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A Teen and a Nation Are Spurred On By Sputnik

By John E. Foley / October 1, 1997



'Wake up!" my mom shouted as she rousted me out of bed early that Saturday morning 40 years ago this week. "The Russians launched a satellite! Maybe you can hear it on your radio." She'd just learned of Sputnik on the morning news while making breakfast on our small farm in southern Oregon.

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My mom, who was a math teacher, had scribbled down the frequency on which Sputnik was said to be transmitting: 20.005 megacycles.

"I can tune that frequency!" I exclaimed as I scrambled out of bed and fired up my shortwave radio. My parents had helped me buy the used Hallicrafters receiver a few months earlier - in the summer before my senior year in high school - after I'd gotten my ham-radio license. I was a science nerd and wanted to study engineering in college.

At first all I heard was static, but after waiting just 20 minutes I began to receive the steady "beep-beep-beep" signal from the world's first man-made satellite. My parents and I listened with excitement as the signal became louder and louder - incredibly loud. "It's right over our farm!" I shouted. We heard the signal for about 10 minutes, then it faded as Sputnik passed out of range.

Because it was Saturday and I didn't have school, I could monitor Sputnik all weekend. I heard it several times, whenever its orbit brought it over our farm. But with each contact my excitement gave way to mounting apprehension. The cold war had always seemed far away, but now the Russians were over our farm, they were in our space. "What will they orbit next?" I wondered.

Just as Sputnik was my wake-up call that Saturday morning four decades ago, it was the wake-up call for our nation: We had fallen behind the Russians in science and math, was the popular cry. In response, the American government provided all kinds of scholarships and opportunities for kids like me. Over the next decades we helped conquer the moon - and the Berlin Wall.