Sputnik and Ecology

Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. As John Noble Wilford describes in the New York Times (September 25, 2007, page D2), “Climbing out of the terrestrial gravity well, rising above the atmosphere and into orbit, Sputnik crossed the threshold into a new dimension of human experience.” The launch had immediate implications for international competition in the Cold War, for space exploration, for engineering, but what did it mean for ecology?

I suggest that Sputnik had educational, technological, and inspirational impacts on ecology perhaps unmatched in the history of the discipline. For those of us born before or soon after Sputnik, the launch galvanized interest in science and science education in the United States. The impression, correct or not, that the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in technology led to an expansion in government support for science that benefited a generation of aspiring scientists, including ecologists. Second, although the only capability Sputnik had was to tell us it was there (via onboard radio transmitters), it is the ancestor all the remote sensing satellites that today provide us with a wealth of ecological information at global scales, and the global positioning network that lets us map field locations instantly. Much of modern ecology is simply not imaginable without that small beginning. Finally, Sputnik was the beginning of the space age and of human exploration of the solar system, and the first opportunity for humans to see the entire Earth as one place, moving in space. And pictures of that “blue marble,” and the words spoken by the fortunate few who have seen it in person, may have done more to inspire interest in ecology and its role in teaching us about the Earth than all 10,000 of us ESA members could do in a lifetime of writing and teaching. They certainly inspired me; I hope you’ll tell your own stories here at ESA News and Views.

Contributed by Cliff Duke, Ecological Society of America

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