50 Years of Racing in Space

sputnik.jpg

Alright, in case you all missed it, here's a reminder of how important today is...I mean, this is where the real "tech" in "Defense Tech" all began.

From USA Today:

As a high school junior in the fall of 1957, Gerry Wheeler knew what he was destined to do the following summer: work in the family milk-delivery business in Peterboro, N.H. It's what he and his older brother had always done.

But on Oct. 4, 1957, 50 years ago today, he and the rest of America got a bleep-bleep-bleeping wake-up call. Its name: Sputnik.

Launched by scientists in the Soviet Union, Sputnik I was the first artificial object to orbit Earth. It quietly changed Wheeler's life and those of millions more.

As Sputnik jump-started the space race, the little aluminum sphere also jolted the nation's education system. The aftershocks are still felt today.

That autumn, many Americans feared that Sputnik presaged a possible ballistic nuclear attack by the Soviets. But Wheeler's parents took a more pragmatic approach: They urged him to take a science course that summer.

"Once Sputnik went up, the conversation changed around the dinner table," he says.

Wheeler spent the summer studying advanced physics; he went on to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear physics at Boston University, teach at Temple University and Montana State, and head the National Science Teachers Association.

It's tempting to believe that before Sputnik, the USA's math and science education system was moribund, but historians disagree. U.S. scientists and engineers had helped win World War II, after all, and plans for better coursework already were in place in 1957. But they got a much-needed push.

At the time, many Americans feared that federal funding could lead to federal control. But in 1957, educators quickly seized on the launch and pushed for more government money.

"They saw Sputnik as an opportunity to bang the drum," says New York University education historian Diane Ravitch. It also settled the question of "whether the federal government should be involved in education at all."

In 1958, Congress approved $1 billion for the National Defense Education Act, or NDEA, the first of an alphabet soup of more than a dozen programs meant to help U.S. students compete with the Soviets. Schools also began focusing on gifted students, handpicking them for upper-level courses.

Then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson held the first hearings on spending for school construction. That summer, schools began receiving matching funds, not only for math and science but also for foreign languages.

Those 1960s-era "language labs" with headphones and microphones also were a direct result of Sputnik, says Peggy Kidwell, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

"That was something that was really big after Sputnik," she says.

Baby-boomer families began buying educational toys telescopes and plastic models of the human body. A Gilbert chemistry set that already had been on the market "sold really well" the Christmas after Sputnik, Kidwell says.

Though schools' focus on gifted students was short-lived, Ravitch says replaced in the 1960s by a move toward equal education for all what survived was Congress' commitment to help pay for education.

In 1964, President Johnson signed the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which today lives on as No Child Left Behind.

Many educators now say the nation needs another Sputnik-like scare to motivate the nation to improve schools. They say the two most likely candidates global warming and global economic competition are close, but they're no Sputnik.

"It wasn't a trend," Ravitch says. "It was a space shot, and I don't know what the equivalent of a space shot today would be."

-- Christian

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