[ASC-list] Walking on the moon.. the hidden impact of Sputnik and Apollo

Niall Byrne niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
Sun Aug 26 10:12:09 UTC 2012

Here’s a perspective from New Scientist a few years ago on why the Space Race was so important. The author argues it transformed US education and science. It even got evolution in the textbooks.

His reflections on the impact on his childhood parallel my thoughts today.

How Sputnik changed the world
·         05 September 2007 by Ivan Semeniuk<http://www.newscientist.com/search?rbauthors=Ivan+Semeniuk>
·         Magazine issue 2620<http://www.newscientist.com/issue/2620>. Subscribe and save<http://subscribe.newscientist.com/bundles.aspx?promcode=6005&term=1Y&intcmp=SUBS-nsarttop>

ONE summer when I was about 7, a friend and I came to the astonishing realisation that we would still be alive in the year 2000. This was the early 1970s, and we were so struck by the idea that we found a piece of chalk and verified it right there on the driveway. Our arithmetic told us that we would be 35 years old come the turn of the millennium - a staggering but entirely achievable age.
We could scarcely believe our good luck. To us, the year 2000 lay in the distant future, and we began to speculate about the technological splendours that awaited us there. Above all, we were certain that we would be travelling in space - not as pioneers, but as consumers. The moon would become the Disneyland of the new century, the ideal destination for a fun, low-gravity outing in the family spaceship.
In other words, we were children of Sputnik. Although we weren't yet born when the Soviet satellite made its startling debut on 4 October 1957, we were of the generation that grew up in its considerable wake. In the 15 years that followed, outer space ruled the headlines and mingled with a science-fiction-infused popular culture that told us space was going to be a big part of our future.
Fast forward to today, and the results seem disappointing. Space travel - the technology we had seen as the emblem of our future - has so far turned out to be more emblematic of our past; men last set foot on the moon in 1972. So what do we have to show for 50 years of the space age?
In answer to this, NASA - another child of Sputnik - cites a host of innovations<http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/>that have sprung from the space programme. Yet, while this approach may help persuade members of the US Congress to keep funding their space agency, it fails to deliver the grandeur we once associated with exploring the cosmos. It's true that space technology has given us better ski boots and mattresses, but we would probably be skiing and sleeping pretty well without the space programme's help.
This is not to overlook the most important technological outcome of getting into space - namely, being able to get into space at all. We need only look up on a clear night far from city lights for proof that we are living in a very different time from 1957. Above our heads, thousands of satellites orbit the Earth in an ever-growing swarm (see "The satellites above us")<http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19526201.300-satellites-and-space-debris.html>. Modern civilisation has come to depend on these devices for telecommunications, weather forecasting and surveillance. Yet cynics could argue that even without the space programme we would still be weaving global communications networks, forecasting weather and, with high-altitude aircraft, engaging in surveillance from above. Access to space has not, on the face of it, transformed society in the same way as the car, air travel or the internet, for example.
Or has it? Could it be that human society has been so thoroughly altered by the emergence of space flight 50 years ago that we are no longer able to recognise the change?
News of Sputnik electrified the world. Not only did it inspire excitement and wonder, it also carried huge political resonance. Soviet scientists and engineers had demonstrated that they were ahead of everyone else. More unnervingly for its western rivals, the Soviet Union - a nuclear superpower - had taken a commanding position just a few hundred kilometres above their heads.
US President Dwight D. Eisenhower downplayed Sputnik's significance in public, but his private response was very different. Eleven days after the launch, Eisenhower held a meeting of 14 American science and technology leaders. To read the minutes of that meeting is to eavesdrop on a turning point in history. Eisenhower opens the discussion by asking the group whether US science is being overtaken by the Soviet Union. Edwin Land, corporate CEO and inventor of the Polaroid camera, speaks passionately about the challenge Sputnik represents. He contrasts Soviet society, which "regards science as a way of life", with an American one that focuses more on enjoying the luxuries of the post-war economic boom. Eisenhower is persuaded that a new interest in science must be kindled in America's youth.
These concerns found their way into popular media. Six months after Sputnik,Life magazine ran an influential cover story comparing the education of apparently typical teenagers from the US and the Soviet Union. Under the headline "Schoolboys point up a US weakness", the hand-wringing article showed Alexei Kutzkov from Moscow learning mathematics and science (not to mention English) at a higher level than Stephen Lepekas of Chicago. From their photos alone, the determined-looking Alexei seemed distinctly more likely to win the space race.
What followed in 1958 was precisely the kind of vigorous action Eisenhower's group recommended, including the establishment of NASA. This move was soon echoed by Canada, France and the UK, among others, which began to develop their own space capabilities. Yet of equal or greater significance to the US was the National Defense Education Act, which Eisenhower signed into law the same year. This channelled close to $1 billion towards education - particularly science education - over the next four years, supplemented by a similar surge of new funding at the state level.
It was a massive infusion of resources and it changed the face of American higher education. Stroll through a university campus in the US today and notice the dates on the science buildings. Everywhere you look, much of the infrastructure that supports the training of scientists in the US was built in the years immediately after Sputnik's flight.
There was also a full-scale revamping of the US high-school science curriculum - with an unexpected side effect. Before 1957, life-science textbooks for US high-school students contained little mention of Darwin's theory of evolution - a precautionary approach taken by publishers reluctant to raise such a controversial topic. After Sputnik, a nationally funded panel<http://www.bscs.org/> of scientists set guidelines for a new generation of textbooks, which placed evolution firmly at the centre of biology.
Creationist backlash
Religiously motivated groups responded in the early 1960s with a resurgence of organised resistance to the teaching of evolution. The campaign has persisted to this day, notably in the guise of intelligent design - the idea that certain complex biological features could not have arisen through evolution. Though hardly a testament to scientific literacy, the creationist movement stands testament to the wholesale transformation of American science education 50 years ago; without that change there would have been nothing for creationists to react against.
Like ripples in a pond, the effects of the education act spread out through time and space. Within 15 years, the number of PhDs awarded in the US had quadrupled. A large and well-trained pool of scientists and engineers subsequently swelled the ranks of industry or became entrepreneurs. They were joined by talented international researchers and students, who came to the US in droves, attracted by the openness of American society and the wealth of opportunities in a rapidly expanding scientific community. This laid the foundations for the high-tech boom of the 1980s and 1990s, a phenomenon that has now spread around the globe and ushered in what is possibly the most significant change in human society since the industrial revolution.
Sputnik should not be seen as having sparked a revolution, however. It is the fulfilment of a far older one that began in 1543 with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus's book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. A practical astronomy manual that included the unlikely suggestion that Earth moves around the sun, the book's inflammatory nature only emerged three years later, when Tuscan monk Giovanni Tolosani penned the first condemnation of Copernicus's theories. What followed in the next century, thanks to the likes of Galileo, Descartes and Newton, was the scientific revolution.
The essential message of the Copernican system is that we do not occupy a unique position at the centre of the universe. There are other ways of seeing the cosmos - other worlds, offering other vantage points. Space flight brings the Copernican revolution to its full fruition. It is a casual validation we make each time we turn to Google Earth and zoom in on our home planet as seen from space.
What is sometimes overlooked about the scientific revolution is that it began with an argument over an esoteric phenomenon. The subtle variations in the movements of the planets have never had much bearing on human existence, even today. Yet this phenomenon, barely measurable in the 16th century, ultimately invited an entirely new way of looking at everything.
Sputnik has this in common with the great Copernican shift. Its impact on day-to-day life in 1957 was essentially nil, but its influence is immeasurable. Through the huge investment in higher education it generated, Sputnik was the most important catalyst for human development there has ever been. This is the hidden dividend of the space programme, and we are just beginning to feel the full impact.
For my childhood friend and I, the space age was about what was going on "up there". Five decades after Sputnik, that view seems too literal. As with Copernicus's book, it will take many more decades to discover where the changes triggered by Sputnik are leading us. In a society driven by scientific discovery, the possibilities are virtually endless.
Perhaps, somewhere down the road, we may even get a vacation to the moon out of it.


Niall Byrne

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