Sapientia et Doctrina Sputnik and American Nostalgia

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On the night of October 4, 1957, a Soviet rocket lifted off from a location deep in Central Asia, and tracing a majestic arc over the barren desert, began accelerating toward the heavens. Within five minutes, as its engines fired an inferno of flames into the thinning atmosphere, the rocket was flying faster than anything ever flown. Seconds later, the small metal ball at the tip of this conflagration entered a free fall orbit around the Earth.

For the first time since life appeared on our planet, an object made by humans had escaped the bonds of gravity. Known as Sputnik—Russian for “fellow traveler”—this first artificial satellite fell from orbit within a few weeks. Despite its early demise, Sputnik has remained in our collective imagination not only as a potent symbol of the political, social, and cultural possibilities of the late 20th century, but also as a metaphor for human aspirations for an exhilarating future.

Inherent in Sputnik’s languid passage over American skies were three embedded narratives. One communicated wonder. Sputnik opened up a (metaphorical and literal) universe. The physical limits of our dreaming burst open, revealing the endless possibilities of the cosmos, not as a source for the fictions of our childhood but as a font for the hopes of many futures. Another message was about threat. Any nation that could lob a piece of metal into orbit could certainly replace that metal with an atomic bomb. Fear was a palpable response in the American context. The third narrative was one of priority. Economic and military success had made Americans self-satisfied and uninterested in the outside world. How could a foreign nation, best associated with Godless culture and backward agriculture, beat the Americans? Sputnik put the Soviet Union on the map—as enemy, as adversary, as equal.

In the United States, Sputnik shocked a seemingly complacent society, secure in its middle class mores, new suburbs, color televisions and the highest peacetime budget in history. The satellite, launched on the same night that Leave it to Beaver premiered, awoke a nation. Historian Walter McDougall noted that “[n]o [single]event since Pearl Harbor set off such repercussions in public life.” A crisis of confidence washed over most of American society.

In government, the Eisenhower Administration produced legislation to create several new agencies, including NASA. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy set the goal of landing an American on the Moon before the end of the decade. Galvanized by a brief period of Congressional consensus and support, NASA marshaled $25 billion and the efforts of hundreds and thousands of Americans. Within eight years of Kennedy’s commitment, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon.

NASA was not the only beneficiary of Sputnik. Government-funded projects to improve the scientific and engineering expertise vastly expanded. Believing that better education in Russia contributed to Sputnik, huge amounts of money poured into the American higher education system, making it a key component in the battles of the Cold War. Long-standing policy that education was better left to the states was abandoned. Noting that “an educational emergency exists and requires action by the federal government,” Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958. The act more than doubled federal expenditures for education; money was allotted for student loans, graduate fellowships in the sciences and engineering, aid for teacher education, capital construction, as well as curriculum development in the sciences, mathematics and foreign languages. Simultaneously, billions of dollars poured into government agencies, private industry and universities to fund basic and applied research. In an undeniable way, Sputnik made American higher education and R&D a key component in the Cold War. The unprecedented response to Sputnik fundamentally tied the university, the defense establishment and private industry in a partnership that remains unbroken to this day.

In the lead up to the recent 50th anniversary of Sputnik, many commentators expressed a nostalgia for America’s post-Sputnik response. They argued that the collective mobilization after Sputnik represented the best America had to offer. In many ways, such exercises in wistfulness are misplaced for they simplify the complexities of the 1960s, occluding from view immense social and cultural conflicts of that decade. These nostalgic laments for Sputnik are less about history than about the perceived ennui in American society today.

Some have argued that it would take a major shock to the nation to galvanize it again, perhaps China sending an astronaut to the Moon or to Mars. I doubt whether such an achievement would have the same effect as Sputnik. Space no longer holds the imagination as it once did, and few young Americans are drawn to the possibilities of the cosmos. And perhaps rightly so. We as human beings have created an almost unimaginable array of problems on our earthly abode.

Yet, it is because of the messiness of our postmodern condition that I am also nostalgic for Sputnik. Nostalgic not for what transpired in the years after Sputnik, not for the 1960s, and not for the iconography of the Apollo Moon missions. My nostalgia is one for the future that Sputnik represented at a singular moment in time. The wonderfully elegant design of the satellite—the brainchild of engineer and Gulag survivor Sergei Pavlovich Korolev—suggests a motif that is about hope. The metal ball with its four antenna, angled as if in concordance with some graceful arc through the heavens, suggests movement, a hope for an essentially transcendental transformation that is possible only at singular moments. October 4, 1957, was such a moment when the whole future of the human race was broken wide open for us to dream. In remembering Sputnik, it is this narrative, the one about wonder, not about fear or insularity, that I find most enduring. The good thing about the future is that it is always unlived. We can still hope for the best.


The “Sapientia et Doctrina” section of Inside Fordham features first-person columns written by members of the Fordham Jesuit community and University faculty. Our Jesuit correspondents offer essays on teaching and learning from a Jesuit perspective, or focus on some aspect of scholarship as seen through the lens of Jesuit tradition. Faculty correspondents write on an academic topic: their own academic specialty or current research; or an aspect of scholarship, written for the lay person. The two types of columns alternate by issue.

For more information, please contact the editor, Victor Inzunza, at (212) 636-7576, inzunza@fordham.edu.

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