Watching the Space Race: A Light in the October Sky

by Walt Staples

(Note from Karina:  Hooray!  Walt Staples is joining me in this blog.  He'll be posting on Saturday.  his first contributions will be about the history of the space race through the eyes of someone who grew up in it.  (I was born in '67, but my family was not into space much.))

The chill wind rattled dry leaves in the dark. The slightly darker shadow that was my father pointed into the blue-black Virginia sky, “There. See it?” I sighted up his arm as I did when he pointed out deer and other game when up on the Blue Ridge. A tiny white star crawled across the starfield much slower than the aircraft I was used to watching at night. “That's that Russian Sputnik thing,” his voice sounded  slightly disgusted, as when the problem with the TV was down to two tubes and neither looked burnt out.
“What's it doing, daddy?”
“Going over us, boy. And there's not a thing we can do about that.” He spat in the dark. We watched the light pass out of sight over Bent Mountain. He fumbled in his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. His frown showed as the Zippo flared. It wasn't his angry frown; rather, it was the one he wore while working something out in his mind.
The end of his Lucky Strike brightened a couple of times before I asked, “What are we going to do about it, daddy?”
I heard him sigh. Then the starlight glinted on his false tooth as he tipped his head to the side and grinned. “Well, boy, I guess we're going to pull up our socks and get to work on it.”
People today have no idea what a shock it was to those of us Americans living in 1957, when we were mugged by the space age courtesy of the Soviet Union and their 184 pound (83.6 kg) satellite, Sputnik I. I was six, going on seven (at that age, it's important), when it was launched at 19:28 GMT (22:28 local time at the launching site, Tyuratam in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic—present day Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan) on 4 October 1957. We civilians had no warning that anything of the sort was in the wind--especially not from someone like the Russians. Embarrassing to say, at that time a lot of Americans looked upon them as backward low-tech farmers. The fact that they'd dumbfounded us with the Mig 15 and tanks that our troops' antitank rockets bounced off of seven years before in Korea was ignored. The White House, however, was quite cognizant of the Soviets' progress thanks to reconnaissance overflights by CIA piloted U2s.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower had been happy to keep the knowledge of the Soviets' launch ability close to his chest as he watched them. A problem that he and his advisers wrestled with was how the Soviets would view overflights of their territory by non-Soviet satellites. Their reaction to aircraft overflights was violent. A number reconnaissance planes such as A-26s and RB-29s flying offshore over the Barents Sea and off the eastern U.S.S.R. had been shot down in the years since 1946, and the Soviets were trying their best to shoot down the U2s (something they would finally manage in 1960). That the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite solved Eisenhower's problem. Unfortunately, it also gave him a new one.
As the light moved across America's skies and the ham radio hobbyists listened to its beeps the few minutes it was above the horizons, the populace for the most part went ape. After the shock wore off, spaceflight, for Americans, went from old Buster Crabb “Flash Gordon” serials the kids spent a half hour watching on TV Saturday afternoons to very serious business indeed. Hour-long “white papers” were broadcast by the three television networks (something quite striking in an era of 30 minute shows), newspapers carried any number articles and editorials about America's slide to second place in the world (both the Roanoke Times and the Roanoke World-News managed at least one front section story per day and four or five editorials per week), and satellites popped up constantly on the radio during breakfast.
All was not lost though; the American people were promised an early Christmas present when Project Vanguard would launch its satellite on 6 December 1957 and put us back in the newly begun Space Race.

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lelia said...

Oh, I have such memories of my dad taking us girls out to look at the satellites. Minus the drama.

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