SOVIET FIRES EARTH SATELLITE INTO SPACE; IT IS CIRCLING THE GLOBE AT 18,000 M.P.H.; SPHERE TRACKED IN 4 CROSSINGS OVER U. S. Thus read the New York Times headline 56 years ago.
On this day, October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched an artificial Earth Satellite into an elliptical low Earth orbit. Surprising everyone, it precipitated the Space Age, which triggered the Space Race, and created additional Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1957 through 1975.
For a 10 year old 5th grader living in a small farming community in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, this sounded exciting and interesting. There was considerable discussion between neighbors, parents and grandparents over the Soviet Union’s success, and what it could mean to the US; however, I was intrigued with news that a machine flying through space was sending radio signals back to Earth, and those transmissions could be picked up by amateur radio operators. I was not sure what that actually meant, but I owned a transistor radio, and every night for the 22 days radio pulses were transmitted, I lay in bed with its one earphone in place, waiting patiently to hear Russian radio pulses from space.
I heard the usual talking, country music, and a lot of static, but not one thing sounding Russian. It was not disappointing, though, because knowing it was up there was enough. Even though I could not see it, nor hear it, the satellite’s presence provided me a sense of connection with another part of the world. I was 10, did not have to fight any enemies or wars, cold or otherwise, and at last had evidence there were other places, other people who lived beyond the reaches of my little world.
I realized early on that my hometown, bordered by peach and almond orchards, rivers, and miles of alfalfa fields, in its pastoral simplicity, was as necessary to my well being as the air I breathed. But, I wanted more, and believed I could achieve it, even while my soul remained firmly anchored to home.
I did eventually leave my valley town, traveled adventure’s road, and back again; thanks in no small part to a 23 inch in diameter, metal sphere, with 4 radio antennae, zooming overhead, filling a little girl’s mind with what dreams could come. And it’s name was Sputnik.