I was a small child when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957--still at the age when recess was the highlight of the school day for me and my friends. Current world events were rarely deemed worthy of our attention. In this case, though, we all knew something extraordinary had happened: there was something in the night sky that people--strange people in a faraway place--had put there. Of all those tiny points of light, one was blinking and doing loops around the planet.
As a child of the space age, my life was probably affected by Sputnik in more ways than I can imagine. When history turns a corner, we never know what might have happened if it had taken another road. But two things became apparent fairly quickly:
1) Adults were frightened. Our tribal enemies had inexplicably become more powerful.
2) We were somehow inadequate. There was a sense, which penetrated all the way down to the third grade, that we either weren't learning the right stuff or we weren't learning it well enough. We lost art class and started doing more arithmetic.
On another extraordinary day, in 1967, I was at my job in a small trailer beside the largest building in the world: The Boeing Company's manufacturing hanger in Everett, Washington. No one was working. Portable black-and-white TV sets (color sets were still rare) had been hauled in and set up on drafting tables, wires run to the nearest outlets, stools arranged so that everyone could see a screen. To this day, I remember the awe and pride we all felt when Neil Armstrong's boot touched lunar soil. If they had never been repeated, I would still remember some of the words that were spoken that day: "The Eagle has landed," "One small step . . . ."
I was still a kid. I looked around the room at some of the senior members of my group--engineers who had designed and built the 747, that monstrosity of metal which somehow, miraculously, stayed aloft. I knew that it was people like them--with similar skills and education--who had made this thing happen. I knew then that I--and my generation--had been had.
The American engineers, designers, and programmers who put humans on the moon were, for the most part, at least fifteen or twenty years older than I was. They had not had the benefit of the emergency curriculum reform that forced my generation to do all those extra math problems.
Looking back, though, I count myself lucky. We lost art class. Many of today's kids are also losing recess.