Once the Soviet Union had sent a smart, shiny ball spinning into orbit beyond the earth’s atmosphere 50 years ago, nothing could be the same again. As the Sputnik climbed up out of the sphere of gravity on October 4, 1957, the United States of America was seized by insecurity and the world by a dizzying vista of endless possibility. In the midst of the Cold War, the Russians flaunted their technological superiority and potential military prowess. But for humankind it was also something else: a magical gesture of breaching frontiers that was caught in Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, as an apeman threw a spinning bone-club into the air and it changed, in a poetic moment, into a spaceship. The flight of the Sputnik symbolizes one of those extraordinary moments that influenced not just politics and global power-play, missile technology and espionage methods, but also the history of discovery and communication, as well as literature, painting, music and architecture, adventure, romance, the imagination, shapes, and dreams.
The insecurity about the Russians’ technological superiority drove the US into frenzied activity, which is how the Sputnik inaugurated the space race. Among US activities were the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, new education methods for a new generation of engineers, which also gave birth to to the concept of “new math”, the Polaris missile programme, and a vast increase in funding for scientific research. Kubrick’s film was made in 1968, when it is already possible to capture in one image a whole history of dramatic, unprecedented change, although the foundations for it were being laid steadily in both countries for years before 1957. Hostile competition — the fear of a better missile or a better satellite on the other side — spurred the US and the Soviet Union to rev up human achievement to an unthinkable pace. In 1969, Neil Armstrong was to take that little step that was a giant leap for mankind. The space race would fade away by 1975 after a series of explorations by both countries. Today there is only admiration for those who made it, from Yuri Gagarin to Sunita Williams, and sorrow for those who did not. But neither knowledge, nor its materials, can ever be the same again.
This can be said of the imagination too. From the space-rock movement in the mid-Sixties to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, from comic books and toys to the most commonplace images of physical freedom, nothing has remained unaffected. That is quite a distinguished trail for a shiny little ball turning fifty. The many traditions it inaugurated are still as lively as ever. Laika, the first dog in space, may have died and Belka and Strelka, up beyond air in 1960, may have survived. But now, as Indians wait to go to the moon, 10 little gerbils are also waiting to set off for a 12-day stint on Mars. May they have Belka’s luck, not Laika’s.