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The space program's influence on Silicon Valley

With the 50th anniversary of Sputnik coming up this week, a look at how the space program helped lead to the development of Silicon Valley.

As a Bay Area native steeped in academia--my father is a college professor--I always wanted to believe in the primacy of universities in just about everything.

That's why, for years, I had assumed that the most important factor in the development of Silicon Valley as the world's leading technology center was Stanford. After all, it is located in Palo Alto, Calif., right in the middle of the Valley, and its students and graduates were behind such industry powerhouses as Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Google and many others.

Well, as my story, How NASA helped invent Silicon Valley, which is up on today, illustrates, that wasn't quite the case. In fact, while there is no single factor that shaped the region's technology future, the space program was as important as anything.

It turns out, as I report in the story, that the opening, in 1930, of what was then called the Sunnyvale Naval Air Station--a new home to giant airships--and what is now the NASA Ames Research Center, had a huge impact on the Valley.

As the San Jose Mercury Herald put it, in 1931, "Industries allied to aviation will spring up like mushrooms, each bringing its own payroll. It means in short that San Jose and the Bay region are on the threshold of the most glorious era of posterity in their history."

How right they were.

It is true that Stanford, and in particular Frederick Terman, dean of the university's engineering school, were also instrumental in helping bring more and more tech to the area. But ultimately, not as instrumental as I had long thought.

Stay tuned to all this week for our full package on 50 years in space.