F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
October 2007
Vol. 36, No. 4



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Sputnik - 50 Years Later
Alan J. Scott

On October 4, 1957, a basketball-sized object orbited over the United States sending out an ominous radio-signal beeping.  The Space Age and Space Race had begun.  The satellite was Sputnik – the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth – and was built by the Soviet Union .  This beeping signal, and its socio-political ramifications, dug deep into the American psyche – almost as much as jumbo jets colliding with the World Trade Center .

Back then, the Cold War was in full swing.  Fallout shelters were in every community.  The Soviets were rapidly building their nuclear arsenal.  The Korean War had just ended in a stalemate.  The Korean War was a proxy war between communist China (with Soviet Union support) and the West, namely the United States .  Fortunately, neither side wanted to directly attack the other for fear of escalation and mutual annihilation.  The post WWII euphoria was in full retreat in the United States

With Sputnik, another front in the Cold War opened up.  The Soviets were, or at least appeared to be, superior to the U.S. in technology and science.  The “technology gap” caused Congress to pass two initiatives (1) the National Defense Educational Act, and (2) the National Aeronautics and Space Act which created NASA.  Both were passed in 1958.  One could say, Sputnik, together with the Cold War, spurred a renaissance in U.S. science education and prowess in space.  Fifty years after Sputnik, let’s mull over its legacy by examining the state of science education, space exploration, and the militarization of space.

Science Education

The current mantra to support science education is not to close the missile gap but to become more competitive in a world economy.  It is to create a workforce for the 21st century; stimulate economic growth while protecting the environment; create citizens knowledgeable about how science and technology interact with society.  To create a nation of people informed about energy policy and global climate change.  In essence, develop people that can solve problems and make informed, well-thought out decisions in the ballot booth and in the workforce. 

Many of these concerns are detailed in a report by the National Academies called Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future which was published in 2007.  The academies are “deeply concerned that the scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.”[1]   Science and technology education provides one of the few opportunities to counter the disparity in labor costs that drive jobs overseas.

So how are we doing in science education?  It depends on how one measures it.  Three common measures include (1) standardized test scores over time and between nations, (2) number of college graduates in science and technology fields, and/or (3) the understanding and interest in science found within the general public. 

One thing should be made clear; most experts believe the United States is the foremost world leader in basic research.  It also efficiently incorporates research and innovation into strengthening its economic performance.[2]  

Now, let’s look at our performance in science education.  The United States Department of Education performs a study every four years on the performance of eighth-graders in science called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).  In 2003, the U.S. outperformed 55% of the 45 participating countries in math and 71% in science.  Many Asian countries outperformed the U.S. in both categories.[3] The U.S. conferred 59% of the world’s doctoral degrees in science and engineering in 1957.  In 2001, it was down to 41%.  About half of all graduate students in the U.S. are international students.  Many countries are increasing their incentives to these graduates so that they return upon completing their degrees.[4]   The debate on immigration is intertwined with such discussions.

Failure to take challenging math and science courses in high school (and possibly middle school) effectively starts limiting a child’s choices for careers in the sciences.  About half of the students entering college interested in completing a science or engineering degree actually do earn one.[5]

The U.S. does spend a large amount of public money on research and development programs primarily through the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Health (NIH), and the Department of Energy (DOE).  Other countries are ramping up their support.  As of 2001, only Japan and South Korea spend more money on such programs as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.[6]   This support is endangered with the continued drain on the U.S. budget with military expenditures and entitlements coupled with huge deficits. 

A good science education program will be challenging yet interesting.  It should generate interest by impressing upon students the importance and relevance science has to their future.  For instance, in my physics class, students will work through an analysis weighing the costs verses benefits of purchasing a swimming pool cover to conserve energy and resources. 

Consider the case of Steven Amanti at MIT.  His senior thesis was an energy analysis of chemical fume hoods.  He found out that if unused fume hoods were closed it would save 17% in energy costs that amounted to $350,000 per year just at MIT![7]   A good science education will also cause us pause and force us to ask an important question about Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth.  Gore does well in conveying the personal lifestyle sacrifices needed to reduce climate change but why didn’t he mention that without population control, these sacrifices will soon be negated by modest increases in population and the hitherto consequences?[8]  

Student interest is connected to subtle, systemic influences.  In U.S. high schools, 60% of students enrolled in physical science classes have teachers who either did not major in the subject being taught or are not certified to teach it.[9]   Student dispositions on science are greatly affected by teachers, parents and peers.  Just recently, I was talking with some people about the summer solstice.  One parent insisted - even after I suggested it was a myth - that on the Spring Equinox eggs have a special property that permit them to be balanced.  This notion is simply false – the ability to balance eggs does not depend on which day it is on the calendar![10]   I’m not sure what the kids went away with who were listening to the conversation.  Many student peers have a distorted boastfulness in saying they have “never taken” or “never liked” science classes.

The influences that produce student views and interest in science can stretch into elementary classes.  The majority of students in my Introduction to Geology class at the University of Wisconsin-Stout are early childhood education majors.  I often engage them in a discussion about religion and science after having spent two weeks discussing geologic time – the evolution of life (from fossil records) and the evolution of landforms throughout the earth’s history.  Many find it terribly uncomfortable and believe that the biblical flood of Noah should be interpreted literally and that people were created suddenly about 10,000 years ago and have not evolved from apes. 

Nationally, about 47% of college freshman reject significant tenants of evolution.[11]   This position is adhered to by several current Republican presidential candidates for 2008.  An ABC poll of a year ago found 61% of Americans thought Genesis is literally true.[12]   These future elementary school teachers need to inspire in their students an awe and appetite for knowledge about earth’s past undistorted by non-scientific thoughts.  I’m not berating religion, per se, but I am being critical of religious fanaticism.  Young earth creationism steps into fanaticism.

The shaping of America ’s economic and social future is in our hands.  And the encouragement of science and technology should be at the forefront.  The launch of Sputnik re-oriented our nation’s priorities.  In this new age, we mustn’t become complacent about the current state of science education and constantly strive to improve it.  America ’s future economic strength, good standard of living, and clean environment are at stake.

Space Exploration

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 was a watershed moment for American policy and priorities.  News reporters flocked to amateur radio operators who could pick up the radio-signal beeping from Sputnik as it flew over the United States .  This was the “beep heard round the world.”  The launch came about one year after the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said “We will bury you.”  (In proper translation it should mean “we will attend your funeral” and not “we will cause your funeral” as conveyed by the media.)[13]             President Eisenhower tried to downplay its significance but the concern remained.  The Soviets beat the United States into space and were now surmised to have the capability to drop a nuclear bomb on the U.S. from space.[14]   The space race had begun.  The U.S. created NASA and also tripled the National Science Foundation’s budget in one year.  Let’s first take a glance at the major milestones of space exploration, and then we’ll examine the current space program.

One month after Sputnik was launched Sputnik II was launched carrying a heavier payload and a dog named Laika.  (Laika was a stray dog from Moscow and given a one-way ticket into space.[15] )  In 1958, the U.S. successfully launched Explorer 1 into space.  The Soviets launched Luna 1 toward the Moon.  (Some say it was intended to impact the Moon.)  It measured the Van Allen radiation belts around the earth, flew by the Moon, and was the first satellite to go into orbit around the Sun.  The Soviet Luna 2 purposely crashed onto the Moon in 1959. 

In the same year, Luna 3 took the first ever photographs of the far side of the Moon.  Cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was the first person to venture into space in 1961.  In 1961, President Kennedy committed the U.S. to landing on the Moon.  Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov went on the first tethered space walk in 1965. 

At this time, the Soviets were outpacing the U.S. in making significant milestones in space.  In 1965, the U.S. Mariner 4 arrived at Mars taking close-up pictures that showed no signs of life.  The Soviet Luna 9 was the first to soft-land on the Moon and take pictures.  Thus, the Soviets beat the U.S. to the Moon!  Later the same year, the U.S. soft-landed on the Moon with Surveyor 1. 

The United States started making its mark in space history with the Apollo missions in the late 1960’s.  Apollo 8 was the first manned-mission to orbit the Moon and return.  Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon.  The Soviets became the first to soft-land a spacecraft on another planet with Venera 7’s landing on Venus in 1970.  The Soviet Salyut 1 becomes the first orbiting space station.  In 1975, the Soviets and United States linked up in space in the first cooperative mission.  The Pioneer and Voyager space probes took the first ever close-up pictures of the Jovian planets.

This takes us into the modern age of robotic missions, space shuttle, International Space Station (ISS), and the Hubble Space Telescope.  Things have changed since Sputnik.  The Cold War is over.  The former Soviet Union has collapsed and Russia is now a partner with the ISS.  The European Space Agency (ESA) is active in space exploration and China has even launched people into space.

Robotic probes have landed on Venus, Mars, Titan (a moon of Saturn), and Eros (an asteroid).  We have sent probes into Jupiter’s atmosphere.  Comet material has been gathered and returned to earth in the Stardust mission.  The Hubble Space Telescope has peered deep into the cosmos discovering stellar nurseries, remnants of exploded stars, and distant galaxies.  It even captured images of a comet colliding with Jupiter and has analyzed the atmospheric composition of an extra-solar planet.  The Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit for 17 years and has taken over 500,000 images which have led to over 7,000 scientific papers published.[16]  

The NASA web page http://www.nasa.gov/missions/current/index.html indicates about seventy current space missions underway.  We have infrared, x-ray, and gamma-ray telescopes in space.  The New Horizons is heading for Pluto (our newly designated dwarf planet).  Rosetta is heading towards a comet with the intent to land a probe on its surface.  Messenger just flew-by Venus and is heading toward Mercury.  Venus Express has been in orbit around Venus for one year.

Mars has a fleet of robotic space probes making observations.  The two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity , continue driving around Mars and have completed over three years –earth years, that is.  The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been transmitting spectacular pictures of the red planet.  The Mars Express Orbiter has found enough water ice on Mars that, if liquid, could cover the entire planet 11 meters deep. 

This past August 4th, the Phoenix mission was launched sending a lander spacecraft to a polar region on Mars.  In late 2009, another – bigger and better – Mars’ rover is scheduled to be launched.

Cassini-Huygen’s mission has been at Saturn for about three years.  It has found several of Saturn’s moons to be geologically active.  Titan has rivers and lakes of liquid methane.  Enceladus spews material out of ice geysers.

With all this exciting space exploration happening, we should ask what the ISS has accomplished.  Well, nothing…nothing of significance.  It is a big, space boondoggle built on the promise of developing new medicines, new crystals for industry, and to counter the Russian space station (MIR) which later burned up after re-entering the atmosphere.  It lives off public relations, not science. 

It has lodged five space tourists which NASA officially classifies as “Spaceflight Participants.”  It serves as an adventure ride for the wealthy.  Several months ago, a cosmonaut aboard the ISS hit a golf ball during a spacewalk.  The stunt was paid for by a Canadian golf company and was intended to be used in a commercial.[17]  

The ISS is expected to cost taxpayers about $100 billion by 2010.[18]   Robert Park of the American Physical Society states “The only thing the ISS has going for it is micro-gravity, but decades of micro- gravity research on the Shuttle and Mir had no discernable impact on any field of science. Congress may be in a mood to scrap the giant money-shredder; scientists should plead with them to do it.”  Even the NASA chief administrator, Michael Griffin, has stated “…the space station was not worth the expense, the risk and the difficulty of flying humans to space.” [19]

It can be argued that we should abandon the ISS but if human spaceflight is necessary to keep the funding alive for other, more science-related missions, then perhaps killing it would be too rash.  It does serve to inspire today’s youth to dream and strive for excellence with the hopes of exploring space.  But we shouldn’t sell it under the false pretenses of advancing science.

On January 14, 2004, President Bush announced[20] a new vision for human spaceflight and directed NASA to start re-directing resources to further this vision.  The new vision includes a return to the Moon no later than 2020.  Afterwards, human exploration will extend to Mars and perhaps beyond. 

Is this vision a good one?  In the scheme of things, it doesn’t gobble up a large piece of the national budget.  NASA currently gets less than 1% of the budget and it is projected to remain less than 1%.  (National defense gets 25% and entitlement programs, such as social security and medicare, get about 65% of the budget.) 

Will it advance science?  Perhaps in small ways with technological spin-offs but we should be leery of this point being over-sold to the public as with the ISS.  The reasons for sending humans instead of robots are dubious.  Robots can do everything much more efficiently, cost effectively, and with less risk.  Besides, robots don’t get entangled in love triangles gone violent (i.e. Lisa Nowak tirade) and sending humans to Mars will subject them to significant radiation exposures.

There are two great 50th anniversary milestones we are commemorating this year in our trek to advance knowledge about space and ourselves.  One is Sputnik but the other is knowledge that we are all made of stardust!  All the atoms in our bodies, except for hydrogen, were cooked up in ancient stars.  This is considered common knowledge today but was first presented in a scientific paper 50 years ago.[21]   Space exploration, be it human or robot, opens up our minds to our place in the universe.  It generates a great pride in knowing that our civilization can place humans on the Moon and robots onto distant worlds. 

The mind upwells with vitality and wonder when scientists announced that an earth-like planet has been identified in orbit around the star Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra.[22]   The wildest dreams of our ancestors, only 100 years ago, could not imagine the accomplishments of our modern world and its science.  I toast the marvels of MRI imaging, great telescopes, and particle accelerators that re-create conditions in the early universe – millionths of a second after the Big Bang.[23]   As Isaac Newton would say, we can see further and deeper than those of previous times because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The Militarization of Space

About fifty years ago, Elvis Presley had just made it big, Hollywood filmed the iconic movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Bill Haley released Rock Around The Clock.  You can place yourself into the era simply by watching an episode of the old television series Happy Days. 

But these happy days had a dark side.  It was also the age of the disquieting “duck and cover drills” that school children practiced at the first signs of a nuclear weapon detonating nearby.  The Cold War and, in particular – Sputnik, spawned new thinking about science education, space exploration, and the militarization of space.  Outer space was now part of the world, geo-political military scene.  But what the public knows and can debate regarding U.S. military potential and policy can be greatly distorted by secrecy and misinformation.  In fact, President Eisenhower was in an awkward situation in balancing the need for secrecy and also dealing with the public aftermath of Sputnik. 

He knew more than he could tell.  The U.S. had two programs.  One was a publicly known satellite program (working to launch a satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year) and the other was the secret U.S. ballistic missile program.  Eisenhower knew that if the two programs were merged, the U.S. could have successfully launched a satellite into space before Sputnik.[24]

This article will discuss the milestones of space weapons and the current world situation of militarizing space.  Of course, Sputnik was a strong indication that space can be used for military purposes.  First of all, the term space weapons refers to any weapons, in outer space, intended to attack targets in space or on the ground or ground-based weapons intended to attack targets in space.

It is clear that outer space has been militarized for a long time, but probably not weaponized.  Satellites are used for military communications, navigation, and surveillance.  Space weapons were pursued heavily after Sputnik.  The U.S. and Soviets were engaged in a Cold War tit-for-tat in this field. 

The easiest and most effective anti-satellite weapon is a nuclear-armed missile launched into space and detonated near a target.  The explosion creates shrapnel that can be damaging, but more importantly, it creates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which causes the satellite’s electronics to malfunction.  The U.S. detonated a nuclear weapon in space in 1962 as part of a project called Starfish Prime.[25] ,[26]   The EMP from the explosion caused street lights, televisions, and radios to malfunction over 930 miles away.  It also disabled six satellites.  (It should be noted that non-nuclear, EMP weapons do exist.)      This test, together with many atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons prompted the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty which prohibits atmospheric or outer space nuclear explosion tests.  The U.S. and Soviets both developed kinetic kill (destruction by collision and not explosion) anti-satellite weapons in the 70’s and 80’s.  Anti-satellite, laser weapons have also been researched by both countries. 

Concerns about space weapons began getting addressed in 1967 with the passage of the Outer Space Treaty.  This treaty forbids the placing of any weapon of mass destruction into orbit around the earth.

Within the past year, China has entered the fray by successfully testing an anti-satellite weapon.  China destroyed an inoperable satellite by using a kinetic kill vehicle.  The collision was largely viewed as provocative and irresponsible.  It is irresponsible because it created thousands of pieces of space junk, difficult to track, and a hazard to all satellites.[27]   An all-out satellite war could render space useless for hundreds of years due to space junk.

China’s test pushed the issue of space weapons and national security into the forefront.  Victoria Samson, of the Center for Defense Information, recently discussed space weapons on National Public Radio.[28]   She indicated that currently, there are no official space weapons programs.  But she did allude to the possibility of secret programs and clearly mentioned programs that have dual-use capabilities.  (Dual-use implies a non-weapon program that could have weapon use.)  The United States space mission Deep Impact showed that a satellite can be guided to collide with a comet.  It is not a far stretch to replace the comet with an enemy satellite and, thus, a space weapon is born.

More exotic space weapons may exist.  One such weapon may include robotic, difficult to detect, micro-satellites.  Like little robots, they can be deployed to take up a defensive perimeter around a crucial military satellite and perform counter-measures to anti-satellite weapons or be given the command to seek and destroy enemy targets.  Such a system is already being deployed by the newest class of nuclear attack submarines such as the USS Virginia.  It is equipped to deploy “multiple unmanned, undersea vehicles” (in other words, robots).[29]

So what should the U.S. policy be on space weapons?  Space is immensely beneficial for communications, space explorations, and monitoring the earth’s environment.  It permits people from anywhere in the world to communicate almost instantly.  But its benefits could be endangered without a good policy on space weapons as illustrated by China’s anti-satellite test.  The 2008 U.S. budget proposal included $45 million to research the viability of placing missile interceptors into space and almost $1 billion in dual-use programs that could involve space weapons.[30] ,[31]     In May of 2007, a congressional subcommittee cut some projects involving space weapons but $9.3 billion remained in the budget for military space programs.[32]

This past year Laura Grego, a staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, gave congressional testimony arguing that the time is now for pursuing a comprehensive ban on all debris-creating, anti-satellite weapons.[33]   It could also be beneficial in the general arms control arena.  She stresses that the failure of any “rules of the road” concerning space weapons is detrimental to all nations utilizing space.

The United States  government currently opposes any discussions of regulating space weapons.  This is unfortunate and Laura Grego laments the situation by stating “…the refusal of the United States to consider space security initiatives in international fora, generate mistrust and strain strategic relationships that are necessary for progress on other crucial issues, such as nonproliferation and terrorism.”  The United States needs to move away from its empty philosophy of double standards.  On the international stage, we cannot say that “space weapons (or, even, nuclear weapons) are good for us but not for you.”  We need to join the international community in taking steps toward curbing space weapons and nuclear weapons.

If a nation - suppose Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the Iraq war - possessed satellites that aided their military, could/would/should the U.S. have destroyed them?  Answer this question; then, ask yourself if you are comfortable with other nations developing the technology and capabilities to destroy U.S. satellites while being careful not to fall into a double standard.  The answer is not merely academic and is fundamentally important in determining the future course of space use. 

            For a complete and comprehensive analysis of space-based weapons and policy see the Union of Concerned Scientists’ web pages at http://www.ucsusa.org/global_security/space_weapons/

Alan J. Scott
Department of Physics
University of Wisconsin-Stout

[1] National Academies, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academies Press, p. 3

[2] National Academies, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academies Press, p. 68

[3] National Center for Education Statistics, 2003, Mathematics and Science Achievement of Eight-Graders in 2003, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), http://nces.ed.gov/timss/results03_eighth03.asp

[4] National Academies, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academies Press, p. 79

[5] National Academies, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academies Press, p. 98

[6] National Academies, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academies Press, p. 74

[7] Halber, D., 2007, Cutting Fume Hoods’ Hours Saves Energy and Money, MIT News, June 1

[8] Alcom, R., 2007, The Real Inconvenient Truth, Opinion Releases, Californians for Population Stabilization, June 27

[9] National Academies, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academies Press, p. 97

[10] Gardner, M., 1996, The Great Egg-Balancing Mystery, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June

[11] Alters, B.J., and Michael, W.B., 1997, What Are They Thinking? Scientific American, October, p. 34

[12] Park, R., 2007, Beliefs: Scientific Illiteracy Reaches Clear to the Top, What’s New (American Physical Society), May 11

[13] Wikipedia, 2007, We will bury you, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_will_bury_you, June 28

[14] Hall, A., 1997, The Beep Heard Round The World, Scientific American, October 6

[15] Wikipedia, 2007, Laika, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laika, June 28

[16] (Staff), 2007, Hubble Space Telescope Information, Sky and Telescope, August, p. 27

[17] CollectSpace, 2006, ISS golf swing follows moon, shuttle shots, http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-112206a.html, November 22

[18] Watson, T., 2005, NASA administrator says space shuttle was a mistake, USA Today, September 27

[19] Watson, T., 2005, NASA administrator says space shuttle was a mistake, USA Today, September 27

[20] Bush, G.W., 2004, A renewed spirit of discovery, Whitehouse Press Release, http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/space/index.html, January 14

[21] Hudon, D., 2007, We are Stardust: Spread the Word, Sky and Telescope, August, p. 102

[22] BBC News, 2007, New ‘super-Earth’ found in space, BBC News Online, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6589157.stm, April 25

[23] Folger, T., 2007, The Big Bang Machine, Discover Magazine, February 27

[24] Rigden, J., 2007, Eisenhower, scientists, and Sputnik, Physics Today, June, p. 49

[26] Wikipedia, 2007, Starfish Prime, Wikipedia, July 5

[27] Hoffman, C., 2007, Battlefield Space, Popular Mechanics, July, p. 78

[28] NPR, 2007, Does China Test Signal Weapons Race?, National Public Radio (Science Friday), January 26

[29] (News Brief), 2004, USS Virginia commissioned, Pioneer Press article, October 24, p. 2A

[30] NPR, 2007, Does China Test Signal Weapons Race?, National Public Radio (Science Friday), January 26

[31] Parker, W., 2006, Space Weapons Could Emerge From Pentagon Budget, Center for Defense Information, World Security Institute, March 7

[32] Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, 2007, Analysis of House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Markup: FY2008 Defense Authorization (H.R. 1585), May 4

[33] Grego, L., 2007, Weaponizing Space: Is Current U.S. Policy Protecting Our Interest, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), http://www.ucsusa.org/global_security/space_weapons/testimony-on-space-security.html, May 23



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