Can it really be fifty years since Sputnik beep-beeped its way around the globe, ushering in the space age and scaring Americans half to death? (The Commies are going to bomb us! Their rockets work, but ours always blow up!) I guess it has been. (By the time I get this up, it’s going to be October 5, but let’s just pretend it’s still October 4, okay? I mean, somewhere in the U.S., it still is.)
Lots has been written in newspapers and elsewhere about the anniversary, but I thought I’d note a few reflections about what Sputnik meant to me, an 8-year-old kid in Huron, Ohio. I remember fear, because the Russkies were ahead of us. But I also remember great excitement, because we were finally in space! (In this part of the brain, it was okay to think of them as being part of us, which was really how I preferred to think of things anyway.) In the long run, the excitement way outweighed the fear. The Space Race was on!
I can still taste the thrill of watching our early rockets lift off, of following every single space mission with intense interest—and I don’t just mean manned space missions. I mean everything. The Echo satellite, a big Mylar balloon that reflected radio waves. Telstar, the first active communications satellite. Ranger and Surveyor to the moon. Mariner to Mars and Venus. I knew all the rockets by shape and size: Delta, Atlas, Titan, Atlas Agena, Atlas Centaur, Saturn. I knew what rockets were coming down the pike. (I’m still waiting for the Nova, which would have dwarfed the Saturn V.) I idolized Werner von Braun. (We didn’t know about the Nazi part then.)
And then, of course, there were the manned missions. I remember our classes at school (6th or 7th grade) being pulled out to go to the room where there was a TV to watch both the scrubbed attempts and finally the launch of Alan Shepherd into space. “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?” I think I was at home for Gus Grissom’s flight. In school for John Glenn’s. It was a wondrous time. So full of passion and innocence. But I also remember the devastating news of the Apollo 1 fire, which put an end to the innocence. And finally on up to the landing of the Eagle. “Tranquility Base here…” I still get shivers when I watch video footage of Apollo 11’s launch.
Besides engrossing me, one pronounced effect of this ferment of space activity was my passion for reading science fiction. I’m pretty sure the two were linked. As I watched the real space travelers, I had no doubt—one iota of doubt— that our future as a species was in space. I lived that future through the exploits of Tom Swift, Jr. and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet—and of course through the stories of Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Leinster and Del Rey and Lesser and Nourse and Norton and White and a hundred others. I never felt that there was anything unreal about these visions of our future in the stars. On those periodic occasions when someone asked me why I didn’t read about real things, I simply didn’t know how to answer; the question made no sense to me.
In a way, it still makes no sense to me. That was the beginning but not the end of my love affair with science fiction, and I have always felt that it was the most real of all kinds of fiction.
Hey, Sputnik—thanks for getting the ball rolling.
“Writing itself is an act of faith, and nothing else.” —E. B. White