The legacy of Sputnik lies above all in its social and cultural impact. Sure, it began the space age, was a technological triumph, and launched the entire new field of space science - but that was already foreseen in the early and mid-1950's. And, sure, it demonstrated that the Soviet Union was a powerful nation, but nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles had done that already. It was Sputnik's sudden and startling impact on the American psyche and on global politics that came as a complete surprise and created its true legacy.
Sputnik and the space missions that followed it are striking anomalies in the political landscape. They have little economic returns (at least on any practical time scale), no military value, and are a minor part of national budgets and political discussion. And yet, the accomplishments of space missions are major world events, whose impact often dwarfs the other political events of the time. This was certainly the case with Sputnik, just as it was with the Apollo missions a decade later.
The cultural and political impact of space missions has been demonstrated many times since Sputnik: Yuri Gagarin's first human flight, the first spacecraft to the Moon, the first spacecraft to the planets, man walking on the Moon, the Viking landing on Mars, Voyager's journey to the end of the Solar system, the missions to Halley's comet, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mir, and the International Space Station. All of these resonated around the world, captured the imagination of millions of people, and raised the international prestige of the countries who launched them.
Sputnik and the missions that followed were, of course, the product of 'cold war' rivalry and nationalistic ambitions. Remarkably, however, they transcended these roots to stand as symbols of human greatness, bringing out the best in us and offering hope for the future. The legacy of Sputnik is not Soviet might; it is a new era of human evolution beyond Earth. The legacy of Apollo is not its rockets; it is 'we came in peace for all mankind'.
In the US, Sputnik launched an education revolution, from which I personally benefited. President Eisenhower, while publicly downplaying the significance of Sputnik, initiated the National Defense Education Act to close the presumed dangerous education gap between American students and their Russian counterparts. This piece of legislation paid for much of my university education. In 1957 I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, and a month later Sputnik was launched. The University immediately created its first space science course, taught by Werner Suomi. It may have been the first such course anywhere, and I was hooked. Space was the new frontier.
The link between space achievements and education continues to this day. It is an integral part of both the politics of space exploration and the scientific content of the missions themselves. Today, India and China are following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union and the United States by joining the ranks of spacefaring nations engaging in a new Moon race. The only reason they are doing this is that space exploration is a source of inspiration, a stimulus for education, and a spur for economic and technological growth.
The most amazing aspect of Sputnik is that it launched a great battle of the long and frightening 'cold war' - and that battle was a peaceful one. The space race was a rivalry that gave the nations involved confidence, and provided inspiration for their young people to pursue excellence and high achievement. The 'cold war' has since come to an end, and the world is now a very different place. And yet - the vision of the space age that humankind can use its technology for peace and a better future remains. It reminds us that we can go to Mars, we can stop the environmental destruction, and we can use technology to improve life, not to destroy it. Confidence and inspiration are the legacies of Sputnik.
This essay first appeared in Space: The First Step, copyright © 2007, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, and is used here by the kind permission of the author.
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