From the NY Times comes a reminder that it’s Sputnik’s birthday soon.
The article begins begins like this:
Fifty years ago, before most people living today were born…
I, of course, remember (if only vaguely) the news of Sputnik’s launch. It goes along with remembering those house calls, although those were the wave of the past and Sputnik the wave of the future).
The Times describes the reaction of the US as “wonder and foreboding,” and this jibes entirely with my own memories. For years after the launch, Sputnik was the stick they used in school to goad us to achievement.
And what a strange-looking stick it was, with mysterious protruberances sticking out from its basically round form:
How was Sputnik’s launch interpreted? The US was falling behind in the all-important space race. We children were at fault for not learning enough science, even if we were toddlers.
We had to accelerate, and accelerate we did. As the article describes, the US countered with its own space program and satellites. Then, when the Russians sent the first man into space—Gagarin—we countered some more. Lift-offs were now seen on a television wheeled into an auditorium where the entire grade school had gathered to watch, and the sense of excitement was palpable.
These days the space program is ho-hum, the sense of urgency gone, the agency clouded by accidents and scandals. In retrospect, the whole thing seemed to have a fairly short trajectory, as did Sputnik itself.
[NOTE: Interesting arcane fact presented in Wikipedia (and who am I to doubt them, even though the article says "citation needed?"):
The launch of Sputnik 1 inspired writer Herb Caen to coin the term "beatnik" in an article about the Beat Generation in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 1958.]