Thursday, October 04, 2007

A lot of attention this 50th anniversary of Sputnik has focused on its role in beginning the Space Age. It did that, at least for adults. 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 science fiction writer and historian Brian Aldiss, “and not only by the supposedly ignorant.”

But kids like me had been living in the Space Age for years. I’d grown up with Captain Video, and then Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, one after the other on Saturday mornings. There were science fiction movies nearly every week at the local theatre. And right there on my desk, in my notebook with the brown cover, was a science fiction story I was writing, called "The Desert Menace."

Certainly for me as well as for imaginative adults in America, the reality of Sputnik was a cause for wonder and excitement. But it was something I was looking forward to, even expecting. I learned about rockets and space travel from Disneyland's "Tomorrowland" hour. And I knew from Scholastic Magazine in school that the U.S. was planning to rocket a satellite into orbit as part of the International Geophysical Year—sometime between the summer of 1957 and the end of 1958.

But I wasn't prepared for the Russians doing it first. 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 interviewing him asked if the Russians might orbit a satellite first. He just chuckled. Years later, of course, van Doren admitted that on “The 64 Thousand Dollar Question,” he’d been given the answers.

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