On the evening of October 4, 1957, at a party at the Soviet Embassy, Russian and American scientists celebrated "the greatest scientific research program ever undertaken," the International Geophysical Year. As part of the IGY, both Russia and the U. S. were expected to orbit space vehicles. Everyone anticipated the U. S. would do it first and its Vanguard program called for orbital liftoff in November, 1957. About 6 p.m. word came that a Soviet R-7 rocket had pushed a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit.
According to journalist, Paul Dickson, "The scientists and engineers assembled at the embassy party were thrilled. Cheers rang out. Within minutes, one of the most impenetrable buildings in Washington was putting out the welcome mat to reporters...Vodka flowed."
President Eisenhower was pleased. He wanted a system of spy satellites to monitor soviet military activity and forewarn of a surprise attack. But overflights of a sovereign nation were forbidden and no precedent existed that declared deep space to be international. Sputnik established that precedent. "We were certain," Eisenhower wrote later, "that we could get a great deal more information of all kinds out of the free use of space than they could."
Not everyone was happy. Comparisons to Pearl Harbor abounded. "Soon they'll be dropping bombs on us the way school boys drop rocks from freeway overpasses" said Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson. "Control of the very heavens was at stake" was the way writer Tom Wolfe put it.
Ex-Nazi rocket genius, Wernher von Braun, now the lead scientist of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, was furious. At the time of Sputnik's launch, Defense Secretary designate, Neil McElroy, was touring von Braun's operation in Huntsville, Alabama. Von Braun, usually cool and politically savvy, lost it: "We knew they were going to do it!" he yelled at McElroy. "Vanguard will never make it. We have the hardware on the shelf. For God's sake, turn us loose and let us do something!"
Von Braun did have the hardware on the shelf. On September 20, 1956, over a year before Sputnik, his group had launched a 4-stage Jupiter-C rocket from Cape Canaveral. The first three stages attained a speed of 13,000 miles an hour, a height of 862 miles and a distance down range of 3550 miles. The fourth stage could have easily slipped a satellite into orbit. But the fourth stage was filled with sand.
As the means to establish deep space as open, the Jupiter-C carried extra baggage: it was developed from and looked a lot like von Braun's infamous V-2, the supersonic explosives-carrying rocket that had terrified England in the late stages of World War II. The Jupiter-C, part of the Army's intercontinental ballistic missile program, was obviously first and foremost a weapon. Vanguard's smaller rockets and smaller payloads would be seen as instruments of research and hence had the green light to orbit first. But Vanguard would not see success until spring 1958 and its post-Sputnik failures generated headlines like "Dudnik," Flopnik" and "Kaputnik."
How could a technologically backward country like Russia beat the acknowledged world leader into space? Did they have spies? Maybe. Some speculated that our hyper-materialism had left us more interested in developing color television and the princess phone than space-conquering vehicles. Such theories quickly disappeared in favor of another: The Russians beat us into space because they had better schools.
In late 1956, U. S. News & World Report ran an interview with historian Arthur Bestor, author of Educational Wastelands: The Retreat From Learning in Public Schools, under the headline, "We Are Less Educated now than 50 Years Ago?" Shortly after Sputnik, the magazine brought him back to explain "What Went Wrong With U.S. Schools." Mostly the fault rested with the misguided spin-off from progressive education known as "life-adjustment education." "In the light of Sputnik," said Bestor, "'life adjustment education' turns out to have been perilously close to 'death adjustment' for our nation and our children." Life-adjustment education wastes time on trivialities. "That's why the first satellite bears the label, 'Made in Russia.'"
This was absurd. Life adjustment education was invented in 1945. A 9th-grader in 1945 would have been at most two years out of engineering school in 1957, hardly of an age to lead rocket development. Von Braun, a unique prodigy involved in rocketry since he was 17, was 45.
Still, pictorial proof of Russian student supremacy arrived in March, 1958 in the form of a five-part series in Life. The cover of the first installment read "Crisis in Education" in red letters on a black background. In photos, stern-faced Alexei Kutzkov looked at the reader from Moscow while easy-smiling Stephen Lapekas gazed out from Chicago. Inside photos showed Alexei doing complicated experiments in physics and chemistry and reading aloud from Sister Carrie.
Stephen, by contrast, retreated from a geometry problem on the blackboard and the caption advised, "Stephen amused class with wisecracks about his ineptitude." Seated at a typewriter in typing class, Stephen tells us "I type about one word a minute."
The schools never recovered from Sputnik. Sputnik wounded their reputation and as the scab formed, something else always came along to re-open the lesion: In the 1960s schools were blamed for the urban riots (but not credited for putting a man on the moon). In the 1980s, " A Nation At Risk" blamed them for allowing the Germans, South Koreans, and Japanese to race ahead of us competitively (but not credited for the longest sustained economic expansion in the nation's history which followed)
And today? Tough Choices or Tough Times warns of oncoming economic disaster. Leaders and Laggards, ditto. Eli Broad and Bill Gates have ponied up $60 million to "wake up the American people" (Broad is 73 years old. Has he been asleep all this time?). So far, billionaire hedge fund investors are taking the heat for today's sub-prime mortgage debacle. But if by the time you read this, two months after it was written, the catastrophe has rippled through the economy and produced a true recession, don't be surprised to see it being laid at the feet of Horace Mann and John Dewey.