Sixty-five years ago today, the Russians fired Sputnik into the October sky.
Of all people to kick off the Space Age—the Russians!
“Humiliation” does not capture the angst of a twelve-year-old American boy, which is what I was at the time.
“Disaster” would be closer.
Some adults may have been startled that humans had flung a projectile into space—a basketball-sized object that immediately took up a patrol of the heavens, blinking and beeping its way across the sky once every ninety-six minutes.
No twelve-year-old boy—as I was, at the time—batted an eyelash at the fact of space travel. Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, and other fiction writers had conditioned us to expect it with confidence. But it was to have been done by Americans.
That the Russians launched the satellite was wrong on four counts.
First of all, the Russians were Bad Guys. They were communist dictators. They mocked everything we, the Free World, stood for. They tried to undermine us. They were evil.
Second, everybody knew the Russians could not invent anything. A-bombs and H-bombs, they had acquired by trickery. Spies like the Rosenbergs had given them our secrets. Virtually all goods in Russia—cars, airplanes, telephones—were copies of American models.
Third, since Russia was our enemy in a colossal struggle for world power, having their hardware pass over the United States sixteen times a day raised the specter of a surprise attack from outer space—maybe in the near future. This was a big-time worry for Pentagon planners.
My Own Nemesis
The fourth consideration was peculiar to me. Sputnik arrived on a day that was already my downfall. We were moving from Streator, Illinois (population 17,500), to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kenosha was a much larger city: It was industrial, foreign, and most of all, it was not Streator, where I had oodles of friends.
I was hardly in a mood to understand the great advantages of my father’s upward job change.
On Saturday morning, October 5, the one appliance that had not been packed in the moving van was a small table radio. Mom was about to unplug it to put in the car with the other odds and ends when the CBS Radio News announced the launching of Sputnik. They even played a recording of the new satellite’s strange, plaintive beep.
That beep signaled that not only had my parents betrayed me by uprooting me from my accustomed home, but the treacherous Russians were piling on. The failure of America’s Vanguard rocket a few months later only added to the misery.
Now that it’s sixty-five years past, I’ve learned to be philosophical about it. I even have some good memories of Kenosha. But the emotions of a star-struck young lad still resonate after all those years.
I hope all your orbits, Gentle Reader, will be happy ones.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer