Tom Temin | Editor's Desk: How 9/11 recalls days of Sputnik

Thomas R. Temin

Sergei Korolev, I'll bet, isn't a name you can place. Yet this Soviet engineer's work sparked a huge wave of fear and recrimination in the United States almost 50 years ago, equal in some ways to that caused by Osama bin Laden five years ago.

Though few had heard of him at the time, Korolev was chief designer of Sputnik, the bewhiskered satellite that streaked across the skies in late 1957. So far as we know, he was a powerful competitor to, but not a personal enemy of, the United States. A victim of Stalin's gulags for six years of his life, Korolev had little reason to thwart the United States, other than scientific satisfaction.

Many events in the intervening decades seared themselves powerfully onto our collective memory, but few had the lasting impact of Sputnik. 9/11 is one of them. The parallels are instructive.

The launch of that first artificial satellite shocked the United States out of its prosperous, postwar torpor. To this day, the word 'Sputnik' encodes a generation's preoccupation with East-West military rivalry, fascination with science and pursuit of the space race.

Though it merely gathered and transmitted ionosphere data, Sputnik created a sense of threat. Maybe the next thing the USSR launched would be an atom bomb missile aimed at Washington, people thought. After all, Sputnik's launch rocket was also used for Soviet ballistic missiles.

Khrushchev's crowing that Sputnik was merely a grapefruit didn't help.

No bigger than a basketball, Sputnik managed to provoke vast changes in governmental policy and spending. In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating NASA, a new bureaucracy with a new mission.

In the compressed retrospective of 1958 to the July 20, 1969, first moon landing, it seems as if NASA's accomplishments followed an unfailing trajectory toward success and American technical superiority. In fact NASA, and the Air Force, encountered many sputters and failed launches early on in the space race.

President Kennedy's 1961 speech at Rice University, while stirring in its call to the moon, also subtly expressed impatience with the slow progress of the prior few years.

Ultimately the work of NASA, and especially the vigor of those early years, helped to bring about a fundamental change mankind's view of itself in relation to the universe and produce a pride in American technology that is still unshakable.

Contrast Sputnik with the 9/11 terrorist attack. Unlike the satellite, the latter clash of Middle East and West was more than threatening. It directly killed some 3,000 people and caused billions in damage.

On the other hand, 9/11 also altered the national outlook; and similarly prompted the creation of a vast bureaucracy to deal with it. As it was with early NASA, the jury is still out on the merits of creating the Homeland Security Department.

In recent years, NASA has been pinched and prodded beyond recognition. DHS had so many missions and visions heaped upon it, its people never had clarity to start with. Thus DHS receives criticism for how it handles everything from flood relief to airport screening to deciding what constitutes critical infrastructure.

And many of the activities you would expect to be core to DHS' purported mission in the wake of 9/11 still reside elsewhere'in Justice, Defense and the intelligence agencies.

DHS is organically the product of a more fragmented political climate than that which existed when NASA was formed. NASA's challenges were chiefly technical.

At least in the moon shot era, it received more political and budgetary unanimity and support than DHS has in its first five years.

DHS's challenges, in contrast, are mainly political. And that doesn't exactly produce confidence in its ultimate success as an answer to 9/11.

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