Sixty years ago, a shiny sphere of aluminium, magnesium and titanium, 60cm in diameter and weighing 83kg, flashed across the sky at 30,000km/h from west to east.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, a new moonlet, a giant step for mankind. By the time Sputnik burnt up three months later, the world it had orbited 1440 times was an utterly different place.
Sputnik sparked a scientific crisis of confidence in the West, shaking post-war US technological complacency to the core, stoking triumphalist Soviet propaganda and kicking off the Cold War space race.
More than that, it prompted the greatest single investment in science ever undertaken. Following Sputnik, money and energy poured into engineering, science and technological research in an educational great leap forward that unleashed an unprecedented wave of innovation on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Today the West needs another “Sputnik moment” to shake it out of its technological lethargy. Historically, such leaps tend to follow crises, rivalry or war. The next major scientific overhaul may be prompted by a Russian cyberattack, a North Korean dictator with a nuclear warhead or environmental disaster.
But the greatest technological challenge is likely to come from China, which accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s expenditure on scientific research and development, a rate increasing just as the US is reducing such spending.
Sixty years on, it is easy to forget the astonishment and fear that greeted the news of Sputnik: the Soviet Union had not just won the race to launch a satellite, it had done so in secret.
“Sputnik triggered a period of self-appraisal rarely equalled in modern times,” wrote Wernher von Braun, the German leader of US space efforts. “Overnight, people questioned our education system, our industrial strength, our science and technology, even the moral fibre of our people.” (Braun’s use of the first person plural is notable: he had previously invented the Nazis’ V-2 rocket system.)
The weapons gap was one source of alarm but the education gap was another. In the late 1950s, the USSR was training two or three times as many scientists as the US. Moscow crowed that Sputnik (which translates as “fellow traveller on Earth”) proved how “the freed and conscious labour of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of man’s dreams into reality”.
Then-US president Dwight Eisenhower was quick to appreciate that space rivalry was about more than bragging rights and ideological posturing. Only huge and sustained investment in academic capacity and scientific research would keep the West in the race, and safe.
Within a year, US congress established NASA, putting space research under a civilian umbrella and ensuring that space technology would be part of a public, shared scientific endeavour. The US National Defence Education Act poured billions of dollars into science education, providing low interest loans to maths, engineering and science students. By 1968, the National Science Foundation budget had increased to $US500 million, from $US34m a decade earlier.
In Britain, the Tory government created eight new universities, including East Anglia and Sussex, in part to close the science gap.
Within 12 years of Sputnik, the US had put a man on the moon. But in addition to the achievements of Project Apollo and the Hubble space telescope, the flood of technological innovation created a host of objects we take for granted, from cordless power tools to TV satellite dishes. More than that, the response to Sputnik laid the basis for modern academic scientific research.
Emergency is frequently the spur to science. The US National Academy of Sciences was created in 1863 at the height of the American Civil War to aid the Union’s fight against the secessionist South. In Britain, many of the most important scientific bodies, such as the Medical Research Council, emerged from the scientific demands of World War I.
The Soviet satellite suddenly circling the Earth was seen as a direct political and scientific challenge to the West. In sharp-edged doggerel, G Mennen Williams, then governor of Michigan, wrote:
Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep
You tell the world it’s Commie sky
And Uncle Sam’s asleep
In October 1957, America woke up overnight to a new scientific reality and immediately threw its vast resources and limitless ingenuity at the problem. Today, many countries are investing heavily in science but the Trump budget for 2018, by contrast, would cut government research spending by 17 per cent.
Donald Trump looks forward to a Mars landing but no US president of modern times has been more hostile to federal support for the sciences.
Sputnik has been compared, in its impact on US thinking, to Pearl Harbor, a moment of cataclysm that galvanised the nation through shock, wounded pride and moral outrage.
No one would welcome another such crisis, but a new Sputnik moment is long overdue and may well be triggered, not by Moscow this time, but Beijing. For decades the US led the world in the creation of scientific knowledge but China is now the second-largest performer in terms of research and development, with an investment growth rate exceeding that of the US and EU.
The steady beep given off by Sputnik sounded a warning that was clearly heard; six decades later, Uncle Sam’s asleep again.