Sputnik and Me

Fifty years ago on a warm October night in Southern California, I sat on my father’s shoulders looking up as he pointed to Sputnik and its tumbling booster crawling across the star-lit sky. The sight is one of my earliest and most vivid memories, a measure that something was extraordinary was afoot, so extraordinary that it was burned into the ROMware of an uncomprehending 3 year-old.

Now, 50 years later, I am still discovering just how big an impact Sputnik had on the trajectory of my life. Of course, like every other kid in my neighborhood, the southern California aerospace boom utterly engulfed us, from watching Mercury launches on TV to gazing up at sunset contrails from missiles shot from Vandenberg Air Force Base to the north, all created by neighbors working at companies from Aerospace Corporation to the spooky think-tank, RAND Corporation. I thought nothing of the fact that the neighbor across the street who once helped me find a lost kite was the father of the DC-3, or that another family friend, built the X-15 rocket plane. And didn’t everyone have an ejection seat for a desk chair, and a missile nose cone and a couple of fighter-jet canopies in their garage?

Sputnik also nudged the Keplerian elements of my life in wildly unpredictable ways. For starters, Sputnik nearly caused me to fail out of 7th grade, thanks to the dubious innovation of “New math” inflicted on American grade school students in the early 1960s as part of America’s attempt to close a perceived “science gap” with the Soviets. My grade school career was rescued by after-school tutoring, but I never really recovered; I was still taking remedial calculus in my Freshman year at Harvard.

Sputnik also launched the digital revolution that would become Silicon Valley as a space program hungry for electronics bought all the chips it could get its hands on. The cost of the earliest chips dropped from $1000 to under $20 and the first high-tech millionaires were made. It is no small irony that a tiny artificial satellite intended to demonstrate Communism’s anti-capitalist superiority should trigger an entrepreneurial revolution that is still the envy of the world 50 years later. For my part, I bought those chips with my allowance and left burn marks on my formica desktop while soldering those chips into circuit projects too numerous to recall.

California has always been different from the rest of the United States. The Gold Rush left us with the sense that anything was possible, and the omnipresent Pacific Ocean caused us to look westwards. We surfed it’s waves and every night watched the sun set into it’s water horizon. Even before I entered grade school, Japan felt closer to me than Washington, and Hong Kong closer than London.

Sputnik and the space boom that followed added an upwards horizon. Those rockets were ours, and space felt as close and personal as Catalina Island. Space was as much our back yard as the Pacific, and while we couldn’t go there yet, we were certain it would happen in our lifetimes.

I of course had no idea then that I would end up living in Silicon Valley, or that my work would be forecasting technological futures. But if my present self could time travel back and tell that kid where he would end up, I know he would not have been surprised in the slightest.