a project we’d put on the back burner. When Kennedy made it a priority three years later, we surged ahead and beat them, landing a man on the moon in 1969. We might not have done that if Sputnik hadn’t goaded us, but in the meantime we’d inaugurated coast-to-coast jet air travel (~1962) and color television (1964); started building a 46,000 mile Interstate Highway system, which changed patterns of settlement all over the country; and ended 100 years of apartheid with the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. These things really did change the entire culture. Compared to them, Sputnik was a footnote.

  8. Clifford says:

    Well, I don’t think I’m going to split hairs about this. I did not say all of music was changed, nor did I say that all of any particular thing changed. However, there was an significant change in the outlook of people at large (east vs west seemed to be in sharper focus because of that event), what they spoke about on a day to day basis, their view of what the future might hold, and so forth. As a result, people wrote songs about topics (satellites of various sorts) they normally did not write songs about, sputnik references showed up in cartoons, tv shows, etc…. places such issues never (or much less frequently) showed up in before (significantly, humankind doing things in space was now reality, vs the fictional icons and shows that were around before)….and then there was all the pushes on education and wondering about the scientific and technical place of the US in the world…. 12 years later there was a man on the moon, the end point of a race that broke open as a result of the sputnik symbolism.

    I’d call that the entire culture changing, where “change” means that it was significantly affected throughout its many strands – there were major aspects to it that were not there before the event, and where “entire” means so many strands of everyday life for everyday people. This seems to be manifestly so from all the interviews and discussions I pointed to on the NPR programs, and so many more other discussions to be found everywhere.

    You can disagree on these uses of the word “entire” and “change” if you wish. I’m not going to argue about that. It’s just silly.



  9. mark says:

    “The Soviets ‘beat us’ in 1957 because they focused on a project we’d put on the back burner. When Kennedy made it a priority three years later, we surged ahead and beat them, landing a man on the moon in 1969.”

    John, you forgot to mention that bofore the man on the moon there were:

    1959 – Luna 2- first probe to land on the Moon

    12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin – first man in space (regarded in Russia as a much more important event than Sputnik)

    11 August 1962 Valentina Tereshkova – first woman in space

    18 March 1965 – Alexei Leonov – first spacewalk


  10. Clifford says:

    mark… john simply made a giant leap.


  11. mark says:

    Tereshkova flew on June 16, 1963

  12. pedant says:

    The impact of the sixties, for good or bad, can be gauged by comparing these gung-ho post sputnik ass-kicking diskettes with the existential angst that is David Bowie’s Space Oddity, released just a few years later in 1969 and inspired in part by Amerika’s success in space. And as for Ashes to Ashes – oh dear.

  13. Terry says:

    John, I appreciate your view and agree with you to a certain extent since I am a baby-boomer myself and can’t recall any great moments in music that resulted from sputnik. I don’t think you are denying the federal money tht came through for science and technology classes in the States. I am curious what you know or perceive about us putting the project on a back burner. Can you elaborate oin that?