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Your Sputnik memories

NASA
CLICK FOR SLIDE SHOW
 Sputnik was a small
 sphere with a big impact.
 Click on the image to
 relive the start of the
 space age in pictures.


Now I know how post-Apollo kids feel. Just as some folks were born a little too late to remember what the moon landings were like as they happened, I was too young (3 years old, if you must know) to remember the initial impact of the Sputnik launch – an event that kicked off the space age 50 years ago this week.

A fresh batch of books and a couple of new movies can give you a sense of what it was like. But the best way to get that sense of Sputnik is to hear from those of you who remember those Cold War chills and thrills. And even if you're too young to remember Sputnik – or Apollo, for that matter – you can still share your thoughts on the past and future of space exploration.

My first space memory is of peering up into the night sky with my brothers from the backyard on our Iowa farm. We watched for the Echo 1 satellite to pass overhead, and looked forward to that futuristic day when telephone calls and TV signals could be sent routinely via space links.

Even by that time, we looked upon satellite technology as more of an opportunity than a threat – so the initial shock over Sputnik, such as it was, must have passed by that time. Instead, there was a strong push to beef up America's math and science training, and we definitely felt the benefit of that. Every one of the kids in our farm-raised family went on to science-related careers: a physicist, a biologist, a chemist, a physician and a black-sheep science journalist.

In a strange way, we were all the children of Sputnik.

As I said, I don't really remember 1957 all that well. But to get a sense of the shock and awe that people felt back then, you should look for the documentary film "Sputnik Mania," which presents footage of the launch and its aftereffects, as well as contemporary reminiscences.

It's a kick just watching the clips on the project's Web site – including the commentary for the launch footage, read with a Russian accent that would give Cold Warriors nightmares (and spark peals of laughter from Gen-Xers): "The great beast rises slowly from the earth. We are about to create a new planet that we will call Sputnik. It is small, this first satellite – but after it, we will launch others...."

Plenty of publications have come out with online packages about the space age, and I've been linking to some of them over the past few weeks. Here's a sampling:

You could fill a shelf with all the books that have been written about Sputnik and its impact, but several have come out just recently to mark the anniversary: "Red Moon Rising" by Matthew Brzezinski casts the story as a political thriller. "A Ball, a Dog and a Monkey" by Michael D'Antonio retells the tale with lively vignettes. "Epic Rivalry" by Von Hardesty and Gene Eisman recaps the space race as seen from both sides of the Iron Curtain (and features a foreword by Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Russia's Cold War leader). 

George Hales / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Five-year-old Linda Chapman stands in
a costume with a Sputnik theme beside
her toy rocket during a 1958 New Year's
Eve celebration.


"In the Shadow of the Moon" and "The Wonder of It All" are two recently released documentaries that pick up the story of the early space effort just after Sputnik. If you're looking for books that trace the post-Sputnik part of the story, you can't do better than the newly published "Live From Cape Canaveral," by NBC News' Jay Barbree (who got into the space journalism game with Sputnik) and Andrew Chaikin's classic work on the Apollo space effort, "A Man on the Moon" (with a new afterword written to mark the Sputnik anniversary).

Lots of coffee-table books trace the space age in pictures, but there are several recent additions worthy of note: "After Sputnik" serves as a virtual tour of highlights from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, guided by curator Martin Collins. "Space 50," by Piers Bizony, is also published by Smithsonian Books but takes a more thematic approach to the milestones of the past 50 years and the road ahead. "America in Space" (with a foreword by alpha moonwalker Neil Armstrong) is NASA's review of its own half-century, which will be officially celebrated next year.

If you need still more suggestions for your reading list, or viewing list, check out my Apollo recommendations from July.

Now it's your turn: If you remember Sputnik, I'd love to hear your tale – maybe it will jog my memory as a 3-year-old. If you've been touched by Sputnik's legacy, I want to hear about that, too. And if you're wondering what all the fuss is about, that's a good perspective to have as well.

Do you have additional suggestions for space-age reading or watching? Send 'em along! Feel free also to reflect on the future of space exploration as well as the past. We'll have more on that part of the story tomorrow.