Sputnik and us

Russia's Mir space station. At the bottom (near the longest solar panel) is a Soyuz vehicle. On top is a Progress resupply craft. Courtesy of NASA.
  Looking to the future
Are Why Filers the only ones who observe that whenever American science education is going down the tubes, we hear a plea for "another Sputnik"?

MirIn view of how alarming Sputnik really was, it's a bit ironic that anyone would want a rerun. And since the Cold War thawed and defused the nuclear confrontation, an enemy triumph in space is unlikely to serve as the trigger. Indeed, the Russian space program now endangers only the two cosmonauts and one astronaut desperately doing bubble-gum and baling wire repairs on the Russian space station, Mir.

Thus, "another Sputnik," is more likely to originate on Earth than in space, says Cornell science historian Bruce Lewenstein. He notes that scientific, technical and economic challenges -- the rise of computers and the threat of AIDS -- have already mobilized a limited amount of public sentiment for upgrading science education.

Gee-whiz science does catch the public's eye -- witness Pathfinder's landing on Mars (The Why Files covered the Mars robot and the spectacular comets).

But Lewenstein argues that they don't have enough "edge" to mobilize sustained action. "Accidents and epidemics are what get people scared. If events like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal and the Challenger explosion were all clustered together, we might hear that we don't have enough engineers. My guess is that a bad thing, not a good thing, is what will get people caring."

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