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When Sputnik went ballistic

As its 61st anniversary approaches it is worth pondering the lasting impact on popular culture of a polished metal sphere whose 21-day orbit ushered in the space race and tightened the ratchet on the cold war. The sphere, known as Sputnik, marked the commencement of a new era.

On the 4th October 1957, citizens of the planet fortunate enough to own a radio, myself among them, uttered a collective gasp. The Soviet Union launched the world’s first spacecraft. named Sputnik 1, the 58-centimetre sphere, passed into an elliptical low orbit and forever changed earth’s perception of itself.

Sputnik, which emitted a single watt of power and is written thus in Russian, Простейший Спутник, marked the literal end of one period and the beginning of another.

The successful launch more than 60 years ago of this remarkable example of Soviet technology, is an event worthy of a brief analysis of its lasting cultural impact.

The football-sized satellite emboldened the United States to launch its own venture, which triggered the space race and a concomitant influence on popular culture.

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

I recall imploring a cantankerous father to buy a set of Gagarin postage stamps which if mint, would today be worth a pretty pack of kopecks.

“Communist,” he snorted.

The following month Alan Shepard earned the moniker First American in Space, but it was the clean-shaven and crew-cut astronaut John Glenn who emulated Gagarin’s feat on 20 February 1962. More than a decade later in 1979 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 post-war children to throw away treasured Davy Crockett coonskin hats, and scour the dictionaries for words commencing with both prefixes. Cosmology, cosmos and cosmonaut entered the lexicon alongside astronomical, Astrodome, astrobiology and astronautics, to name a few.

In 1963 Japanese youth shared the global passion for shiny space-age newness, by empowering Astro Boy to take artistic flight from the pages of manga, onto the black and white screens of nascent television.

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 ole’ US of A Sputnik breathed life into a genre of silly, speculative pulp, written in the preceding decades.

Science Fiction rocketed into a favoured form of escapism when it ‘slipped the surly bonds’ of penny dreadful novels and become a night-time television staple.

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

Stanley Kubrick produced Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 to the accompaniment of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, the Blue Danube Waltz 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, with the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, its locus.

In 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky launched the fictional Solaris, Солярис in Cyrillic, (also spelt Solyaris) to the strains of J.S. Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, and the electrosonics of Soviet composer Eduard Nikolayevich Artemyev.

As I sat in the Lido cinema located in a forgotten quarter of downtown Sydney, I imagined wandering the corridors of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a few kilometres from the snow-shrouded Magnitogorsk, a locale I thought the home of Magneto of X Men fame. Солярис, Solyaris epitomised an art-space which I naively believed flourished behind the weirdness of the Iron Curtain.

In the same year of Solaris’ cinematic release, the impact of Sputnik began to slip from popular consciousness thanks to the song Star Man from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Artemyev’s electro plunking did not stand a chance against Mick Ronson’s soaring guitar licks. For chronologically challenged readers this pop milestone, written by David Bowie, is now 46 years old.

So as the second decade of the 21st-century edges to a conclusion, books, films, comics and a myriad of other cultural manifestations of ‘space, the final frontier’, owe an incalculable debt to a tiny device which carried less onboard technology than a $200 drone.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus and other stories is available at https://tasmania-40-south.myshopify.com/products/last-voyage-of-aratus-the-by-henry-johnston-pb


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  1. David Bruce

    Interesting article! Four years after Sputnik I was learning to fly. Later I found the transcripts and tapes from Peter Beter. His reports of space activities and the issues of the South Georgia Islands during the Falklands War were riveting. Regrettably, very little of this information was ever published in the consensus media

  2. John Holmes

    Not widely appreciated now was the panic the the USSR was technologically more advanced cf the USA.
    This had the impact of greater investment in education. A side effect of this was to heighten the concern by some very Conservative Protestants that Science was dominating and threatening their theology of a a Creation of Young Earth.

    The Scopes Monkey Trial was an attempt to force the repeal of laws which made it illegal to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

    This fight over the separation of religion and State continues, as well as the promotion of “Young Earth Creationism” in some denominations continues. I would suggest that this argument is part of the reason for the decline of the numbers of committed Christians today. The attitude of imposing beliefs on others as in the LGBT and Abortion issues is currently part of the dispute re the appointment of a new Judge in the USA whom some hope will make abortion much more difficult to obtain.

  3. Rossleigh

    It would be an interesting study to plot the genre of Hollywood movies through the decades. What percentage were musicals, cowboy, detective, war, science fiction and so on. Obviously, the sixties would make a bit of a turning point where studios went from making mostly myths about the past to the myths about the future.

  4. wam

    The spectre of sputnik spurred a septic slump but dwight didn’t and science won a revival.
    Ming did even better winning a couple of more elections with his commo scare tactics but also did well with science eventually doubling the CSIRO.
    It certainly brought my dad back a bit from the despair of finding out about uncle joe.(gagarin completed the revival)

    As for the drones that have led us through howard, the rabbott, trumball and the latest ‘under a $100’ christian nutter poor old science wont get a run, Even wikipedia is not into female scientists and refused to take on donna strickland bet the son of a small car hasn’t heard of her as she is clearly not intellectually subservient and may not defer to politicians, churchmen and hybrids.

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