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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 the world.

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.