I was just a few weeks away from my 8th birthday when my father sat me on his knee specifically to listen to our old radio spit out some strange sounds — “Beep. Beep. Beep.” Even through the static we knew we had never heard the like of it before.
On October 4th, 1957 — just fifty-nine years ago — the space age began with the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. I’m sure the surprise in the US was far greater than we felt in Europe. We Europeans were already terrified of the power of the grey beasts just a few hundred miles to the east of our cozy nest in West London. It seemed to many that Russian tanks could overrun Europe at any moment, and the technological genius of Sputnik simply confirmed our anxiety.
But again, there was always that secret spot inside that reveled in the fact that a European power had beaten the Americans into space. And for my socialist grandfather and his cadre of friends, it was yet another sign that the Workers’ Paradise was superior in every respect to the Mickey Mouse- and Doris Day-loving capitalists.
In the end, I’m sure this had little to do with the ultimate end of the Cold War. The costs of the space race were minuscule compared to the economy-shuddering trillions spent on the arms race by both sides. But without Sputnik and all that followed, we would be a very different and more distanced world today.