Yuri Gagarin receives a hero's welcome in Warsaw after he became the first person to orbit the earth in 1961. Photo: Wikipedia CC

On May 8, 1945, World War II came to a close in Europe. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was in ruins. The Germans had destroyed 70,000 towns and villages, leveled or severely shelled cities such as Leningrad and Stalingrad, had destroyed all infrastructure, including railways, roads, bridges and factories during their retreat, and had killed 27 million Soviet citizens. People were starving.

On April 2, 1961, less than 16 years later, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth.

The United States came out of the war with its industry booming and a scientific establishment headed by great research institutions such as Bell Laboratories and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It did not accomplish the miracle of the USSR, but it did move rapidly after the war. The Russians sent up Sputnik on October 4, 1957; the US launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958.

The shock in the US was that the Russians were not only competitive, but had embarrassed US science and engineering by being first. In 1958, president Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act, and this enabled talented students to flow into science and engineering. The shockwaves were felt throughout the entire educational system, from top to bottom. Mathematics was more important than football. The game was on. The president and Congress did not intend to lose.

John Glenn followed Gagarin into space on February 20, 1962. With president John F Kennedy’s impetus, Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon on July 20, 1969.

The advances made by US engineering in the last 16 years are paltry in comparison with the accomplishments of the USSR between the fall of Berlin and Gagarin’s flight, or of the US between VE Day and Glenn’s flight. The awareness of living in a world in which nuclear war was an ever-present threat did not result in the paralyzing anxiety that appears in those whining about the possible effects of climate change a century in the future; rather, there was excitement in the air as one historically significant engineering feat followed another.

Amid the most menacing days of the Cold War, less than one month before the Cuban missile crisis, during which human existence as we know it hung in the balance, Kennedy called for greatness and risk in his speech announcing the moon mission:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The US does not face the military threat from China that it faced from the USSR, at least not yet, but it does confront a technological challenge with huge economic implications. People like David Goldman and Peter Thiel have argued that the US should rebuild the research capacity of its national laboratories and restore its top research universities to the caliber of their glory days. In fact, America’s universities continue to decline. Resources are wasted on so-called studies programs that are void of scientific content, and expound “theories” absent an epistemology to make them meaningful.

The proportion of undergraduates in engineering is paltry, and for those who do choose engineering, the education they get is poor compared with what they would have gotten during the Cold War when political leaders thought it wise to educate the younger generation. Today, the elite students of America’s graduate engineering schools are mainly foreign (80% overall in electrical engineering), whereas 50 years ago they were almost entirely American-born.

One does not see saints when looking back on Harry Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. The US Congress of those days was certainly not filled with moral exemplars. Consider the vile segregationist southern Democrats. Yet they acted for the good of the nation, perhaps with some arm-twisting from the top. What of today’s Congress? When it comes to the well-being of the nation, today’s rogues are worse than those of 60 years ago, because those, at least, supported the science and engineering required to make the nation powerful in the presence of an adversary whose leadership was committed to its own national prominence.

As demonstrated by the USSR, socialism does not prohibit scientific prowess. There is a difference, of course. Socialism’s success in the USSR came at the expense of millions of lives, the slave labor of millions more, and a lower standard of living. Nevertheless, the fact is that Yuri Gagarin was the first person to orbit the Earth. In contrast to the US today, Soviet universities were not plagued by whining children – nor are today’s Chinese universities. The Soviets thought it wiser that their young study calculus and physics.

In struggles between nations, their internal political systems only matter to the extent that they affect national preparedness. Both socialism and capitalism, both dictatorship and republicanism, can make progress in science and engineering. Both can achieve great military power. The scientific advances of France in the 18th century were achieved under absolute monarchy, and those of the USSR under socialist dictatorship. During three centuries, modern science was founded and made its greatest gains in Britain under a mixed monarchy-parliamentary system. The US assumed leadership in the 20th century under a republican form of government. There is no formula as to which kind of political system will take the lead in the future. Those who surge to the top will be among those who desire to do so and take the matter seriously.

It is instructive to observe the faces of Yuri Gagarin and Nikita Khrushchev as they look out over the crowd celebrating Gagarin’s achievement. Their eyes are beaming. In that moment, their nation stood at the pinnacle. They were no longer the vast Slavic backwater of Europe, perhaps militarily powerful because of their huge population, but intellectual barbarians next to the British, Germans and French. Britain had come out of the war with its industry virtually intact and its legacy of being the world’s scientific superpower. Sixteen years later, Britain was a US appendage. Its science and engineering were not in the same league as those of the USSR.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin at a press conference in Finland in 1961. Photo: Wikipedia CC

The US had come out of the war as the unchallenged economic, industrial, military and engineering behemoth. It had been shocked by the rapid advances of the USSR: explosion of atomic and hydrogen bombs, the first orbiting satellite, and now the first man in space. The US was embarrassed. Under the leadership of Eisenhower and Kennedy it would respond, and in 1969 would take the lead. Again, it would get complacent under Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, but once again in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan it would respond and vanquish the USSR to the point where there would be no Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, not by war, but by engineering advances that would totally imbalance the industries, economies, and militaries of the two sides.

Yuri Gagarin did a great service for his country, but he did an even greater service for mankind. He helped to spur the US to take advantage of its republican form of government and human freedom to bury a brutal socialist regime. As always, history comes around with different actors. Today, however, the US holds a weaker hand, and a Congress that has demonstrated nothing except for an ability to squabble over minutiae in a desire for petty advantage. China is not minutia; it is a great nation, as was the USSR under Stalin and Khrushchev.

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Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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