History

Why Sputnik Went Kaputnik or, Don't Diss the Discus!

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Is it just me, or have the opinion pages at The Los Angeles Times sure gotten a lot more interesting since that fine paper kidnapped two former reason staffers, Matt Welch and Tim Cavanaugh, like the Symbionese Liberation Army snatched Patty Hearst?

Yesterday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day that the U.S. collectively crapped its Cold War pants, a.k.a the day Sputnik I went into orbit, the Times mused in an unsigned editorial smartly dubbed "Satellite vs. supermarket:

A weird feature of the Cold War was America's tendency to choose the few areas in which the Soviet Union excelled and to make them the grounds for symbolic contests. International chess, classical piano competitions, Olympic sports (what red-blooded American hurls a discus?)—those were things the Russians were good at. True to form, the United States reacted to Sputnik with orotund calls to national purpose and a collectivized space program that mirrored the Russian program down to its hybrid military/scientific mission. Just as Sputnik itself was a technological experiment attached to what was originally merely a ballistic missile project, so the first Explorer launch was crammed with equipment—including a Geiger counter that detected the existence of the Van Allen radiation belts, the first important discovery of the Space Age.

The nameless, faceless, breathless (?) writer, the journalistic equivalent of a Charlie X victim, concludes:

In the end, the U.S. tendency to play to its weaknesses didn't matter. The economy was so vast that its runoff alone was enough to swamp the Soviets. The real symbolic victory of the Space Age may not have been Apollo 11 but "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," that paean to American wealth (marking its own—silver—anniversary this year) that posits a nation so rich even a supposedly middle-class Tujunga family has enough junk lying around the house to build a radio capable of communicating with aliens. The "private standard of life" [that idiotic but revered journalist Walter] Lippmann deplored was the base on which the achievements of the Space Age were built—including NASA, a Cold War relic that even its admirers concede is an arcane bureaucracy, and yet one that still manages to do some amazing things.

Whole thing here.

That's good stuff, I think, and all too true–except for NASA doing amazing things. The real mission of NASA is to waste time, energy, resources, and the occasional life while shredding massive amounts of taxpayers dollars and probably retarding actual development of the field in which it operates. In this, alas, NASA is no different than many other federal organizations.

But more to the point, the Times is simply wrong when it rhetorically asks, "What red-blooded American hurls a discus?" From the first modern Olympic Games, held in 1896, through the 1976 Montreal Games, U.S. men totally dominated the event, winning 14 of a possible 19 gold medals. Most of those golds came before the Soviets competed in the Olympics (the Reds first took the field in the 1952 Games), but from 1952 through 1976 (the last Cold War Olympics in which the Soviets and Americans both participated, save for '88), American men won seven out of eight golds (a Czech took the other).

Four of those golds–from grand Cold War years '56, '60, '64, and '68–belonged to the amazing Al Oerter, the first track and field athlete to win four straight titles and whose triumph over injury and pain is the sort of inspirational story the Olympics managed to produce with stunning regularity.

To be sure, the Olympics don't matter anymore, for all sorts of reasons but especially because the Cold War is as dead as Sen. Larry Craig's resignation. And there's no question the Cold War drove us all mad–mad enough to take chess seriously, at least until Bobby Fisher went apeshit with anti-Semitism. And there's no question that the Soviets lost the Cold War precisely because they wouldn't or couldn't compete with good old American junk culture.

But please LA Times, don't diss the discus. Especially since Al Oerter, that great proxy Cold Warrior who taught a small but touching lesson about human triumph over adversity, died just this past Tuesday, a couple of days short of the Sputnik anniversary.

NEXT: BBC News on the Cult of Che

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  1. “[T]he Olympics don’t matter anymore.”

    Tell that to the Chinese.

  2. Is it just me, or have the opinion pages at The Los Angeles Times sure gotten a lot more interesting since that paper kidnapped two former reason staffers, Matt Welch and Tim Cavanaugh, like the Symbionese Liberation Army snatched Patty Hearst?

    Judging from the run on sentence above one could also chart the decline of Reason’s quality with their departure.

  3. Gee, give joshua access to a spellchecker and suddenly he’s all uppity Mr. William Strunk Jr.

  4. IIRC, Oerter also accomplished the astonishing feat of setting a new Olympic record with each of his gold-medal throws.

  5. mad–mad enough to take chess seriously

    Remember Paul Morphy

  6. One of Bobby Fischer’s greatest achievements was making millions of red-blooded Americans root for Boris Spassky.

  7. While NASA’s manned (sorry, humaned) flights are of course a boondoggle for the ages, its telescopes–not just Hubble, but ones that “see” ultra-violet light and x-rays–are a large part of the reason why we are living in the “golden age” of astronomy. As the enormous cost, and staggering uselessness, of human space flight sinks in over the next decade–if you make geezers choose between a flight to Mars and two weeks in Vegas every winter, you know what they’re going to choose–NASA may actually become “efficient.”*

    *I’ll believe in private space flight when I see a for-profit put people on the moon and get them back.

  8. From the first modern Olympic Games, held in 1896

    The first truly modern Olympic Games was the 1936 Nazi Festival of Nationalism, so well documented by Leni Riefenstahl(all the “Olymic Traditions” start here). As a Nationalistic, rather than individual/team, competition the greatest and most inspiring “Olympic Moment” remains the 1956 Melbourne Games water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union.

  9. Here is a better link for the 1956 water polo match.

  10. Nick,
    That was either a brilliant way to intro the weekend “open thread,” or senility is setting in.
    Commenters get to be the judges…

  11. Nick Gillespie,

    I think the Voyager missions are pretty amazing myself.

  12. The Pioneer missions are pretty cool too.

  13. Amusing story about Oerter– at one of the Olympics he had the hammer throw practice field before the Russians did. First thing he did when he got there was take his hammer and make some gouges in the earth about 5 or 10 feet past the world record, so the Soviets would see something to psych them out when they got to the field.

  14. You need to be fair. NASA *has* done amazing things. For every well reported failure, there’s two Mars rovers *still* working orders of magnitude beyond beyond their design lifetime, and glorious multiplanet billard shots like the Voyager series using nothing but gravity assist. Their scientific missions, especially stuff like WMAP, have expanded human knowledge of the universe back even *past* the Big Bang if cyclic theory is to be believed.

    I just can’t see a purely private, for proft space effort ever accomplishing anything like that. I’ve read a lot of handwaving BS, but nothing that doesn’t land firmly in magic elf land.

  15. When you use a phone to call long distance or a geo-location device to tell you where you are. Thank NASA.

  16. You’ll note that Nick never claimed that the missions and accomplishments of NASA lacked merit. He merely pointed out that they were wasteful and inefficient.

    Like most government agencies, NASA seems to operate on the “some accomplishment at any cost” philosophy. For every mars rover or Hubble telescope, there are a dozen shuttle launches mostly devoted to repairing the shuttle itself in orbit.

  17. I knew the Olympics no longer mattered, which made me very sad, when I had a 21-year-old secretary who failed to understand my crack about one particular ALJ here in Austin as “the East German Judge.”

    Also, thanks for the nice words about Al Oerter. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but my husband maintains Oerter worked as a bar bouncer while training. That’s a real American for ya.

  18. The question is, what would the private sector have done with the money NASA spent if we had been allowed to keep it?

    I claim more, but different, advancements. The thing we cant really know is, what was the opportunity cost?

    Like on the thread from a few weeks ago, I stand behind my unprovable contention that without the Interstate Highway System we would now have flying cars and/or teleportation booths.

    Mother Necessity…

  19. “…from 1952 through 1976 (the last Cold War Olympics in which the Soviets and Americans both participated, save for ’88), American men won seven out of eight golds (a Czech took the other).”

    As I was reading that, I was thinking “American men?” Glad to see you gave Oerter full credit.

    The Olympics as presently constituted suck; I wouldn’t cross the street to see an Olympic event. Not even the hammer throw.

  20. “But please LA Times, don’t diss the discus.”

    Not meaning to dis you, but dis is spelled with only one s. Its short for “disrespect”.

  21. When you use a phone to call long distance or a geo-location device to tell you where you are. Thank NASA.

    Sorry, but not so. The predecessor to the modern GPS was a U.S. Navy submarine navigation system based on the same network of satellites in use today. It wasn’t designed for space exploration but rather for precise targeting of ballistic missiles on Soviet-era cities.

  22. This is not a stick-up; rather a poll:
    How many here know whether the disc flies out from the ham side of the hand or the forefinger side?

  23. Sorry, but not so. The predecessor to the modern GPS was a U.S. Navy submarine navigation system based on the same network of satellites in use today. It wasn’t designed for space exploration but rather for precise targeting of ballistic missiles on Soviet-era cities.

    I await the dovishLibertarians to arrive and tell us how we would have more freedom if we had not wasted all that money on the Defense Department.

  24. Meanwhile, in other Olympian steroid hysteria news, Marion Jones pleads guilty to bank fraud and theft charges (it sounds like a money-laundering scheme, but it’s hard to find any useful info regarding those charges), and all one hears about on the news is is a lot of pathetic sobbing ahout how “she betrayed us by using performance-enhancing drugs.”

    Good grief.

  25. pbrooks,
    I’m glad I read your comment because I never would have known. I listened to the same NPR story about Marion Jones 30 times yesterday (I was on a road trip with someone else) and they never once mentioned anything about money laundering. Fucking ridiculous.

  26. Karen,
    I think the sticking point might have been “East German”. Your 21-year-old secretary was 4 when “East Germany” went away.

    Damn. Now I feel kinda old.

  27. The cant that surrounds NASA is annoying. NASA is in the same business as Evel Knievel – cool stunts. The moon landing was the coolest stunt in history. I applaud it. But let’s not pretend there’s some high purpose involved.

  28. Those East German Youthsex teams were world beaters, but it was hard to tell the guys from the girls sometimes.

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