Singing Alone in the October Sky

bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip. bip.

On October 4, 1957, the first thing to ever leave earth, did. It was at once a hope for the future for all people and a democidal threat. Such were the ways of the Cold War.

All over the earth, people could tune their radios to the “bip. bip. bip. bip,” as it swung overhead. They could marvel at the intellect that it took to make such a thing happen. And they could hope that such a thing would never be used in anger because there would be no defense against a falling star.

As it turns out, there was an ironic defense: the space race meant that, to a large extent, the United States and the Soviet Union spent energies on exploration and understanding that they could have spent incinerating each other. For those of us outside the cabals of corrupt power, that means us. There were a few dozen men, old imperialists all, commanding whether we lived or died. They gave us a century of hideous, brutal, industrial war, in which our great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and siblings have died. But they also gave us Sputnik to give us hope, the patronizing bastards.

Sputnik was a thing of beauty. It showed us that Earth is a place, and we live in that place, and the Universe is vast — maybe we shouldn’t shit where we eat. The “night sky” is like a movie screen; removed, distant, unmoving, simple. But to look up and see machines that have been thrown there using explosions and insicive thought, that gives perspective. They’re there, 20 miles away, 100 miles away, 500 miles away, and you can see them. They’re things that people have built, sometimes held together with duct tape and courage alone. Soon, the X-Prize participants will start their attempts at landing their robots on the moon, expanding the project from imperialist saber rattling to human curiosity — the love of the unknown.

Sputnik’s orbit completely decayed in January of 1958, having accumulated enough friction with the occasional air molecule that it slowed until the number of air molecules was large enought to melt and burn the watermelon-sized spacecraft into gases, bringing its parts all home to Earth. But while the machine was gone, the knowlege remained: the Universe is vast and we can go see it. As a symbol, Sputnik will orbit for the life of our civilization.

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