Red Alert! The Race to Space in Education

“We create the future by educating those who want to build it.”

Sputnik was more than a simple satellite beeping into space, it was a wake-up call and sounding alarm. It was a warning signal that the technology possessed by Russia was strong enough to launch bombs on United States soil. Fingers immediately pointed at schools and educators, leading to an overhaul of not only science and engineering, but education as a whole. Rather than tweeting out threats, America took action.

 Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

When the space race began in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik 1, the American public had already entered a new era of technological marvels: affordable automobiles, color televisions becoming the norm, the interstate highway system, more than 1,000 computers built and sold, the development of a polio vaccine. We were on top of the world, technologically.

By beating us in getting beyond this world, with advances that could someday be used to destroy us, America had no choice but to begin the hard work of proving it’s resilience. The response went beyond increased defense spending on technology. For the first time, the nation saw education as a form of national security. The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) increased funding for education at all levels by more than $1 billion. Curricula in public schools became more challenging, with a new emphasis on math and science. Educators introduced many teaching tools that have influenced today’s practices, including hands-on laboratory classes, overhead projectors which have now been replaced by interactive whiteboards, and educational films that have advanced into many forms of multimedia to bring multiple experts into any classroom.

When searching for a habitable planet, scientists are scouting for a Goldilocks Zone of “not too hot and not too cold,” a state that is ideal for life forms to thrive. A less attractive Goldilocks Zone exists in human nature when we are in a comfort zone and lacking a “red alert” to take action. In systems theory, this is called a “drift to low performance.” It’s a comfortable and almost unnoticeable drift in which we work less to achieve mileposts, or even to set them in the first place. Now that we have achieved beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, the rate of acceleration seems to be slowing. Will it take another Sputnik to jar us into action? Or will a robust space mission to put people on Mars in 20 years be the inspiration needed to revive STEM?


Strangely enough, the seemingly impossible task of going to Mars happens to be the most accessible, most achievable path to a future we can look forward to. That future is up to us. We create the future by educating those who want to build it. Space and the lure of exploring new frontiers is the wow factor that makes STEM cool and popular.


  1. What technology do you use that is different than what would be found in a pre-Sputnik classroom?

  2. How have teaching methods changed over this time period?

  3. Most feel that education is overdue for another overhaul, yet many conflicting ideas exist on what this should look like. Is an overhaul needed?