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Celebrating the 44th Anniversary of Sputnik's Launch - 2001-10-04

Forty-four years ago, the Soviet Union made a huge contribution to science when it sent the world's first man-made satellite into space. Sputnik 1 caught the world by surprise when it was launched on Friday, October 4, 1957. Paul Dickson, the author of Sputnik - the Shock of the Century, recalls many Americans felt fear and astonishment.

"Over the weekend, there was a tremendous sense of awe, but on Monday, two things happened: one, there was a fire on a nuclear power plant in England, so the whole nuclear thing was looking very strange," he said. "We did not know how many people would die from that. The second thing was the Russians announced that they now had the hydrogen bomb, which the American people didn't know they had. So the impact of Sputnik, suddenly, [it] was no longer perceived as purely scientific exploration, but it was seen as if it was sent up on a missile."

Americans had long considered Russians incapable of producing advanced technology because their consumer goods were of poor quality. According to Paul Dickson, while Americans made jokes about the shoddiness of Soviet-produced goods, the Soviets laughed at what they considered American obsession with comfort products.

"When Sputnik went up, they laughed at us," he says. "They said all you Americans care about is your color TV and the tail fins on your cars and you just don't care about the important things in the world. And we were forced into re-examining our materialism and our comfort level."

Paul Dickson says many Americans feared that the Soviet's ability to launch the satellite the size of a basketball into space translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles into the U.S. And then on November 3, the Soviets struck again - they sent Sputnik 2 into orbit, with a dog named Laika in it.

The U.S. reacted by approving funds for a new and larger project, Explorer 1, in addition to the small satellite Vanguard, which was already in the making. Explorer I was successfully launched in January of 1958, carrying out a series of scientific experiments. It eventually discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth.

And in July of 1958, the U.S. Congress passed a law, which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, in October 1958. But as Paul Dickson says, the American president at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, refused to panic. Instead of intensifying the arms race, he supported scientific use of the satellites.

"I think the big breakthrough that occurred is when Eisenhower at one point decides using one of our satellites, a little bit more than a year after Sputnik, to put messages on," says Mr. Dickson. "Eisenhower puts up a tape-recorder on a satellite and it's got a peace on earth message. It was right before Christmas and it was saying: 'I just want to tell everybody in the world that I wish for peace and peace is the most important thing' and I think at that moment people realized that space was now a platform for a lot of things."

Today satellites are used for wireless communication, for observing the weather conditions, pollution and many other things. As Paul Dickson says, people finally broke out of the boundaries of the Earth. And he says the space race became a surrogate for the arms race. Both the United States and the USSR invested resources and energy into scientific research that has changed the world.

"The Internet came about as a direct result of Sputnik," says Mr. Dickson. "Computers in America were not talking to each other. The fear was that if a missile came to America and let's say hit Cambridge, Massachusetts or hit Berkeley, California - a large part of American know-how was then going into computers. The idea [of creating the Internet] was that you could move information, that information would cease to be centralized, that you could move vast amounts of information from one computer to another."

The author of Sputnik: the Shock of the Century says today's young students may not be aware that even the way they are taught at school has been affected by the launch of Sputnik. Many schools have abandoned teaching classical Greek and Latin in favor of more extensive math and science projects, and students are encouraged to ask challenging questions, to think and to create rather than memorize information. Paul Dickson says one of the most important lessons Sputnik taught the world in the last 44 years is that the way to fight is not always with weapons.