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With Fear and Wonder in Its Wake, Sputnik Lifted Us Into the Future

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Fifty years ago, before most people living today were born, the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik was heard round the world. It was the sound of wonder and foreboding. Nothing would ever be quite the same again — in geopolitics, in science and technology, in everyday life and the capacity of the human species.

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Cybu Richli

 

Illustration by John Ritter; Photographs from The New York Times Archive

 

The Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite, a new moon, on Oct. 4, 1957. Climbing out of the terrestrial gravity well, rising above the atmosphere and into orbit, Sputnik crossed the threshold into a new dimension of human experience. People could now see their kind as spacefarers. Their enhanced mobility might someday prove as liberating as the first upright steps of hominid ancestors long ago.

The immediate reaction, though, reflected the dark concerns of a world in the grip of the cold war, a time of fear and division in which the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, stared each other down with the menace of mass destruction. Sputnik altered the nature and scope of the cold war.

It was an unprepossessing agent of alarm. A simple sphere weighing just 184 pounds and not quite two feet wide, it had a highly polished surface of aluminum, the better to reflect sunlight and be visible from Earth. Two radio transmitters with whiskery antennas issued steady signals on frequencies that scientists and ham operators could pick up, and so confirm the achievement.

The Russians clearly intended Sputnik as a ringing statement of their technological prowess and its military implications. But even they, it seems, had not foreseen the frenzied response their success provoked.

When the Soviet dictator Nikita S. Khrushchev received word of the launching, he was of course pleased, and he and his son, Sergei, turned on the radio to listen to the beeping Sputnik. They went to bed, the son remembers, without realizing “the immensity of what was happening during those hours.”

The Soviet press published a standard two-column report of the event, with a minimum of gloating. But newspapers in the West, particularly the United States, filled pages with news and analysis.

Sputnik’s signal reverberated through chambers of the powerful and down ordinary streets. People listened and, from rooftops and backyards, saw in the night a moving point of light, like an errant star. The interrogatory of invention used to be “What hath God wrought?” Now it was “What are the Russians capable of next?”

“No event since Pearl Harbor set off such repercussions in public life,” Walter A. McDougall, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, has written. A younger generation may draw comparison with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Sputnik plunged Americans into a crisis of self-confidence. Had the country grown lax with prosperity? Was the education system inadequate, especially in training scientists and engineers? Were the institutions of liberal democracy any match in competition with an authoritarian communist society?

In “The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age” (1985), Dr. McDougall wrote that before Sputnik the cold war had been “a military and political struggle in which the United States need only lend aid and comfort to its allies in the front lines.” Now, he continued, the cold war “became total, a competition for the loyalty and trust of all peoples fought out in all arenas of social achievement, in which science textbooks and racial harmony were as much tools of foreign policy as missiles and spies.”

At the time of Sputnik, John F. Kennedy was the junior senator from Massachusetts with no particular interest in space. Yuri A. Gagarin was an unheralded Russian military pilot. John H. Glenn Jr. was a Marine Corps pilot who had recently set a record for the fastest transcontinental jet flight to New York from Los Angeles. Neil A. Armstrong was testing high-performance aircraft in the California desert. Their lives were soon to be changed, as were those of hundreds of thousands of engineers, technicians, other workers and ordinary people everywhere.

Thomas J. O’Malley, an aviation engineer in New Jersey, would move in a few months to a forlorn spit of land at Cape Canaveral, Fla., to be a test conductor in the accelerated development of the Atlas missile, which would eventually lift American astronauts into orbit. “We had one goal,” he recalled recently. “To get something up there as quickly as possible.”

 
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