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Out With the Old Space Age, In with the New

Sixty years ago on October 4, 1957, much of the world was surprised to learn of a new orb a couple hundred miles over their heads. It was the first artificial moon, a satellite launched by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Many went out to watch it pass over (though what they most likely saw was not the beeping satellite per se, but the upper stage that had placed it in orbit). Sputnik heralded the beginning of “the space age” (what future historians will likely rename the “Government Space Age”).

It was an historical but also cultural and political event.

Politically, it raised awareness of the need to educate students in math and science, and resulted in new programs to do so, with “new math” in the 1960s. Ultimately, a few years later, it created the Apollo program to send men to the moon, though the purpose was not to actually open up space, but to beat the Russians at something that was considered, technologically, as vital to national security.

In culture, German rocket designer Wernher von Braun had collaborated with Colliers magazine and Disney earlier in the decade to prepare the American public for the coming age of spaceflight, but the first actual satellite gave what had been considered a science-fiction concept a shiny new sheen of reality. Despite the fear engendered by the Soviets beating us into space, which was accentuated a month or so later with their launch of a dog into orbit, the nation went space crazy, particularly after our own success with Explorer 1 in January of 1958.

The craze encompassed movies, television, fashion, and branding in general. Restaurants beckoned diners with neon rotating satellite(ish) signs. Many roadside motels all over the country, and not just in Florida or California, adopted a space theme (some of them have survived to this day). Even gas stations got into the act. Cars had begun to sprout tail fins in the 1940s for no function other than the conveyance of a sense of modernity and speed, and the new space age continued that trend. Fashion designers imagined (sometimes ridiculously) what people would be wearing at the end of the 20th century.

In popular culture, the craze gave us, among many other things The Jetsons, Barbarella, Plan 9 From Outer Space (which many contend is director Ed Wood’s greatest achievement, as the worst movie ever made), Lost In Space and, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s (and Arthur C. Clarke’s) classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the sixties, despite the Vietnam war, assassinations, and the riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit and other places, astronauts were on their way to the moon. It was a time of hopefulness for the future, with dreams of moon bases and Mars trips in the coming decades.