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Beep . . . Beep . . . Beep

Sputnik launched the Cold War space race, but the rocket-fueled U.S. economy finally won the day.

October 04, 2007

'Let's not make too great a hullabaloo over this," President Eisenhower advised after hearing news of a successful satellite launch. He was referring not to Sputnik I, which went into orbit on this date in 1957, but to the U.S. response, the Explorer I satellite, which began circling the planet in January 1958.

Ike's sang-froid had been apparent even when our country's belated entry into the space race had columnists and talking heads fuming that the Soviet Union was on the verge of eclipsing the United States. (In a typically hysterical Sputnik reaction published in The Times, columnist Walter Lippmann decried "the enormous fallacy that the highest purpose of the American social order is to multiply the enjoyment of consumer goods.") Opposing a panic-driven plan that would have federalized and drastically overhauled the education system in order to "turn nearly every student into a scientist or engineer," the president wisely noted that that was just the kind of thing the Russians would do.

A weird feature of the Cold War was America's tendency to choose the few areas in which the Soviet Union excelled and to make them the grounds for symbolic contests. International chess, classical piano competitions, Olympic sports (what red-blooded American hurls a discus?) -- those were things the Russians were good at. True to form, the United States reacted to Sputnik with orotund calls to national purpose and a collectivized space program that mirrored the Russian program down to its hybrid military/scientific mission. Just as Sputnik itself was a technological experiment attached to what was originally merely a ballistic missile project, so the first Explorer launch was crammed with equipment -- including a Geiger counter that detected the existence of the Van Allen radiation belts, the first important discovery of the Space Age.

In the end, the U.S. tendency to play to its weaknesses didn't matter. The economy was so vast that its runoff alone was enough to swamp the Soviets. The real symbolic victory of the Space Age may not have been Apollo 11 but "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," that paean to American wealth (marking its own -- silver -- anniversary this year) that posits a nation so rich even a supposedly middle-class Tujunga family has enough junk lying around the house to build a radio capable of communicating with aliens. The "private standard of life" Lippmann deplored was the base on which the achievements of the Space Age were built -- including NASA, a Cold War relic that even its admirers concede is an arcane bureaucracy, and yet one that still manages to do some amazing things.

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