The fall of '57 found
me having just started high school when a Russian rocket carrying a satellite into outer
space rocked the world and especially America. The basketball-sized satellite sent a
beeping sound back to earth scattering the confidence that America had in its
technological ability. Sputnik sped across that October sky at 18,000 mph as it
transversed the United States seven times a day taunting us that we were no longer number
one in science and technology.
The recent movie, October
Sky, recounts vividly the despair that we felt about being second for the first time.
A month later, the Soviets rubbed salt into our collective wound with the launch of
Sputnik II with its cargo of a dog named Laika. It took us nearly four months after the
first Sputnik before we were able to launch our first satellite into orbit. Even with that
success, many years passed before we got over our technological inferiority complex.
Looking back upon that
time nearly forty-two years ago, there are several things that we can learn from this
national experience for our own lives:
Things aren't always as they appear.
Many Americans doubted that we could ever catch up with the Soviets in space. They pointed
to the rapid-fire successes of the Russians in space starting with Sputnik and later a
long list of other firsts. In the wake of the Soviet's successes, many Americans
adopted a collective Henny-Penny attitude while our confidence faded fast. We ran about
wanting to resolve the problem while our anxiety attack incarcerated our ability to solve
the problem. What we don't recall is that Sputnik burned up as it fell out of earth
orbit just three short months after launch. In addition, Laika wasn't alive when it
returned from orbit. Ironically, while the successful launches made headlines, the demise
of the first two Sputniks went seemingly unnoticed.
Our experience with Sputnik also shows that
a steady persistence pays much higher dividends than a fast start without follow through.
Aesop had it right two and a half millennia ago in his fable about the race between the
tortoise and the hare. The same is true in our lives as was true in the space race with
the Soviets. It is critical to develop a plan and then implement it. Here again, it is a
perceptual issue. Name a problem in which you feel that you are behind. Maybe you
aren't as far along in your education, vocation, or finances as you want to be. You
may be correct that you are second in a two-person race. Nonetheless, you have two
choices. You can sit by the side of the road of life bemoaning that you are behind. Or you
can use the discomfort to motivate you to stay focused on your plan to win the race.
Pain is a powerful motivating force in our
lives. Pain can make us act. For many of us, if pain isn't present, we
wouldn't take needed action. Sputnik provided the pain that motivated America to
catch up with the Soviets. We need to do the same in our race in life by remembering that
gold isn't always bestowed upon the person that takes off first. Even if you are
behind, recall that Sputnik fell to earth in three months never to be heard from again.
While most Americans
bemoaned our also-ran-status, a few scientists and political leaders marshaled strength
from the embarrassment and fear of what the Soviets might do if we didn't take them
on in space. It wasn't easy, and successes were mixed with a significant smattering
of failures, but we are now and have been for years the undisputed technological leader of
Paralleling the space race
victory is the true story portrayed in October Sky. The film recounts the true
story of Homer Hickman who was in high school at the same time as I was and from the same
part of the country. He was second in the race with his older brother. The elder brother
was a shining star-in football. The pain of being second to his bother's
exploits motivated him to hitch his hopes to rocketry. Aesop had it right when it came to
races whether in space or in our world.