Fifty years ago today, Russia launched “Sputnik.” I feel underqualified in elaborating on just how much this event shaped the American culture. But I do know the impact was huge.
I wasn’t alive when it happened, but Americans felt a mix of wonder and fear. Some people were outside with binoculars trying to get a glimpse of the thing. On the other hand, the Russians were being demonized by our media, and this basketball-sized orb generated enough fear to propel us into the space race. Sputnik became an icon for something akin to vermin, as evidenced by the -nik extension put on new words to give them a negative slant (i.e. beatnik, no-goodnik, peacenik, etc.)
So Sputnik was seen as a bad thing. It spawned–in parallell, the tools of war that might destroy us, and the space technology that may one day save us.
And now, fifty years later, the technology that Sputnik represents could almost be replicated by a high school science class. In fact, I would argue that it probably could, if that class had the funding and the focus. Fifty years is not much time, but it has accomplished a hell of a lot.
Welcome to the space age.