Peter D. Zimmerman: We were lucky the Soviets beat us into space

[Mr. Zimmerman, a physicist, recently retired as professor of science and security at King's College London. He was previously chief scientist of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and science adviser for arms control at the U.S. State Department.]

... In all probability the Eisenhower administration was actually glad to have been beaten into space. In deepest secrecy, the U.S. was working on another satellite program -- a system intended to take close-up photos of Russia and replace the U-2 airplane. The U.S. worried that the Soviets would object to any satellite flying over their territory, and would claim that Soviet sovereignty reached to the stars. Since Sputnik 1 orbited over the U.S. without objection, the right of satellites to pass peacefully was firmly established before the first military spacecraft was launched.

In its first successful flight on Aug. 18, 1960, a Corona spy satellite, called Discoverer XIV in public, returned more photos of the Soviet Union than all of the U-2 flights together. That first roll of film disproved forever the supposed missile gap between the two superpowers. Indeed, it showed that the U.S. was probably ahead. In later years, President Lyndon B. Johnson would remark that the whole space program was worth every penny it cost, because he knew where every single Russian missile was based. It was, and he did.

The humiliation caused by being beaten into space had other consequences. President John F. Kennedy, attempting to seize back the initiative, declared on May 25, 1961, that the U.S. would "[land a] man on the moon and bring him safely back to the Earth" within the decade. Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and returned safely on July 24.

But the importance of the space race for the country was far greater. In the wake of Sputnik, Congress quickly passed the National Defense Education Act (the first federal law aiding education generally), contributing large sums to the education of scientists and engineers -- and even linguists. Students were encouraged to choose scientific careers. Many, including me, did.

Where previously it appeared that the nation didn't value scientists highly enough to create jobs for them, after Sputnik the American research establishment expanded steadily for more than a decade, through Project Apollo, until the beginning of the Nixon administration. Where there was money, there were jobs and the possibilities of careers spent doing what I and other young scientists-in-waiting loved....

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