Thursday, October 4, 2007

Sputnik Turns 50

It was on this date fifty years ago that the U.S.S.R. launched the satellite Sputnik 1. Sputnik 1 was absolutely primitive by today's standards. Despite that fact, its launch caused a furore in the United States, which has assumed it was ahead when it came to the development of space technology.

Indeed, in his book Danse Macabre Stephen King talks about how he was at a Saturday matinee when the theatre's manager stopped the show to announce that the Russians had launched a satellite into orbit. The response the manager received was essentially stunned silence and then utter disbelief. This was the reaction of many Americans. As for the United States government, I think it is safe to say that the launch of Sputnik 1 kick started the United States space programme. After all, it was only less than a year afterwards, on July 29, 1958, that Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act,bringing into being the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. It was the beginning of the Space Race, in which the two superpowers competed in achievements of space exploration.

Despite the impact the launch of Sputnik 1 had on the American public and the American government. it did not seem to have much impact on American pop culture. Much of this may have been because paranoia about the Soviet Union had already infiltrated American pop culture to a large degree. After all, this was the era of The Thing and Invasion From Mars. With regards to American pop culture, the primary contribution that the launch of Sputnik 1 made was in reinvigourating the American space programme. And it would the American space programme that would have a huge impact on American pop culture in the Sixties.

Its effects were felt as early as 1959, when the Disney series Men into Space aired. That series sought to realistically portay space travel in the near future. Eventually science fiction style plots would appear in sitcoms ranging from Gilligan's Island to The Monkees. A few sitcoms would even have Space Age themes--My Favourite Martian, My Living Doll, and I Dream of Jeannie (while Jeannie was a genie, Major Nelson was, after all, an astronaut). It would be the Space Race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. that would inspire such TV series as Lost in Space and the legendary show Star Trek. Its impact on movies in the Sixties would be less--the only major movie of the Sixties to centre on space was 2001: a Space Odyssey. Of course, that movie would help legitimise science fiction in film, thus paving the way for such movies as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

The effects of the launch of Sputnik 1 can still be felt today. While we might have an American space programme without Sputnik, it might not be as far along as it is now. And without an American space programme that made amazing advances in the Sixties (including ulitmately landing on the moon), we might not have such series as Star Trek or such movies as the Star Wars franchise. In a strange sort of way, we owe a lot to a primitive, beach ball sized satellite.

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