The Sputnik Way
By Anthony J. Mountjoy | Thu, 30 Jun 2016 08:00:00 EST
While the waning British (and French) empire allied with communist Russia to defeat Nazi Germany, communism had always been seen as a great threat to freedom.
So when the Russians launched Sputnik 1---the first artificial satellite---into space October 4,1957, it was cause for alarm. Although the US would launch its first satellite a few months later, the success of Sputnik showed that Russia was capable of delivering a nuclear bomb (which it had first tested in 1949) anywhere in the world.
It was made from a hollowed out intercontinental missile head with a simple radio receiver/transmitter inside. This is the simple explanation for why the West took this apparently peaceful event so seriously. For those in the know, it seemed clear what Russia was up to.
Furthermore, Russia kept showing its technological superiority and its potential to "colonize" space by being the first country to send people into orbit and land a craft on the moon. Not only were Russia's achievements alarming because of their military applications, they threatened to undermine the ideological basis of capitalism. Here was a country that in 1917 was poorly industrialized and struggling to feed its citizens, yet only 40 years later (and after adopting communism and nearly being beaten by the Nazis) was now a leader in cutting-edge technology. The [appearance of] incredible progress in such a short period of time certainly made communism/socialism quite attractive despite people's lack of personal freedoms.
Despite Russia's early lead in the space race, in 1961, President Kennedy vowed to beat the Russians by putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. 1 And in just over eight years, Kennedy's "moonshot" became a reality on July 21, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to walk on the moon. Although it would take another 20 years before victory was declared, the success of the Apollo 11 mission was a turning point in the vindication of capitalism and its ability to produce economic prosperity and freedom.
And with Sputnik, we learn two very important lessons. First, competition can spur us on to greater heights; while America [probably] would have eventually landed a man on the moon, competition from Russia accelerated the timetable. Second, with commitment to a strong vision, capitalism can accomplish great things while giving people tremendous freedoms. It's important that we remember these lessons in the 21st century as capitalism faces a new enemy-an enemy that discourages competition and that discourages dreams of a better tomorrow.
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