Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite into space, forever altering the way we look into the skies and the world around us. On October 4, 1957, the beach ball-sized Sputnik was launched into orbit and the U.S.S.R. claimed victory in the “space race.”
The Russians clearly intended Sputnik as a ringing statement of their technological prowess and its military implications. But even they, it seems, had not foreseen the frenzied response their success provoked…. The Soviet press published a standard two-column report of the event, with a minimum of gloating. But newspapers in the West, particularly the United States, filled pages with news and analysis.
The import of the event was not lost on the Western hemisphere. They understood that the Soviet Union had initiated a rush to claim territory in a new colonial dash. Almost five hundred years earlier, most of Europe was clamoring for a piece of the “New World.” Now, however, space was the “new frontier” and the technological reputations of the world’s superpowers were on the line.
Within a month of the launch of Sputnik 1 the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, which contained the first space passenger, Laika the dog. Since a return to Earth was not figured into Sputnik 2’s mission, Laika gained further fame as the space age’s first martyr. As the humbled United States began ramping up its own space program, the response over the next several years and decades of the American public began to reflect NASA’s obsession with the skies. Space age toys began to appear and quickly supplanted the usual “cowboys and Indians” fare. Revolvers and bows gave way to laser guns and rocket ships. The ultra-American film genre—the western—saw less and less prominence and space and astronaut movies became the rage. The rough and tumble iconic hero of the fifties, John Wayne, was exchanged for an anonymous figure in a puffy white space suit. Art began to imitate life and pop culture would never be the same.
The relationship between art and real-life has been a much-studied discipline that continues to confound sociologists and cultural critics. While the relationship is never completely clear, we can certainly trace a symbiotic relationship between the two. When was the last time you watched a movie set in modern times that didn’t include the internet or cell-phones? Technology influences every facet of our daily lives and the speed of daily life is only a reflection of the speed of modern technology. Culture moves only as fast as its technology will allow, which brings us to another fiftieth anniversary of import.
In 1957, Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical book On the Road was released to much acclaim and fanfare. Kerouac’s book chronicles the adventures of a group of friends and freeloaders as told through the narrative eyes of Sal Paradise (supposedly Kerouac’s alter-ego). Inspired by equal parts of Hemingway and hemp, the Beat Generation—or beatniks as they became known—served as the counter-culture and the initial phase of the hippies. The beatniks (the name itself was inspired by Sputnik2) who met Sal along the way were ever in search of an escape and the perfect jazz riff. Although Kerouac’s book often reads like a breathless series of quests, Sal’s continuous cross-country meanderings and chance meetings with other like-minded vagabonds illustrate the limitations of the technology of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
If Sal Paradise were alive today, he’d be a product of the new rules. He’d be a grad student with an interest in power yoga, on the road to the M.L.A. convention with a documentary about a politically engaged Manitoban dance troupe that he hopes will win a MacArthur grant. He’d be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns.
Sal Paradise was limited in his access to information. He lived his life in a constant search for ways to escape it. His exploits and adventures “on the road” are an indication that 50 years ago real-life people needed to be in constant motion in order to escape the dross and responsibility of “grown-up” life. The distractions of the West Coast were only available by climbing into a car and driving 3000 miles from New York. For Kerouac the ride was the escape, the destination always ended up producing longing for the other coast. Sputnik was another distraction from the doldrums of real-life. It was a chance to hope for a different life, a different tomorrow with undreamed-of possibilities. Fifty years ago, escape came in the form of a book or a drive or a glance at the skies. Today, escape takes the form of fiber optics, server farms, and comfy computer chairs. Virtual reality and websites like SecondLife.com are taking escape to dizzying new levels. But that will have to wait until next week.
John Noble Wilford, “With Fear and Wonder in Its Wake, Sputnik Lifted Us Into the Future,” New York Times, Sept 25, 2007.
 Sputnik – wikipedia
 David Brooks, “Sal Paradise at 50,” New York Times, October 2, 2007.