September 25th, 2007

Happy Birthday, Sputnik

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.]

15 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Sputnik”

  1. Laura Says:

    It does make you smile to remember the early space program doesn’t it? The wonder of it all. Makes me want to watch “The Right Stuff” all over again, where my favorite character was Sam Sheppard playing Chuck Yeager. When he always asked for a stick of Bements before testing another jet.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. sergey Says:

    I remember quite clearly, as if it was a movie, the moment when I heard the breaking news about Gagarin’s flight. I was eleven and was going to English lesson to a private teacher. I was so exited that can’t learn anything. There were very few such moments in my life that I can remember with such clarity of every detail.

  3. Fat Man Says:

    Oct 4, 1957 was a Friday. I spent that Friday evening at my grandfather’s house. He was always happy to have me come over on Friday night, when my grandmother, and her mother, my great-grandmother, would go out to play canasta.

    Grandfather, and his crony Uncle Earl (who was not my uncle, but was my grandfather’s bookie, a wonderful man who wore a diamond pinkie ring), would watch the Friday Night Fights on television. After that my grandfather would show me his newest gadgets, like high-fies and cameras. He loved gadgets. It is very sad that he had to miss the tech boom of the last couple of decades.

    That particular Friday night, his new gadget was a transistor radio — the first one I had ever seen.

    I slept at grandfather’s house that night, as I often did. The next morning, he let me take the transistor radio home.

    As I walked home (it was only 3 short blocks), I listened to the radio. The news broadcast came on and told me about sputnik. I realized that a new world had opened up. One that a ten year old boy found very exciting.

  4. Fat Man Says:

    “a stick of Bements”

    Beeman’s gum is a chewing gum invented by Ohio physician Dr. Edward E. Beeman in the late 19th Century. Beeman originally marketed the gum, which was made of pepsin powder and chicle, as an aid to digestion. It become a part of the Adams Company line in 1898, and continued on after the purchase of Adams by Warner-Lambert in 1962. Production ceased in 1978 due to lagging sales. In 1985, as part of a nostalgia campaign, it was brought back to the market along with Clove and Black Jack chewing gums.

    The original wrapper had a pig logo, but was later replaced with a logo featuring the Beeman’s name in scroll and a picture of Dr. Beeman. The current wrapper design has a white and red background with white and black lettering. Beemans is sporadically produced by Cadbury Adams as a nostalgia gum, along with the other historic gums Clove and Black Jack.

    The gum was prominently featured in the movies The Right Stuff and the The Rocketeer.

  5. Dave Moelling Says:

    Did you get up early in the mornings to watch launches on TV? I wonder if my daughter even at 16 knows where a countdown comes from.

    More importantly the space race was the end of a long era where exploration and adventure were childrens big excitement. The sixties and the greens have made the world a less interesting place, as nothing can be done today without excessive handwringing and worry.

  6. david foster Says:

    Sputnik provided the rationale for a vast increase in the money going to education. Ironically, much of the expansion of academia–justified for “national defense” reasons–has resulted in a large stable of professors who are hostile not only to science and technology, but to our civilization itself.

  7. Donald Wolberg Says:

    Does everyone remeber that Yeager himself did a cameo as athe janitor at the bar in the movie? Yeager was testing the first Bel X-1 and X-1A rocket planes and it was the X-1 that first went supersonic. Of course, the entire Redstone (putting the chimp and then Shepard into space) was based on Von Braun and his friends from his V-2 days for Hitler. The Russians also used their captured Germans, of course.

  8. sergey Says:

    Most of advances in military technology were based on superb education system of German and Austrian gymnasia. Not only Von Braun team, but the whole team of Manhattan Project consisted primary of European educated scientists (Teller, Fermi, Dirac, Feinman, Einstein, etc.). This system existed in Old Russia, too, and Soviet nuclear scientists like Tamm, Zeldovitch, Budker, Kikoin were educated in such gimnasia. Second generation of theorists (Landau, Sakharov, Abrikosov) were their disciples and retained some marvelous traits of this school. But this system was irreparably destroyed by Nazis and Bolsheviks, so this pipeline of geniuses is empty now.

  9. Donald Wolberg Says:

    The problem with Von Braun of course was his “ethical challenges” such as targeting innocents in Poland to test the destructive power of the 1 ton V-2 warhead on undamaged areas such as sleeping towns, as well as his SS membership, later ignored. When he and as I recall Hermann Oberth and others founded the Rocket Society, with early work largely based on the American Robert Goddard’s designs of liquid fuel rocket engines, the basis of all later liquid fueld work, the new Nazi inspired Army officials provided funds and facilities. Of note is the fact that the co-founder, Willy Ley, chose to denounce the Nazis as well as Von Braun and left Germany for America. In the U.S. Ley became a well known science writer and popularizer with several best sellers, and a style later emulated by Steve Gould.

  10. Donald Wolberg Says:

    Just an aside: I think Sergey means Richard Feynman. Feynman was a New Yorker–Far Rockaway I believe, and MIT educated. He went to work with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer was also an American and Harvard educated.Other key bomb players were Ross Lominetz and Sterling Colgate, more of the American who complimented Teller and Szilard, etc.
    Fermi was not at Los Alamos and was the product of an Italian edcuation, and Einstein too was not a part of the bomb team.

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    Werner Von Braun:

    Gather ’round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun,
    A man whose allegiance
    Is ruled by expedience.
    Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown,
    “Ha, Nazi, Schmazi,” says Wernher von Braun.

    Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
    Say rather that he’s apolitical.
    “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
    That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

    Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
    But some think our attitude
    Should be one of gratitude,
    Like the widows and cripples in old London town,
    Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.

    You too may be a big hero,
    Once you’ve learned to count backwards to zero.
    “In German oder English I know how to count down,
    Und I’m learning Chinese!” says Wernher von Braun.

  12. Donald Wolberg Says:

    This is the second time I have seen this excellent rendition on Von Braun although in a slightly different version–what is the source? I recall as a kid, seeing Von Braun highlighted on the old Disney show, speaking of our dreams to get into space as humanity’s destiny. it was very heady stuff, and of course Walt Disney made no mention of the V-2 or Werner’s membership in the SS. Of course the Soviets never acknowledged their debt to German (Nazi) rocket experts either. And just about everyone has forgotten the American Robert Goddard’s early work making it all possible.

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    Follow the link—it’s Tom Lehrer.

  14. Donald Wolberg Says:

    Of course, it would be Tom Lehrer..thanks…my last functioning brain cell was busy chewing gum

  15. sergey Says:

    Ideological differences between American and Russian cultures were reflected in policy of looting Germany: Americans hunted for scientists and engineers, while Russians took all machinery. US got von Braun, Soviets rocket parts. This was instrumental in USSR losing race for the Moon. R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik, was almost exact copy of V-2, with the second stage added; on the rocket that launched Gagarin 20 rocket engines were mounted, each slightly modernized V-2 engine. Even lunar rocket for manned mission was built, but four launches in a row got botched, and the program was cancelled. This was a blind alley, to add more old V-2 engines, it was impossible to synchronize them. But Von Braun designed a new engine for Saturn rocket, much more large, while Russian experiments with large engines failed.

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