Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Obama Warns of "Sputnik Moment"

President Obama in North Carolina yesterday. Photo source: Winston-Salem Journal.

From The December 7 Winston-Salem Journal:

President Obama called yesterday for a new "Sputnik moment" that will re-establish the United States as the global leader in education, innovation and infrastructure ...

The heart of the speech focused on how America can reshape itself to meet the needs of a new economy, much as it did in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the Earth-orbiting satellite known as Sputnik.

The Soviets' innovation was a surprise, and ultimately served as a wakeup call that galvanized the nation. The result was a pioneering space program that put the first man on the moon.

"So 50 years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment,” said Obama, standing in front of blue backdrop before a gymnasium crammed with students and faculty from Forsyth Tech. "If the recession has taught us anything, it's that we cannot go back to an economy that's driven by way too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans . . . We've got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth."

I wrote in earlier posts about my volunteering as a docent at the Air Force Space & Museum at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. I've been doing a lot of reading about the "Sputnik" era, and found that as with many myths about our history, it isn't quite what we're led to believe today.

It all began in 1952 when the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities to span the period of July 1957 through December 1958, which coincided with the high point of an eleven-year cycle of sunspot activity. It would be known as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Many nations agreed to participate. The United States and the Soviet Union said in 1955 they would launch satellites, an unprecdented event.

A "satellite" is simply an object placed in orbit by human endeavor. The key word is "orbit." That's something no one had done in the early 1950s.

Neither the U.S. or U.S.S.R. had a civilian rocket program. All rockets were military. Although the IGY was peaceful, there was no getting around the use of the military to deliver a satellite into orbit. That was why the ability to do so was considered a military threat, although the satellite itself was entirely harmless.

While the United States proceeded with a program called Project Vanguard, the Soviets apparently kept their progress secret. Russian ham radio magazines discussed how to monitor transmissions from a satellite, but didn't mention a specific object. Sputnik was designed to emit a signal that could be monitored by amateur radio enthusiasts around the world. Their intent was to prove that the Soviet Union had indeed launched a satellite — but it didn't do much more than that.

The Soviet government, according to multiple articles, was rather shocked by the overreaction in the West. According to the NASA history web site:

A month later, on November 3, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik II, a half-ton satellite that carried a female dog, Laika, into orbit. Although Sputnik I shocked and irritated Americans, it did not particularly frighten them. Assured by the President and the media, they believed a U.S. satellite would have been first if Eisenhower had permitted the use of classified military rockets. Annoyed that the Soviets were "first into space," they were still confident that U.S. technology was far ahead of that of the USSR.

Sputnik II, however, shocked everyone. It weighed more than 1000 pounds and carried a dog. Neither of the big rockets under development, the Atlas or the Titan, could orbit 1000-pound payload. Highly classified reconnaissance satellites, with reentry capsules to recover their film, were under development, but the United States had not started to develop a spacecraft with a life support system. Most aerospace engineers regarded Laika's flight as a precursor to manned flight. Clearly, the USSR had demonstrated that it was ahead of the United States in manned space flight and in the size of satellites that it could place in orbit.

What would be the equivalent of a "Sputnik moment" in today's world?

Hard to say. The nations of the world are too interrelated today, and with spy satellites in orbit it's hard to hide any significant technological achievement.

To justify the all-but-dead Constellation Moon program, some have claimed China is sending humans to the Moon. No such program exists; they've talked about it, they have a study, but that's about it. All indications are that China is more interested in a space station in the early 2020s, although they might send robotic craft to the Moon to retrieve samples.

But that's something we did more than forty years ago.

If Chinese taikonauts walk on the Moon sometime around 2025, it will be more than fifty years after the United States did it. If the Chinese bring back Moon rocks, they can be displayed in museums next to those brought back by the Apollo astronauts a half-century ago.

So will a human Chinese Moon mission be the next "Sputnik moment"? It seems unlikely to me.

1 comment:

  1. I started writing a comment, but I turned it into a blog post.