No, Out of the Cradle is not that old. But on October the fourth, the Space Age will be. Thursday this coming week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik-1, the world’s first artificial satellite. Just a small silver ball with four long antennae and a pair of beeping radio transmitters, it blasted into space from the Kazakh steppes of the Soviet Union aboard an R-7 Semyorka ballistic missile. It could be seen gliding across the night sky from most of the surface of the Earth. Its appearance in the heavens marked one of those time-frozen moments when, while everyone gazed upward and wondered, the world changed.
Sputnik-1 heralded the beginning of a race in space that would culminate, less than twelve years later, with the landing of the first human beings on the Moon. But when it happened, its meaning was more pointed – and fearful. The Soviet Union had demonstrated, in a peaceful but unmistakable way, that it possessed a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to any point on the surface of the Earth. And you had only to look up at night, or tune in a ham radio, to know that it was true. The launch of Sputnik was the cold war’s Pearl Harbor. The Soviet demonstration of capability only became more pointed, four days later, with the successful test of a massively powerful hydrogen bomb.
There’s a new documentary film coming out called Sputnik Mania. It details the shock that began the space age with interviews and footage never seen before. OotC is getting a copy soon, and I’ll post a review.
In the meantime, have a think about where the last fifty years in space have taken us. As for the next fifty, one way or another, I suspect they will look a lot different.