WASHINGTON -- Fifty years ago this week, America was shaken out of technological complacency by a beeping 180-pound aluminum ball orbiting overhead. Sputnik was a shock because we had always assumed that Russia was nothing but a big, lumbering and all-brawn bear. He could wear down the Nazis and produce mountains of steel but had none of our savvy or sophistication. Then one day we wake up and he beats us into space, placing overhead the first satellite to orbit the Earth since God placed the moon where it could give us lovely sailing tides.
At the time, all thoughts were about the Soviets overwhelming us technologically. But the panic turned out to be unwarranted. Sputnik was not subtle science. The Soviets were making up for their inability to miniaturize nuclear warheads -- something that does require sophistication -- by developing massive rockets. And they had managed to develop one just massive enough to hurl a ball into Earth orbit.
We had no idea how lucky we were with Sputnik. The subsequent panic turned out to be an enormous boon. The fear of falling behind the Communists induced the federal government to pour a river of money into science and math education. The result was a generation of scientists who gave us not only Apollo and the moon, but the sinews of the information age -- for example, ARPA that created ARPANET that became the Internet -- that have assured American technological dominance to this day.
There was another lucky outcome of Sputnik. Two years earlier, President Eisenhower had proposed "Open Skies" under which the U.S. and Russia would permit spy-plane overflights so each would know the other's military capabilities. The idea was to reduce mutual uncertainty and strengthen deterrence. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rejected the idea out of hand.
The advent of the orbiting satellite circumvented the objection. By 1960, we had launched our first working spy satellite. But our greatest luck was the fact that the Soviets got to space first. Sputnik orbiting over the United States -- and Eisenhower never protesting a violation of U.S. sovereignty -- established forever the principle that orbital space is not national territory but is as free and open as the high seas. Had we beaten the Russians into orbit -- and we were only a few months behind -- Khrushchev might very well have protested our presence over sovereign Soviet territory and reserved the right to one day (the technology was still years away) shoot us down.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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