In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial earth satellite to officially begin the Space Race. They called it Sputnik, which means “fellow traveler” in Russian. The launch shocked the whole world, shattering perceptions of the United States as the leading technological superpower and of the Soviet Union as a relatively backward country. The Eisenhower administration was taken by surprise and downplayed the event, with Defense Secretary Charlie Wilson calling Sputnik “a useless hunk of iron.” Sherman Adams, a senior official of the White House, said that America was not interested in getting involved “in an outer space basketball game.” A White House science adviser called it “a silly bauble in the sky.” But Edward Teller, known as the “Father of the hydrogen bomb,” described the success of Sputnik as “a kind of technological Pearl Harbor.” And suddenly, it appeared that the United States was undergoing a crisis of national confidence. Public reaction spurred Congress to pass a flurry of measures leading to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with increased spending for scientific research and space missions. Sputnik also spawned a number of jokes: A Sputnik cocktail was two parts vodka, one part sour grapes. Another cracked that as the Sputnik passed over the White House, it emitted a signal “Beep, beep, I like Ike, I like Ike.”
In April 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth in his capsule Vostok I, and two years later, Valentina Tereshkova became the first and youngest woman to fly solo in a space mission. Tereshkova spent three days in space and orbited the earth 48 times. She is now a retired Air Force major general.
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Last week, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has granted regulatory approval to a COVID-19 vaccine that showed “stable immunity” against the new virus and had “passed all the necessary checks.” The vaccine, named “Sputnik V” to remind people of the success of its first satellite launched in 1957, was developed by Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology. Last Aug. 1, the Russians announced that the vaccine passed through Phases 1 and 2 clinical trials. They reported not a single participant of the trials got infected with COVID-19 after being administered with Sputnik V.
The CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund that supports the work of the Gamaleya Research Institute, Kirill Dmitriev, announced the start of the crucial Phase 3 trials involving 2,000 people in Russia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Mass production of the vaccine will be done by Russian business conglomerate Sistema before the end of the year. Dmitriev said that Russia has received requests from more than 20 countries for 1 billion doses of the vaccine.
Reactions from the Western world were swift and somewhat sour. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expressed serious doubts that the Russians have actually proven that the vaccine is safe. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former US Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said much of the testing done was on too small a group. “I will not take it, certainly not outside clinical trials.”
Remember what was said after Sputnik I was launched—a useless hunk of iron, a silly bauble in the sky. Remember the joke about a Sputnik cocktail consisting of two parts vodka and one part sour grapes. Also keep in mind that not all vaccines that have passed Western standards in terms of clinical trials were perfect. The Dengvaxia controversy showed this clearly. The anti-pneumonia vaccine does not guarantee that you will be free of pneumonia.
One last point. Let us all ask ourselves this question: Is Vladimir Putin a madman that he will risk the safety, the good health, the well-being and, possibly, the lives of millions of his people just to score political propaganda points and gain some prestige for the nation? He is a lot smarter than some of his rivals on the world stage. With his announcement, Russia is several steps ahead of China, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom in the race for a vaccine. This will spur everyone to work harder and faster and even come up with a better vaccine than Sputnik V. The United States is now engaged in a brutal election campaign that appears to be focused, for the moment, on wearing face masks. At the same time Russia is moving forward, boldly, to provide COVID-19 immunity for its people. Putin’s move is a master stroke and his timing is impeccable.
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