Blessings of Sputnik
The boost it gave 50 years ago to US science is needed again today.
University Park, Md. — The Russians helped send me to Harvard University at the height of the cold war, and I'm very grateful.
I'm not revealing any classified information, or confessing to un-American thoughts or behaviors. I was just one of thousands of beneficiaries of the American response to a shocking event that occurred 50 years ago this week.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first space satellite, called Sputnik 1. It weighed only 184 pounds, but it demonstrated technology and rocket power that few thought the Russians had. By contrast, the first planned US satellite was the grapefruit-sized Vanguard, weighing three pounds.
A month later, the Russians sent a dog into orbit in a satellite weighing 1,121 pounds. The space race was on, and the United States was losing.
The American people were shocked by Sputnik, as were many political leaders. Republican Sen. Styles Bridges of New Hampshire warned, "The time has clearly come to be less concerned with the depth of the pile on the new broadloom rug or the height of the tail fin on the car and to be more prepared to shed blood, sweat, and tears if this country and the free world are to survive."
At first, the politicians played their usual games, with Democrats holding hearings to expose delays and mismanagement in US programs and with Republicans trying to reassure the American people that the United States was still strong. But very soon, leaders from both parties came together in a measured, deliberate, yet broad response.
President Eisenhower listened to the ominous report of a panel of scientists and defense experts – the Gaither Committee – and adopted many of its recommendations. He added 4 percent to his defense budget, accelerated US missile programs, and increased the planned size of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile force by 62 percent. To guard against surprise Soviet attacks, he ordered greater dispersal of US bombers as well as the start of a limited airborne alert bomber force.
These steps helped to close what otherwise might have been a dangerous "missile gap," although that wasn't fully recognized until 1961. By then, in fact, the gap was in favor of the United States.
US leaders didn't stop with military measures. They also strengthened America's scientific capabilities by creating the civilian space agency, NASA, tripling funds for the National Science Foundation, and naming a presidential science advisor.
Eisenhower and the Democrats in Congress then teamed up to launch several new federal programs to help schools, students, and teachers. One of those measures was the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA), which over four years provided funds equal to $4.4 billion in today's dollars for: student loans; matching funds for science, math, and foreign language teaching; and graduate fellowships in science, engineering, and foreign-area studies. That's how I was able to pay for Harvard. The NDEA also broke the logjam for other types of federal aid to education, both at the elementary and collegiate levels. Broader programs were added throughout the 1960s, building on the success of the NDEA.
The long-term effects of these measures were also very positive for America's economy and our scientific leadership. In the decade following Sputnik, the US doubled the share of gross national product going for basic scientific research and tripled the number of domestic doctorate degrees across all fields. Even elementary education benefited, with new, more effective ways of teaching science and math.
Even today, science and education advocates echo the arguments of 1957. The American Association of Universities has called for "A National Defense Education Act for the 21st Century" with graduate fellowships, college loan forgiveness, summer training grants for elementary school teachers, and other professional incentives – a grab bag of ideas – "to inspire a new generation of students to pursue degrees in areas critical to national defense and homeland security."
The National Academy of Sciences released a report last year concluding that "US advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode. A comprehensive and coordinated federal effort is urgently needed to bolster US competitiveness and preeminence in these areas." The report called for programs to improve science and math education, basic research, and the development and recruitment of scientists and engineers. One analyst commented, "Today's Sputnik? It's a little bigger. It's called China."
Whether or not such programs are worthwhile, it is notable that so many people are trying to rekindle the concerns and cooperation and commitment that we saw in 1957. The unstated premise is that, back then, we responded well to a worrisome challenge, and we can and should do it again.
• Charles A. Stevenson teaches at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He is the author of "Congress at War: The Politics of Conflict since 1789."