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U.S. needs another spark like Sputnik

Here is a great example of how our thinking, and often our sense of imagination, is limited by the times in which we live.

Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of the Soviet launch of the world's first man-made satellite, Sputnik. If you dialed the clock back to 1957, you would find a lot of public hand-wringing in newspapers about this great achievement by our enemies. But you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who viewed it in any context other than the military.

And even in the military context, there was a profound shortage of imagination.

The New York Times report said, "Military experts have said that the satellites would have no practicable military application in the foreseeable future." This was because, "The satellites could not be used to drop atomic or hydrogen bombs or anything else on the Earth...."

Well, duh. Even a school kid back then could tell you the bombs would just sort of float in orbit, eventually breaking up in the atmosphere on re-entry — hardly striking fear in the enemy.

It took the collective work of a lot of well-educated minds, plus a rapid succession of building blocks constructed by success after success in the race to the moon and beyond, to get us where we are today.

Fifty years later, we need another stunning blow like that to refocus our national energies, but we aren't likely to get it from our enemies. Al-Qaida may know how to use the Internet and video cameras, but it doesn't have a space program or even a university. It advocates a system so archaic and backward that it poses no credible intellectual threat at all. Communism, at least, claimed to offer a better way to obtain prosperity and scientific knowledge.

Today, our former enemies are our partners in space. But our friends are posing a quiet risk to our general sense of complacency. As the new Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce puts it, 30 years ago this country boasted 30 percent of the world's population of college students. Today it has 14 percent, and the proportion continues to fall. In math, science and general literacy, American students regularly place from the middle to near the bottom when compared to other industrialized nations.

We would do better if we could sense the urgency, if we could fuel the competitive juices.

Back in 1957, the nation was a bit complacent, as well. The best imaginative minds could muster was a guess that satellites could give scientists "important new information concerning the nature of the sun, cosmic radiation" and other such things.

Few people could imagine that 50 years later recreational joggers would be tracking their distance and speed using watches that connect with satellites. They didn't foresee cell phones that use satellites to help average people broadcast photos and video from a military crackdown in Myanmar, or Google Earth, which allows just about anyone to sit in the comfort of their homes and examine detailed images of any part of the planet. They didn't imagine satellite television and radio, or even the technology allowing instant images of news events.

And those are just the commercial applications. Science uses satellites to monitor the weather and keep tabs on environmental changes. The military uses them for surveillance. The list goes on.

And, frankly, we have Sputnik to thank for all of that. If the United States had been the first nation to launch a satellite, we wouldn't have been spurred by the threat of our enemies. We might not have reached the moon 12 years later.

In the days following Sputnik, college and university spokesmen met at the American Council on Education in Washington to talk about the need to get serious about education. That sense of urgency paid off mightily in the years that followed.

The threats are different today, spurred by intense competition for jobs. The old public-school model isn't up to the challenge. If we remain limited by the times in which we live, we may not see this before it's too late.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com