Sputnik-era inspiration needs a boost

William Hammack

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: If you checked the weather forecast before you got dressed this morning, or used a GPS receiver in your car to help find your way around town, thank the Russians. Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and took the early lead in the Space Race.

In a speech at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said Sputnik was responsible for the creation of the American space program. Commentator and engineer Bill Hammack agrees -- but he maintains Sputnik wasn't really about space.


BILL HAMMACK: I have a book on my shelf, "The Boy Engineer." It's a late 1950s, just-post-Sputnik book to entice boys to become engineers. The Boy Engineer wears its era boldly, from the sexism of its title to its technological optimism.

The book suggests a boy become an engineer to "solve problems of water shortages, traffic congestion, and to find cheaper power," and that the "nations of the world are engaged in a fierce and real competition with nations ruled by dictators."

We're told that the winners of this contest will be those countries that "supply their peoples with the highest standards of living" -- not those with the largest nuclear arsenal, but the country with the most household appliances.

Largely this came true, and America still reins as the engineering innovator of the world. But in the years since, a certain complacency set in, and now we face a "quiet crisis" as our science and engineering base -- the source of American innovation and our standard of living -- slowly erodes.

The generation of engineers inspired by Sputnik now enters its emeritus years. With so few to replace them, the average age of an engineer in America rises with each passing day.

Today American students find engineering dull and uncreative, so much so that I recently found myself around a table of fellow 50-something engineers to address the crisis. One of our jobs was to develop a catch phrase that could attract kids to the profession.

The one that resonated: "Engineering: Because dreams need doing." The next generation has boldly declared its vision: They dream of a sustainable world.

But will they have the engineers to achieve it?

RYSSDAL: Bill Hammack teaches chemical engineering at the University of Illinois-Urbana.

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