The world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet Union 50 years ago, but the 184-pound sphere's beeping was more significant at the time for people in the United States than those in the U.S.S.R., concluded a panel of professors Tuesday. The discussion, titled "50 Years in Space: The Legacy of Sputnik in the Age of Putin," marked the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957.
The speakers included Professor of Geological Sciences James Head III, Assistant Professor of History Ethan Pollock, Professor of Slavic Languages Alexander Levitsky and Sergei Khrushchev, a senior fellow in international studies at the Watson Institute for International Studies and son of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who oversaw Sputnik's launch.
Sergei Khrushchev spoke first about his personal experience with Sputnik, recalling the atmosphere of his father's Soviet Union at the time. "Soviet society was driven by the idea that we have to make our country secure," he said. "We (lived) under this pressure, that our (lives) depended on one decision in the White House: Would they bomb us or not?"
Khrushchev said when he was 21, he accompanied his father to watch Sergei Korolyov, chief scientist for Sputnik, and his team working on the project. He said Korolyov felt a sense of competition with American scientists working on similar projects to reach space.
"It was Korolyov's personal race," Khrushchev said. "He wanted to be the first."
But Khrushchev downplayed Sputnik's significance for the Soviet people, saying it was an expected success for the Soviet Union, though a shock to the United States.
"It was Americans who made all of the publicity of this," he said. "Then it was the beginning of (the space) race. It was only on one side - the American side. My father didn't want to spend too much money. He had a different priority, to make life better for the people."
Head spoke next, saying his childhood growing up in Washington, D.C., paralleled Khrushchev's in many ways.
"We were fearful of Communism from an ideological standpoint," he said. "We were also worried from a nuclear holocaust standpoint."
Head played an audio clip of the beeping noise emitted by Sputnik heard around the world upon its launch. He said the world was shaken after Sputnik's launch, pointing in particular to President Kennedy's push, announced soon after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
The launch had significance for Brown as well, Head said - the rapid growth of the United States' space program and increased national defense funding more than doubled the size of the University's science program and were a primary factor in transforming Brown from "a sleepy little Ivy League college" into the research university it is today.
Head also noted that Sputnik changed the way humans look at Earth. He said that in the 50 years that have passed since Sputnik's launch, nine countries have launched satellites - though he had to be corrected when he accidentally listed the Soviet Union, which ceased to exist in 1991, as one of those countries.
Head concluded by displaying a sample of moon rock.
"We did get to the moon as human beings," he said. "We're in space to stay."
Pollock, speaking next, did not have personal stories to tell of Sputnik - he said he wasn't alive in 1957. Instead, he drew on his knowledge as a scholar to put the event in historical context.
"Sputnik has been called the shock of the century," Pollock said. "(Nuclear physicist Edward) Teller said the United States has lost a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor. My question is why we were so shocked."
Pollock attempted to answer that question by pointing to a tendency by many in the United States to attribute Soviet scientific achievements to flukes, espionage or the product of ex-Nazi scientists, but never to the communists themselves.
A further reason for the shock, Pollock said, was that the assumption that democracy was the ideal environment for science - an assumption held since the end of World War II - was being challenged. "(It was) the real beginning of the sense that nuclear bombs could be dropped on American soil," Pollock said.
The Soviets celebrated the 1961 flight of Gagarin rather than the 1957 launching of Sputnik. "Sputnik was part of a secret military project, which did not produce a hero like Gagarin," Pollock said. "Korolyov was secret to the public. ... In 1961, the Soviets could now celebrate a hero. Sputnik was one step along the line in launching a man in space, much like in the U.S. rocket launches were along the line of landing a man on the moon."
Levitsky, the final speaker, recounted his childhood in Prague, explaining how he was an avid reader, particularly of Soviet works about moon landings, which captured his imagination. "I felt my worldly troubles were to be erased if I were to somehow go into space and try to see some new, more exciting things," he said.
He said the Sputnik launch was life-changing for him. "It has in fact given me hope," he said, "that man can indeed reach into space."
Levitsky credited Sputnik with inspiring him in part to publish his latest work, "Worlds Apart," an anthology of pieces that tap into "Russia's dream to fly."
The panel concluded with a question-and-answer session with members of the audience.
"It's really cool to see that professors ... have their classes but that they can also come together on something that is of personal interest to them," said Daphne Beers '08 after the event.