There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Friday, September 28, 2007

Sputnik on the bus

Finished reading Paul Dickson's "Sputnik: The shock of the century," the story of the first man-made object to orbit Earth, the shot that launched the Space Age.

"Listen now," said the NBC radio network announcer on the night of October 4, 1957, "for the sound that forevermore separates the old from the new."
That's how the book starts, and since I'm not limited to the boundaries of paper, I offer you the opportunity to " listen now ."

I need to explain why I picked this book up when I found it in a discard pile at work.

"That's the only time I ever saw your father drunk," my mother would explain whenever the topic of drunkenness came up. Since I had never seen my father drink, let alone get drunk, it was always an interesting tale. My parents divorced when I was 9.

"We were at a party," she would say, "and he was three-sheets to the wind." This was a term for nautical inebriation that confuses me to this day, having done my drunken sailoring in the days of turbine-powered propulsion, but maybe it explained what drunkenness looked like in 1957 before the night sky was full of real flying objects.

"Your father," my mother would say with great delight, "was holding his tie out in from of him and spinning around, going 'Beep. Beep. Beep. I'm Sputnik.' "

Sometimes she would embellish the tale and put a lamp shade on his head, but my father saying "beep, beep, beep" has echoed over the years.

Dickson's book was originally published in 2001, but it is being re-issued this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Space Age. The book is an easy read, covering the history of rocketry from the black powder fireworks of China through the German war machine to America and the Soviet Union with just enough physics to appreciate why satellites don't just fall back to Earth:
"Newton believed if the apple could be thrown fast enough, the downward curve of the apple's path would match the curve of the Earth's surface. In a sense, the Earth would be a moving target, continually dropping away before the apple fell far enough to hit the ground. Sputnik stayed up for the same reason the Moon does -- the pull of the Earth's gravity and the velocity of the satellite were perfectly balanced. Like the Moon, Sputnik had too much velocity to fall to Earth but not enough to break away from Earth's gravity."
Or as Buzz Lightyear might explain, we can call this "falling with style."

One aspect of the Sputnik history that surprised me was the role President Eisenhower played. At the time, of course, he was blamed for America's failure to be first in space. But it turns out that in the climate of the Cold War it was very important that the Soviets launch first.

It is hard to imagine now, when we have thousands of satellites orbiting Earth, but there was a very real question of whether the space above a country could be held off limits in the same way aircraft can be prohibited from overflying countries. And the issue was of critical importance to the United States since the year before, on July 4, 1956, America had started its super-secret high-altitude U-2 spy plane flights over Soviet territory. The United States needed to establish the concept of "open skies," the principle that a satellite orbiting Earth didn't violate anyone's sovereignty. And the president felt America needed to allow the Soviets to establish that principle more than America needed to be first in space.
"Sputnik gave President Eisenhower his 'open skies,' paving the way for reconnaissance satellites that later played a major role in the U.S. commitment to nuclear disarmament. Eisenhower was not the do-nothing president he often has been portrayed to be. Instead he was the quiet unsung hero of the Sputnik crisis, calmly leading the nation through a period of intense uncertainty, Cold War escalation, and rancorous rivalry among branches of his own armed forces."
The next time you get help with turn-by-turn directions from your in-car GPS navigation system while listening to XM satellite radio, remember that it all started with "beep, beep, beep."

1 comment:

Paul Dickson said...

Paul Dickson here--you got it right about IKE. Others read the book and come away thinking he slept thru his Presidency. Lemme get this straight. You find a book in ye olde discard pile at work and read it and then review it well. Is this a great country or what? See my website if you care to hear the beep sputnikbook.net. --Paul Dickson