Monday, August 3, 2009

Remembering Sputnik…

I was sitting in my eighth grade science classroom listening to another interesting story about World War II being told by Mr. Foxworthy. It was just at the beginning of October at my new junior high school. The new buildings brought on a wave of expectations of new friends, new teachers, and new experiences. Little did I know how much my world would be shaken?

At home, our family was finally recovering from the death of my little sister, Elizabeth. She had died when she was only six months old of ‘crib death’. I had completed my quest for the Eagle Scout award which I had received about a year before. But, other things at home were tough — my dad was drinking heavily, being abusive to my mother and myself, and we were in danger of losing our home due to the economic problems of the mid-1950’s. School, baseball, and scouting had been my retreat.

Since it was October, baseball season was over. I was ending many years in the scouts because our troop had no Explorer Scout group. That left school, which had been an extremely frustrating experience during my seventh grade year. Junior high was very different than elementary school, with the multiple teachers and many times the number of students. I had attended East Junior High last year and had been separated from many of my friends with whom I had been in classes with for many years. This year, I was moving to West Junior High and would need to try to make new friends again.

I had always liked science. At that time advanced technology meant having a private phone line rather than a party line or having a high-fidelity record player rather than a regular one with poor sound quality. Jet airplanes were just being adopted by the airline industry. Freeways were almost unknown, except for the twisting Arroyo Seca (Pasadena) Freeway and a short stretch of freeway from Union Station to Ditman Avenue in East LA. I was totally unaware of computers or other high-tech gadgets. Life was as it had been for the past 20-30 years.

Then, the event that reshaped my world occurred on October 4th of 1957. Its impact was gradual, but it would see me through high school and college. It would shape my professional career after that. What was this event? It was the launch, by the USSR (Russia), of a little satellite called the Sputnik I.

Sputnik Changes the Balance of Power in the World.

Sputnik I, the first of about 40 satellites launched by the USSR, was the first man-made object placed into low earth orbit. This event shocked the US Military and President more than even the USSR demonstration of their atomic bomb. This satellite orbited the earth about every ninety minutes and was about 6oo miles above the earth. Although it weighed only about 185 pounds, it hit us like a bombshell. And, what’s more, it put out a ‘beep’ that could be monitored on any short wave radio.

Was it a military threat? Not directly, but it was a major blow to our self-confidence and ego. The rocket that launched the satellite was powerful enough to launch a nuclear missile that could reach the United States. This was, after all, the Cold War between the USSR and the USA; it was, therefore, a threat to our national security.

Effects of Sputnik on American Life

Did this artificial satellite change my education at West Junior High? No, not at all. But it would have a profound, long-term affect upon me and my education. It also affected the psychological well-being of the country. I will just give you a brief list here of some of those effects. We will explore some of them in more detail in future postings. This list included:
  1. The Creation of NASA
  2. The Start of the ‘Space Race’
  3. Changes to the Math and Science Curricula
  4. The Creation of the ‘National Defense Student Loan’ program
  5. Advances in Medicine and radio-telemetry
  6. Advances in Communication Technologies
  7. The Development of the Internet
  8. Advances in Computer Technology
Well, that’s a beginning list of the after effects of Sputnik. The impact they had on me specifically and on the country in general were huge.

The Effects of Sputnik on my Life

What were the direct effects on my life? Well, going into my eighth grade year I was probably your typical junior higher. I was adjusting to a different school structure and new friends. I was, by nature, more of a loner and very shy. I always received acceptable grades in school, but had never stood out academically. I had only some vague goals for my future, like becoming a professional baseball player. In a word, I was an average guy of thirteen.

What was Sputnik’s effect on me? I suddenly became acutely interested in science; I even started to aspire to becoming a nuclear physicist! My grades improved and I started to become more socialized. I had become motivated. By the end of ninth grade, I had upped my grades to almost straight A’s and was one of the speakers at my ninth grade graduation ceremony. Even though my parents had divorced towards the end of my eighth grade year, I had goals and wanted to prepare for college. This event was probably the most important in my life, equal to that of receiving my Eagle Scout award.

I was on my way. It was the ‘jump start’ that we often need for our cars after a period of idleness. I knew that I wanted an education; I was fascinated in science and math, and had a new respect for my teachers. For this shy ‘little’ (I was really large for my age!), thirteen-year-old boy it was a ‘metamorphosis’ that would change my life.

Next Time: We will look at some of the ramifications of Sputnik. This may take more than one additional posting. Join us for that adventure…

Friday, July 31, 2009

Watch for new series starting on Monday, August 3rd

We will be starting a new series of postings on technology developments over the past fifty years. Since I have lived through most of these, it will give me a chance to reflect on how the technology has changed in this time. John Coverdale will contribute his perspective on these topics from his day to day experience in teaching students at the community college.

Join us for this exploration and we welcome your feedback.

Jerry Boerner, Retired Professor, Computer Science and Educational Technology