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Harwell: The Sputnik Moment
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The State of the Union address and the events leading up to it Tuesday personified the adage teaching "war and politics makes for strange bedfellows."

Democratic members of Congress sat with Republicans for what the press trivialized as "date night." The President of the United States, hoping to rebound from the change in Congress effected by the last election, reflected upon America’s "Sputnik moment," and called for another one to motivate Americans out of the economic disaster his administration has been unable to dent.

The choice for his analogy was odd. Historian Georges Santayana wrote, "Those who ignore history are doomed to relive it." Indeed, had Obama studied "The Sputnik moment" carefully, he might have instead trumpeted America’s reaction, focusing on "The Right Stuff."

But consider that neither the 44th president nor more than half our current population was yet born in 1957, when the USSR launched "Sputnik," the first manmade satellite to orbit earth. Neither the President nor the majority of citizens remember the compelling concern that absolutely galvanized our country. America’s "greatest generation," having won World War II and having endured the first United Nations "war with rules" in Korea, was busy constructing the greatest time of prosperity in our history by rolling up their sleeves and producing durable goods.

The Soviet satellite’s success meant the high ground our military fought so valiantly to secure was lost: The Nazi rocket scientists captured by Russia as World War II ended had outperformed the German rocket scientists we captured.

Our government brought Werner von Braun’s team of rocket men to America, promising citizenship and pardons from any possible war crimes. From operating in bomb-proof caverns of Peenemunde, blasted from solid rock by Nazi concentration camp slave laborers, von Braun‘s men were relocated to Huntsville, Ala., and tasked with building America’s rocket program, and staying ahead of the Soviets.

My grandfather, born in 1887 and confined to his home with muscular dystrophy late in life, listened to shortwave radio. I was only 6, but remember well the night our family heard, on granddaddy’s radio, Sputnik’s beeping signal as its orbit traversed the high ground over Atlanta.

My Oakhurst Elementary School in Decatur began air raid drills shortly thereafter. Should the commies launch nuclear missiles at us, we schoolchildren would march a few blocks to the Decatur depot, from whence a train would whisk us to Stone Mountain, outside the 25-mile blast radius of that era’s nuclear warheads.

Before Sputnik, a great debate had raged amongst American thinkers as to the best course to take into space, the final frontier. Kelly Johnson’s cohorts at "the skunk works," Lockheed’s top-secret aircraft development team, gave those favoring rockets a run for their money. Johnson’s team developed the U-2 spy plane, made famous when the Russians shot down Francis Gary Powers in one. Later they produced the fastest aircraft ever, the SR-71 "Blackbird." And the North American X-15 flew literally to the brink of space several times, with strict orders to turn back into the atmosphere. Thirteen X-15 pilots, including three civilians, secretly flew in space, however, and were finally awarded their astronaut wings.

But "the Sputnik moment" alluded to by the President actually was the final nail in the coffin for that first reusable space vehicle, ironically the forerunner of the space shuttle orbiter. All of America’s eggs were placed in the basket of the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and money for manned space flight was directed to perching humans atop a rocket.

No, there was no mistaking "the Sputnik moment" for those of us who were alive at the time. The Russians had the high ground, and America was vulnerable. Nothing, men, materiel, nor money, would be held back in regaining that high ground. Our survival, and indeed that of the free world, was at stake.

America rose to the challenge.

Despite simultaneously enduring assassinations, civil rights upheavals, the Vietnam War debacle and the introduction of widespread illicit drug use, America won "the Space Race" to the moon.

But it was a different time and place. It was before the welfare of Lyndon B. Johnson’s "Great Society" gave way to entitlements, before school curricula was dumbed down to make excuses, before government began trumpeting "rights" while failing to attach "responsibility" accompanying those freedoms.

The president’s speech reminded everyone of this last week. As the television cameras focused on the many small businessmen invited to attend the State of the Union address, I reflected on how "The Right Stuff" triumphed over the fear engendered by "the Sputnik Moment."

And, regardless of partisan politics and a focus on fearful times, it will again.

Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.