How Sputnik Saved America

When the space race began in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik 1, the American public had already entered a new era of technological marvels: affordable automobiles, color televisions becoming the norm, the interstate highway system, more than 1,000 computers built and sold, the development of a polio vaccine. We were on top of the world, technologically.

And then came Sputnik, beating us in getting beyond the world, with technology that our enemy could someday use to destroy us. Simon Ramo, an American engineer who led the development of microwave and missile technology, wrote in The Business of Science (1988), “the American response to the accomplishment of the Soviet Union was comparable to the reaction I could remember to Lindbergh’s landing in France, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death.”

The response was as profound as the shock, and not just in increased defense spending on technology. For the first time, the nation saw technological education as a form of defense. The National Defense Education Act, or NDEA, increased funding for education at all levels by more than $1 billion, introduced low-interest student loans for higher education, and added a bevy of scholarship opportunities. Curricula in public schools became more challenging, with a new emphasis on math and science. Educators introduced many teaching tools still in use today, including hands-on laboratory classes, overhead projectors, and educational films. NDEA also provided millions of college scholarships; partly as a result, the number of enrolled students more than doubled, from 3.6 million in 1960 to 7.5 million in 1970.

The space program did more than prove our technological leadership. It drew bright kids like high-IQ moths to the light. Franklin Chang-Díaz remembers looking for Sputnik in Costa Rica when he was seven years old and being inspired to devote his life to space. After being told in a letter from Wernher von Braun, then-director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, that he needed to study engineering and learn to fly if he wanted to be an astronaut, Chang-Díaz emigrated to the United States at 18, received a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a doctorate in physics, became an American citizen, and now holds the record (along with Jerry L. Ross) for most spaceflights—seven shuttle missions.