Space Opinion

Remembering Sputnik: How a shiny, metal ball changed the world

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Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957 (Sputnik image via Carlos Moreno Rekondo | Wikimedia Commons, background via Kisenok |

In 1957, Russia launched the first human-made satellite that started the space race and carried a legacy throughout technology and pop culture, writes Harry Johnston.

NOSTALGIA IS A TRAP for the sentimental, but reports about two terrestrial objects sending data back to Earth from the outer reaches of the cosmos focused my mind on the extraordinary changes I’ve witnessed in my life.

We know these craft as Voyager 1 and 2. The former passed by the planets Uranus and Neptune, while NASA woke the latter after it fell silent, over four billion miles across the stillness of space.

Is it possible to wake up a spacecraft? How is the signal transmitted? Is it audible? Surely not. Sound doesn’t resonate in a vacuum, but I recall hearing a transmission from space, courtesy of a crystal set built by my bumbled-fingered father.

Crystal sets use a natural galena crystal and other miscellaneous parts to detect broadcast audio. I fiddled with a tuner, carefully listened through a set of clunky Bakelite headphones and heard an astonishing repetitive beep. The space race had begun. The date is 4 October 1957, when a polished metal sphere completed a 21-day orbit of our planet.

Sputnik 1’s rotation marked a new era and tightened the ratchet on the Cold War. On this day, citizens of Planet Earth, fortunate enough to own a radio – in my case, a crystal set –uttered a collective gasp.

When the 58-centimetre sphere entered a low elliptical orbit, our self-perception changed forever. Emitting a single watt of power, Sputnik marked the literal end of one period of human history and the beginning of another. The enduring cultural impact of this remarkable technological achievement deserves appraisal.

The United States, inspired by this football-sized satellite, started its own endeavour, which triggered the space race.

A few years after Sputnik, the Soviets again trumped the United States when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. The day: 12 April 1961.

I implored my cantankerous father, busy trying to make my crystal set work properly, to buy a set of Gagarin postage stamps, which, if mint, would today be worth a pretty pack of kopecks.

“Communist,” father snorted.

The following month, Alan Shepard earned the moniker First American in Space, but it was the clean-shaven and crewcut astronaut John Glenn who emulated Gagarin’s feat on 20 February 1962.

Addressing students at Rice University in September of the same year, President John F Kennedy said:

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

A decade later in 1979 and two years after the liftoff of Voyager 1, American author Tom Wolfe declared Shepard and Glenn et al had The Right Stuff. Yuri Gagarin and his comrades apparently did not.

Sputnik spawned a new category of heroes. The Soviet cohort, led by Gagarin, bore the prefix “cosmo” —  their American counterparts, “astro”.

Sputnik emboldened me to scour the dictionary for words beginning with both prefixes. Cosmology, cosmos and cosmonaut entered my lexicon, alongside astronomical, astrodome, astrobiology and astronautics, to cite a few.

In 1963, Japanese youth shared the global passion for shiny space-age newness, when Astro Boy took artistic flight off the pages of manga comics and onto black-and-white television screens.

Around the world, designers, advertisers – especially for Campari – graphic artists, furniture and light makers and others, drew inspiration from the tiny orb. Meanwhile, in the good ol’ U.S. of A, Sputnik breathed life into a genre of speculative pulp fiction, written in the preceding decades.

Science fiction rocketed into a favoured form of escapism and, in a few years, its well-thought-out screenplays became a night-time television staple in programmes such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek. Not to be outdone, Hollywood’s second-tier film studios churned out forgettable gems such as From The Earth to the Moon in 1958,  while in April the next year, Ed Wood released his schlock-horror masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space.

The monotonous beeping Sputnik, monitored and re-broadcast by ham radio operators, became a tone poem for authors of the calibre of Philip K Dick, Ursula Le Guin and Arthur C Clarke. And while Gene Roddenberry died before dreaming up the sophistication of an astrometric lab, courtesy of an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, I’m confident he would’ve approved its creation.

Stanley Kubrick produced and directed Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 to the accompaniment of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss and new music by the Austro-Hungarian contemporary composer György Ligeti.

In the meantime, in a mysterious cosmos far, far away, Sputnik inspired Soviet writers and artists to dream dreams of a serene, egalitarian space, populated by a fragile humanity.

In 1972, Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky launched his fictional film Solaris to the strains of JS Bach and the accompaniment of the electro-sonics of the Soviet composer Eduard Artemyev.

As I sat in the Lido cinema in downtown Sydney watching Solaris, I imagined wandering the corridors of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a few kilometres from the snow-shrouded Magnitogorsk, the fictional home of Magneto of X-Men fame. Solaris epitomised an art space that I naively believed flourished behind the weirdness of an Iron Curtain.

But by 1971, the same year of Solaris’ cinematic release, the impact of Sputnik slipped from popular consciousness thanks in part to the pop song Starman taken from David Bowie’s album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Who could compete with lyrics such as: “Keep your electric eye on me, babe, put your ray gun to my head”? And Artemyev’s electro-plunking didn’t stand a chance against Mick Ronson’s soaring guitar licks. For chronologically challenged readers, this pop milestone, released in 1972,  is well over 50 years old.

As the third decade of the 21st Century edges deeper into space, the cultural manifestations of “the final frontier” owe an incalculable debt to a tiny device that carried onboard technology similar to the gubbins inside my crystal set. Sputnik’s Soviet developers could only dream of the slew of high-tech gizmos, such as drones, now on sale at stores near you, for about $200.

What price nostalgia, eh?

Henry Johnston, an Australian short story writer, author, essayist and poet worked as an ABC Radio producer, a speechwriter and a senior policy adviser.

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Remembering Sputnik: How a shiny, metal ball changed the world

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