Saturday, August 19, 2006

I was 11 years old. (So was Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Steven Speilberg would turn 11 in a couple of months. George Lucas was 13. ) I was at home, just outside a small town in western Pennsylvania. I was in my room, sitting at the heavy, dark-grained hand-me-down wooden desk that was surely older than I was. I had set aside the brown notebook in which I was writing a story about an alien invasion called “The Desert Menace,” to concentrate on my homework. It was already dark outside, and most of the room was dark as well, except for a circle of bright light from the lamp hovering over the desk, a green-shaded bulb at the end of a long, multi-jointed arm. It was quiet, and I didn’t even notice the muffled sound of the television set beyond the far wall behind my bed.

My door opened suddenly and startled me. It was my father, who seldom knocked. He and my mother were watching TV in the living room. I knew it wasn’t time yet for “The Life of Riley,” which our family often watched together on Friday nights, sharing a bowl of popcorn. My father asked if I’d been listening to the radio. I glanced up at it—a supposed “short wave” radio he’d assembled from a kit, but despite its impressive dials, slate gray face in front of exposed glowing tubes, transistors and resistors, it seldom pulled in more than the local AM station. It sat on the bookshelf just above my desk, next to the globe. I answered, “no,” defensively, thinking he was checking on my attention to my homework. But that wasn’t it. He told me that they’d just said on television that the Russians had launched a satellite into space, and it was in orbit around the earth at that very moment. They’d broadcast the actual sound of the signal coming from the satellite, called Sputnik.

I was too amazed to move. Nothing like this had ever happened before. After my father returned to the living room I turned on my radio, and eventually I did hear the eerie, even-toned beeping sound from space. Even though many people—even other kids—made fun of the whole idea of spaceships, I was already fascinated by anything to do with rockets and outer space. Besides Saturday morning science fiction on TV and Saturday matinees at the movies, I’d seen the “Tomorrowland” program on Disneyland with Werner von Braun, that went step by step through the history of rocketry, the problems that had to be solved in order to get into space, ending with an animated dramatization of the first manned space shot.

In school I read about the International Geophysical Year going on this year, and I was always looking for news about the satellite the U.S. hoped to rocket into orbit as part of it. I’d even heard one of the smartest men in America, the quiz show champion Charles van Doren, talk about it on a television documentary about the IGY. The newsman asked him if the Russians might orbit a satellite first. He just chuckled.

But now the Russians had. I had absorbed enough of the Cold War mentality to be alerted and perhaps a little afraid. I couldn’t think of anything to do but record my thoughts that moment in my brown school notebook:

"The Russians, Conquerors of Space. Oct.4, 1957. I have just heard some news which will affect my whole future. Russia has just successfully launched the first man-made satellite into space…How did the Russians do it? Out of their own ingenuity? Did they get information from a spy in America? A traitor? All the work our scientists and top brains did, what for? Will the Russians take advantage of this and use it to start a war?"

The technical achievement of humans sending a rocket into space to deliver an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth marked a monumental moment. For some, this very fact was profoundly shocking. “It is hard for people now to realize how stubbornly the idea of any form of space travel was opposed before that date," wrote Brian Aldiss, “and not only by the supposedly ignorant.”

But besides boys with stars in their eyes, many of those who had flown sophisticated aircraft high into the darkening sky, and those who had read and written science fiction, must have felt some universal thrill at the news. Gene Roddenberry of course had done all of those things (his proposal for a Science Fiction Theater episode the year before had been turned down, but the basic idea would someday recur in the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise-D.) He may well have noted that an important threshold had been crossed, from science fiction into reality that would transform the future.

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