The Sputnik Shock

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Remember Sputnik? For many, it’s just a dim memory from a history book. But for those of us who were youngsters on October 4,1957, it was stunning and shocking. We were growing up in a country that was, frankly, kind of arrogant.

America had led the coalition that won World War II. People all over the world seemed fascinated with American movies and music. The 1950s were an optimistic time, when American power seemed limitless.

Sputnik frightened us. Was this a step toward Russia sending bombs at us from outer space? Did this mean that American science and technology were not the best in the world? How could this have happened? Were American schools failing? Those were just a few of the many questions that were raised on the national and local news.

In classrooms of Wichita, Kansas public schools, where I was going to school, TVs were brought in so we could watch Sputnik, again and again. While weighing less that 200 pounds, that Russian satellite had an enormous impact.

50 years have passed since Sputnik was launched. The most pessimistic predictions have not come to pass. Russian bombs did not come at us from outer space. We did not have a nuclear war. We are not ruled by Russians.

But I think Sputnik was good for this country. It was a forceful reminder that America will not always lead. We will not always be first. We can learn from others. In retrospect, it was a huge national lesson in humility.

Sputnik also can be viewed in another way. Sometimes people insist that if this or that isn’t done, we are doomed.

But this is a country of vast resources, incredible opportunities and enormous creativity. We need to retain a sense of perspective. We can do wonderful things – and have.

We have plenty of problems. But we also have the capacity to overcome many of them.

For me, there’s a three-part lesson from Sputnik. First, humility. Second, don’t be overwhelmed by fear. Things are rarely as bad as they may seem. Finally, when given a challenge, Americans respond, often magnificently. On balance, I think Sputnik was very good for this country.

Do you agree? What do you recall, if you were alive on October 4, 1957. I’d love to hear from others about their recollections of Sputnik. If you send a note to jnathan@umn.edu, I’ll post what you share on the Center for School Change website.