Twenty-five years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart and fell from the sky. The Cold War’s thaw, Gorbachev’s new Kremlin, America’s victory in the space race: all seemed lost in the fiery mist above. A nation’s rising spirit fell to Earth with its seven heroes aboard.
That night, President Ronald Reagan postponed the State of the Union to address a mourning nation. His words, simple and soaring, rang similar to President Barack Obama’s in the aftermath of the Arizona murders two weeks ago. The Challenger’s fall was not a collapse of American genius; the tragedy in Tucson was neither a result nor a repudiation of American politics. In the minds of these leaders and the souls of a progressive people, national tragedy was a call to action: to rise — not despite, but because of the scale of the challenges. To “win the future,” as President Obama put it in his State of the Union two days ago.
These have been weeks of rousing political parallels indeed. Through them, we are reminded of how tragedy and struggle demand new commitments and ideas. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Obama declared, less than a week after the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural. Kennedy’s speech — delivered in snow even deeper than today’s — began that space race and marked that Sputnik moment. It was a new struggle, with new sacrifices, one of which we commemorate today.
The Cold War is over. Sole superpower we may remain, but the 21st century is no longer unequivocally America’s, and our president knows it. Our economy falters. Compared to the emerging giants, we lack the numbers, resources, and manufacturing capacity. Compared to China, we lack the hegemonic singularity of purpose. And so, if we are to win the future and secure American exceptionalism in the years to come, the solution must be different. Our greatness must be fueled by the intangible commodity that only free peoples and free institutions can produce: innovation. New technologies and ideas.
This newspaper believes that this mandate is personal and immediate. It must fall upon Yale and universities like it: communities of young citizens and institutions of groundbreaking research. We must remain centers of difference and debate, of the academic freedom that gives rise to progressive voices, however fiery. America and Yale will attract the world’s best and brightest through a premium on intellectual freedom: our willingness to accept and argue the unexpected. We must be an institution and nation irresistible to international talent.
And as our nation searches for new technological solutions to the problems of infrastructure, Yale must strengthen its sciences. The days when we were the greatest scientific institution in the world are only a century past, but seem all but forgotten.
In 1859, Yale chemist Benjamin Silliman, Jr. validated the power of petroleum in his laboratory. His report sparked the oil rush, and with it, America’s dominance over land and sea. The prospectors who drilled into the earth at Silliman’s word trusted the scientific stature inherent to the Yale name. The international entrepreneurs of today should do the same. While an admitted student weekend for science and engineering students is a good start, the real way to attract the Sillimans of tomorrow is simpler and broader: make Yale science better, competitive with institutions like MIT and Caltech. Despite significant efforts in recent years, we still have a long way to go.
Fix grade inflation so that it treats history and biology majors equally — appropriately allocate credits for endless lab hours. Intro science lectures shouldn’t be so terrifying. Foster extracurricular science and engineering student projects. Keep West Campus growing and better integrate it with the rest of the University.
Some reforms, like providing more lunch options on Science Hill, are easy. The fundamental change — making science and its scholars as high a priority as the humanities — is harder.
Reagan’s address to a bereaved nation 25 years ago echoed Kennedy’s Sputnik moment. “We’ve grown used to wonders in this century,” he challenged. “It’s hard to dazzle us.” But our journeys into space did more than dazzle. They revolutionized technologies and our sense of the possible. Their victories were built in laboratories at Yale and universities like it — fostered in minds free to explore and argue. The innovations needed to modernize our infrastructure, revitalize our economy and fight the battles of tomorrow fall upon our shoulders.
Today reminds us of the struggle and sacrifice necessary to invent, explore and renew. We can and will rise to the occasion, at our universities and in our union.