Sputnik's Influence On U.S. Education, Society

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Paul Ceruzzi, chairman of the Space History Division at the National Air and Space Museum, talks to host Michele Norris about the history the Soviet satellite Sputnik and its influences on American education, society and industry.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We're going to focus now on another section from the president's State of the Union address. In a speech structured largely as a blueprint for the future, at one point, Mr. Obama did attempt to draw inspiration from a decisive moment in America's past.

President BARACK OBAMA: Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation's Sputnik moment.

NORRIS: That first Sputnik moment came on October 4, 1957. Here's word of the satellite's launch, courtesy of Radio Moscow.

(Soundbite of Radio Moscow clip)

Unidentified Man: The first artificial Earth satellite in the world has now been created. This first satellite was, today, successfully launched in the USSR.

NORRIS: As President Obama said, news of Sputnik did two things: It caught America off guard, and it inspired the country to innovate on a grand scale.

And for more on that, we're joined by Paul Ceruzzi. He's chairman of the Space History Division at the National Air and Space Museum.

So glad you could come to the studio.

Dr. PAUL CERUZZI (Chairman, Space History Division, National Air and Space Museum): My pleasure to be here.

NORRIS: Now, take us back to the day before most Americans had ever even heard of Sputnik. What did the U.S. look like? Were we somewhat static at that point?

Dr. CERUZZI: Well, the United States had a healthy economy. The U.S. auto industry was doing very well. There was a lot of consumer economy. The teenager, what we now call the teenager, really came into existence as a market force. "American Bandstand" with Dick Clark had started up.

So it was a very healthy economy in some ways. But there was complacency. People didn't think that anybody could ever possibly catch us. And, of course, that was not true.

NORRIS: You know, President Obama said last night that because of Sputnik, America unleashed this massive wave of innovation. Those young people that you talked about, that "Bandstand" generation, were they inspired to think about their future in a different way? To think that, you know, if we're going to beat the Soviets, we have to a part of this. We have to be bigger, better, smarter.

Dr. CERUZZI: Yes. It was - you look at some of the television programs, there was a lot of emphasis on science and technology, on aerospace. And I think a lot of young people picked up on that. It was really drilled home the importance of studying mathematics and physics. There was something called the New Math, of which I'm a product, where they attempted to restructure the teaching of math along more fundamental principles. Some math teachers thought it was a kind of joke, but it didn't kill anybody, let's put it that way. I survived it.

NORRIS: How did industry respond to the Sputnik moment?

Dr. CERUZZI: The aerospace industry was already very much going full steam with defense-oriented missiles and rockets and jet aviation. So they just ramped it up even more. Commercial aviation was doing well.

1957 is a very interesting year. It was the first year that passenger traffic in the United States surpassed rail traffic for long distance passengers. And air traffic across the Atlantic surpassed steamships for passengers.

So the aerospace industry was doing well, and this just increased the amount of money that that was available to further their work.

NORRIS: What role did the government play?

Dr. CERUZZI: Well, I think the government had two very direct influences, which are right out of a consequence of Sputnik. And one was the creation of NASA. The other agency that was created was called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or ARPA. And its charter, if I could simplify it a little bit, was to say, let's not ever be surprised by Sputnik again.

They came up with an idea about networking computers, which became something called the ARPANET. And many people say that's the technical ancestor of today's Internet.

NORRIS: Hmm. Paul Ceruzzi, thanks for coming in.

Dr. CERUZZI: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Paul Ceruzzi is the chairman of the Space History Division at the National Air and Space Museum.

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