Look, Up In The Sky
Couldn't let the day pass without acknowledgement of one of the defining events of the 20th Century. For those who aren't already clued-in, today is the 50th Anniversary of the launch of Sputnik I, the first earth-orbiting artificial satellite.
Although this momentous event occured a full three years before I was born, the legacy of that tiny, beeping sphere nevertheless shaped a large portion of my upbringing. Not only was I quite literally reared on the sights and sounds of innumerable manned and unmanned rocket launches (some of my earliest memories, muddied though they may be in the loose temporality of a small child, are of sitting on my father's lap watching early Mercury lift-offs) resounding in my eyes and ears, but at the same time I was privvy to a significant cultural shift away from the omnipresent dread of "the nuclear nightmare" that defined much of the post-WW-II era, and toward Kennedy's now-famous "new frontier" of the 1960's. To say that I was born at the beginning of a new era in human history, presumptuous as it may sound, would not, I think, be inaccurate.
Of course, other geo-political and cultural issues came to the fore during that same period: our increasing military involvement in S.E. Asia; the counter-culture movement, and others, but for me, those pale in comparison. Space was the paradigm of the age in which I was born and grew up, and for those who know me well, it is still one of the things with which I most strongly define my sense of self.
I was less than six months old when Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin powered into orbit on the top of a Soviet R-7 rocket, essentially the same launch configuration that had put Sputnik into space three and a-half years previously. I probably saw (although it would be absurd to claim to remember) Alan Shepard's publically televised 15 minute sub-orbital flight mere weeks later. The same goes for John Glenn's February 1962 orbital mission.
But after that, the memories become clearer, sharper even as the frequency of such events accelerated with lighting speed: sitting in our ranch house outside Laramie, WY, watching later Mercury launches in glorious black-and-white; listening to CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite - to me, the veritable voice of the "space age" - describing Gemini missions, and of course culminating in that unforgettable July evening in 1969, sprawled in front of a color TV in the living room of our house in Lake Oswego, OR, while a grainy black-and-white image conveyed the ghostly form of a space-suited Neil Armstrong as he hopped down the ladder of his lunar module "Eagle" to take that first furtive "giant leap for Mankind".
Since then, there have of course been innumerable other triumphs, and tragedies - both for the Soviets and for ourselves - as we continue to take our first small steps off the planet we call home. And despite the complexities of international politics and the fickleness of public support, we endeavor to live up to the legacy left us by the herculean efforts of the likes of Korolev (a fascinating story, his, and one almost completely unknown to most people outside of the space fraternity) and von Braun, Gagarin, Glenn, Aleksei Leonov, Valentina Tereshkova, Ed White, Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, Lovell, Schmitt, Young, Crippen, Ride, Krikalev, McAuliffe, Yang, so many others, all of whom, like those of us born into the First Age of Space (but unlike them, destined to watch the skies from below) are children of the new era, born out of the fear and paranoia of the past, and destined, despite the backsliding of the less visionary among us, to continue to take "small steps" into the future.
All thanks to a little silver ball flung into the unknown on a column of smoke and flame a half century ago today.
Labels: astronauts, Space, sputnik
on 2:07 PM