Sputnik Launched My Career!

Author: the first generation college grad memoirist

Subject: Sputnik Launched My Career!

1957 marks the pivotal year in careers of many modern science and technology professionals. Educational opportunities abounded to grease entry for first generation college students into prestigious graduate schools under generous federal grants and scholarships. I am one of those Sputnik winners!

My first memory of Sputnik:

“As usual, that annual “homecoming” carnival brought festivities up and down Main Street in October 1957. My townie friends ran home from the football game and marching band featuring Dixie juxtaposed with John Paul Souza music rattling the local windows. Relieved from itchy wool band uniform coat and pants, light winter jackets garbed the kids ganged at the Wreck-a-car roped off area. We were determined to hammer the donated Chevy to a pile of metal rubble. Standing in line, someone mentioned President Eisenhower’s radio acknowledgement of earth’s first man-made satellite. Horrors, that thing was Russian, and the kids shouted “beep, beep, beep” in derision. Stepping from street lights into the dark, I scanned the skies for a glimpse of the so-called Sputnik , not yet appreciating the magnitude of its physical distance nor importance of the event. Within a year, national momentum would bring educational opportunities to draw me rapidly from mid-Ohio corn fields and Main Street into a career spanning early computers, advent of the Internet, international professional connections, and the Niagara Falls of social media.

Slower moving trends blew more public waves of change after Sputnik woke up Eisenhower’s administration. Within a decade, the early Arpanet emerged from post-war Rand Corporation and European counterparts. Or so goes a possible myth. Another renders a saga of Arpanet fueled human-computer cooperation goals rather than solely military defense. While origination is contested, the world changing Internet was blessed with so many possible fathers, so few mothers. I later caught the tail of the beginning, as I will tell about later.

During my undergraduate summers, the National Science Foundation sponsored summer institutes for high school teachers and students. Not your usual summer camp, one institute introduced me to my first computer, an IBM 650. There occurred the epiphany for my research career: “a program can add up all the numbers in a list but how do you know the answer is correct?” A few summers later, I was tutoring “new math” for teachers, with a side show demonstrating an IBM 1620 acquired by a far sighted college professor. What could I demonstrate in those days before graphic terminals? Close as I remember, a hangman game on a typewriter-like terminal and the raucous “Anchors Aweigh” rhythm on a rackety line printer. I was hooked

Late in my career,I participated in an intriguing panel celebrating Sputnik’s 50th anniversary. We asked “How would our national science enterprise have evolved if the U.S. had beaten Russia into space? Where would your career be? And, why did it happen anyway?

Not much of a historian myself, close as I can tell, both countries were working peacefully toward an International Geophysical Year program reaching earth orbit. Eisenhower was hands-on, into U2 flights over Russia, and entranced with potential for satellite spying. His team even envisioned catching film dropping from orbiters in lieu of non-existent telemetry. Meantime, military inter-rivalry complicated decision making. Russia went for the simplest possible concept, the 18 pound sphere emitting its boring beep-beep-beep. But, rattling their big Soviet rockets, definitely shook up the world.

More recently, a lifelong learning class on “The Tumultuous Fifties” revealed that Sputnik had far less impact on many contemporaries. One with a college engineering professor father, attending well established college preparatory high school, hardly recognized Sputnik as more than a blip in history. Others, growing up in New York City, felt far more effect from changes in culture as they traced steps toward influential East Coast communication and entertainment companies, especially that richly innovative Bell Labs. Maybe only we in the hinterlands received the full boost from Sputnik.

other opinions? observations?

In any case, a surprised and missile envying Eisenhower administration set off those educational initiatives that gave first generation college entrees like me a foot into so many doors. Not that I didn’t manage to find a flaky grad school start up that left me with a big “chip on my shoulder” psychological weakness for life, but I am not going there right now.

My takeaway: International struggles sometimes tip our life patterns. We can only fully appreciate certain events after imagining their absence.

Younger reader, try this exercise:
Find a retired engineer and scientist around age 70. Ask their memory from October 1957. Did their high school science teachers or courses change after Sputnik? Did they have scholarships or fellowships from NSF or newly minted government agencies? Was there a push or pull toward science, engineering, mathematics and technology, what we now call STEM?