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Vasili Kharchenko

Sputnik's legacy behind the Iron Curtain

FIFTY YEARS ago the skies were opened for me and became a part of my world. It was done by the first Sputnik, a small metallic ball rotating around Earth. Many people have described how Sputnik changed the United States. I, a former Russian scientist now living in the United States, would like to share a vision of the Sputnik impact from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Sputnik dramatically affected the generation of my parents, definitely shaped me and my friends' careers, and even influenced a third generation of my family, my son.

In October 1957, when Sputnik was launched, I was a 6-year-old boy from a middle-class family of a professional scientist in St. Petersburg. My father conducted research in organic chemistry, and some of his colleagues worked on rocket fuel.

But the first news about Sputnik that I got was not from my father. My sources of deep and accurate information were a brief radio report with a few words and many beeps, and valuable, emotional discussions with friends in our schoolyard. Older children from high school and the milkman told us how we would travel through space to other planets (Mars and Venus were the most popular destinations). But they failed to explain why Sputnik was not falling from the skies, as I wondered. I got the explanation many years later from a smart university professor: "Sputnik is permanently falling, but every time missing the Earth due to its high horizontal velocity."

I remember late in December 1957 when, for the first time, we placed on the top of our Christmas tree a tiny Sputnik model that my father found in the toy store.

After the Sputnik triumph, Soviet state propaganda focused on peaceful aspects of the Russian nuclear energy and space program, and it significantly succeeded. "Scientist" became a very respectable profession, and it was so up to the beginning of the 1980s. Young people in Russia wanted to be cosmonauts, scientists, and space engineers instead of military professionals, as in previous years.

As young fellows, we did not fear a nuclear war and (surprise!) we loved the American people, their movies, and their music. To be honest, we did not like American politicians, but we disliked even more our corrupted Communist Party bosses and bureaucracy.

Sputnik worked as a stimulator of research activity both in the West and East, but at the same time it brought a real fear to the Western world and a space race between the East and West. There is nothing wrong with the space race itself, because it has led to great achievements in science and technology. What is really bad is how human nature influenced this competition: people have tried to use the great achievements for physical or ideological weapons.

I have a great hope that this human nature may be improved, if we care permanently about the humanistic aspects of our research.

Sputnik opened for the Russian people a long-term race for fundamental education and scientific knowledge. It influenced a new type of education, so-called specialized schools, which started soon after Sputnik. My generation enjoyed the benefits of the post-Sputnik era. We got for free the best education in science and mathematics. Science competed for popularity with sports and entertainment. Thirty years after Sputnik launched, my son graduated from a specialized high school for "rocket scientists" in St. Petersburg.

Our family moved to the United States in the early 1990s, when I was a visiting scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and we became American citizens. My wife, who has an MD and a PhD, continued her clinical research career. She now works at Boston University Medical School.

Here my son went to a good undergraduate school, then graduated from Harvard with a PhD in biophysics. He is now working in research at Harvard Medical School. Definitely, Sputnik's impact spread over three generations of my family.

It seems, in the modern Russia, public interest in a research and academic career is very low. A new Sputnik-like challenge is required to return the country to its previous ambitions in science and education.

And what about the United States? Should we wait until a new Sputnik-shock will hit us here, or are we smart enough to do something in advance? I would be glad to help start something in advance.

Vasili Kharchenko is professor of physics at the University of Connecticut and physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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