Saturday, August 19, 2006

I know I was thrilled to imagine it, but my eleven year old mind had also seized on what would be the predominant message in America, and would in fact affect my future. Men of Roddenberry’s age and military experience must have grasped its importance immediately.

They would have understood especially what the next Sputnik launch meant, just a month later. Sputnik II not only carried a live being into space—a dog—but the orbiting satellite weighed over 1100 pounds. No U.S. missile even on the drawing board could carry an object that heavy, let alone send it into orbit. The military significance was enormous.

Although the U.S. had exploded the first true hydrogen bomb, it was too large and fragile for a weapon. The bomb the Soviets designed and exploded the next year was not as powerful, but it was already a weapon. The U.S. soon had created useable hydrogen bombs, but the Soviets had a brief advantage which had shaken the military establishment.

Now it seemed the Soviets had leapt ahead and were a much greater threat. Until then, an attack on the U.S. or Russia could be conducted only by using bombers. Although the U.S. was rapidly developing guided missiles, Sputnik proved the Soviets had built missiles capable of reaching the U.S. and delivering atomic bombs. Sputnik itself was beeping over America to remind them.

Missiles were much faster than bombers and harder to detect. Airplanes could be shot down, but not guided missiles. Hydrogen bombs didn’t have to be delivered to precise targets. To destroy New York or Moscow might require as many as 24 atomic bombs. The first hydrogen bombs were each as powerful as a thousand Hiroshima bombs. New York could be destroyed by one of them, which would also produce radiation lethal to the population of Washington, D.C., and would contaminate most of the Northeast, into Canada. The "lethal zone" in H-bomb tests in the Pacific after the Bravo test proved so powerful was equal to 20% of the continental United States.

It would take a few years for both sides to make the transition to missiles. But the Early Warning System in Canada and the Ground Observer Corps of volunteers in cities and towns would rapidly become obsolete. (I joined the Ground Observer Corps at the Civil Defense office at the courthouse when I was 12. Volunteers stood on the roof of the county hospital and scanned the horizon for unauthorized airplanes, even though we were many hundreds of miles from an ocean or an international border. I was too young to be a scanner, so I was designated a Messenger. I was never called to do anything, and the organization quietly melted away.)

For Gene Roddenberry’s generation (which was my parents’ generation) the missile threat evoked images of the sneak attack, the bolt from the blue that brought America into World War II. Only now, everywhere was Pearl Harbor. Now the sudden flash of light that preceded nuclear fire could come at any moment, with little or no warning. We were potentially fifteen minutes from the end of the world, every day.

My generation had been schooled on filmstrips projected in our classrooms that showed a huge white cloud suddenly blooming, then ferocious wind, buildings bursting and flying apart, before the cartoon Bert the Turtle told us how to protect our little heads against atomic bombs. We’d dutifully practiced our "duck and cover" techniques under the old desks bolted to the floor at Sacred Heart School, perhaps glancing up at the initials scratched on the hidden wood by former students who were probably deep into the lives we might never have. We didn’t do that as much after Sputnik. Thermonuclear apocalypse became a daily possibility that we were now supposed to forget. Nevertheless, some children had recurring nightmares about nuclear attacks. Writer Landon Jones described it as “a vague, ceaseless anxiety…The doomsday dread was pervasive in the baby boom generation.”

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