|The Sputnik Moment|
|Written by Kaitlin Addams|
|Monday, 22 February 2010|
Kaitlin Addams recalls a defining event of Cold War history and the changes it triggered.
Sputnik came to visit us one crisp, clear fall evening in 1957.
So began another era in America.
It was a dope-slap, a wake-up call, a "Sputnik Moment"; a historical kick in the ass that not only forced this country to jump hoops to catch up with the Soviet endeavors in space, but brought about a fear that most of us born before the Kennedy era can remember. It was what we grew up with; what we thought was just a part of life. I can still remember the tall yellow air-raid sirens going off above the lunch arbor of my elementary school, blaring so loudly that I'd cup my hands over my ears to muffle its piercing, emergent screaming. We'd all have to periodically dip under our desk and do our duck and cover drills, and I remember being showed a short movie about a turtle named Burt telling us all to be alert. I also recall my complete confusion when several years later, I received a Dr. Seuss book called "Yertle The Turtle" as a birthday present. And after that, I can remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Burton, breaking down emotionally during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was broadcast right into our classroom on a huge black and white TV. "I'm glad that I'm older and won't have to deal with this, but you children will" she cried. She was terrified that Communists would invade America, and after her meltdown in the classroom, was quickly replaced with another teacher. America was scared shitless, and as much as its young children intuitively knew something was amiss, America wanted to compete the mission into this exciting new frontier. There was still enough Red Scare around to feed paranoia, but we had an definite liking to the very idea of people in space, and perhaps even people going to the moon. We even had Barbie™ dolls who dressed up as astronauts, and a deluge of space-themed television shows to feed our hunger for anything cosmic.
And so Sputnik may have played a small role in rewriting history. America again had a thirst for the frontier spirit it once had; and in 1960 chose a new breed of leadership which promised to feed our hunger for exploration, scientific discovery and social change. Deep down, Americans knew we had what it took, because we had the victory of WWII still in our national consciousness, and although we barely voted in change, we did it, and we enjoyed it for an abbreviated time. It is one of the two sparks of American progress I can recall in my lifetime, but it is the one that to me is most profound, because it paved the way for so much accomplishment, and because it was the most painful.
Not only did Sputnik usher in an exciting new spirit, but it was a small factor in paving the way for the great social change that took place in the sixties. It led to the creation of NASA in 1958. It may have influenced the 1960 election just enough to put the candidate with a clear commitment to putting a man on the moon in the White House and paving the way for the progressive accomplishments of the New Frontier and the Great Society, particularly the Civil Rights act, Medicare and Medicaid, The Alliance For Progress, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Public Broadcasting Act, the War on Poverty, the Clean Air and Clean Water Restoration Acts, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and of course a commitment to the Space Program.
As a child growing up in the 50's and 60's, I watched the era of promise deteriorate into more fear as our greatest voices were silenced, as our military adventures were exposed as corporate triumphs, and as our political process has been corroded into a "choosing the lesser of two evils" decision in which nobody seems to win. I still cannot decide whether we are a younger nation which hasn't reached its potential, or a declining power which has inspired the world, ignited a competitive spirit, and is being eaten alive by its inability to be flexible about its founding principles. I often wonder where we would be as a nation had the Space Race and the Red Scare of the late 50's had not occurred. Where would we be if Richard Nixon had won the Presidency? How would that have changed history? How would he have managed the mounting social issues of the time? Would he have introduced the Civil Rights Act, provided medical security for the disabled and elderly, and paid attention to environmental issues and poverty? Would Nixon have removed the US dollar from the gold standard ten years earlier, escalated the War on Communism to unimaginable proportions, and stifled the social progress that conservatives typically thumb their noses at?
It only took a 23 inch ball of titanium, aluminum and magnesium to ignite a collective momentum in the American spirit. That spark led us to work harder, embrace the challenge, and to achieve scientifically and socially.
But what will our next Sputnik moment be? Has it already occurred? Was it in 1998, when the Kyoto was negotiated, public consciousness of climate change grew, and the Bush administration, cajoling to the oil and gas industries, refused to sign it? Was it the 2000 election, in which Americans saw Al Gore win Florida, then lose Florida as the Bush machine went into action and we gained a better understanding of how the computerization of the ballot can lead to game-changing manipulation of our election process? Could we be looking back in time 40 years from now and discussing how electropollution related to cellular technology has all but eliminated the bee population, causing worldwide famine? Will we be remorseful that we are so desensitized that we are no longer able to visualize a Sputnik moment, because we're too self indulgent to care about anything other than Leave It To Lamas, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, or who wins Dancing With The Stars? Perhaps another social revolution is in order to bring us towards being a kinder, more compassionate society. In an era where most people don't even know their neighbors, what will it take to jolt us out of our comfort zones into the reality that we live in probably the most volatile, dangerous world ever, and we can no longer be glued together by mediocrity, ignorance, hate, and self-indulgence.
Years after I saw Sputnik wander across our national consciousness, I wrote a short paper about it in college. I learned that it wasn't the intriguing metal orb that was visible on earth, but instead was the remnants of the rocket casing which followed it in orbit. I felt a little disappointed, because I really cannot say now that "I saw Sputnik", but I am able to understand what it aroused. I'm able to look back and see how an exciting scientific development, originally designed to take part in International Geophysical Year, became an icon for an era that paved the way for the next decade of social and political change. It enabled us to feel a little vulnerable, and to want to be a greater technological force in the world. It was a simpler time, and we were motivated by simpler things; perhaps able to see symbolism more clearly. Can we get back in the game again? I believe that depends upon how clearly we can interpret the world, and looks at how we fit into the world as a nation. It does little to run around spitting out drivel about Obama's birth certificate, smaller government, and how health care is socialism.
The point is, we haven't had that inspiration towards progress that ignited us as a nation, partly because many Americans miss the big picture, and partly because many choose to listen to the signals. All it takes is a Sputnik moment to imprint us all with a craving for more inspired national policy. Let's hope we have one soon.
Kaitlin Addams was born and raised in San Diego, California, where she attended UC San Diego's Warren College. She is a spirited Bostonian with a gift for gab, and who is currently pursuing a Political Science degree at Northeastern University. She's a sucker for tabby cats, adventure, and a good beaujolais.
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