Christopher H. Sterling, Series Editor
George Washington University
In October 1957, I was one of thousands across the country watching the early evening skies for signs of something new in space—the Russian Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, launched earlier that month. We could make out the tiny moving satellite orbiting just high enough to reflect the setting sun. It would streak across the visible sky in just a few moments on its 90-minute orbits around the earth, but at least we could see this latest step in heading for the stars. Then just entering high school, I was too young to understand how the Russian's surprise launch of this pioneer struck the Washington, DC, military and policy communities. Nor did I realize then that Arthur C. Clarke had predicted orbiting “rocket stations” (communication satellites) in a British journal just a dozen years earlier, although he thought decades might pass before the first appeared. Years later, I saw a replica of the basketball-sized Sputnik at the United Nations, a gift of the proud nation that launched it.
Space travel and communication were hugely exciting things in the 1950s. Many of us had grown up with the other-worldly paintings of space travel by Chesley Bonestell illustrating the pages of weekly magazines and a subsequent series of popular books, including The Conquest of Space (1949), Across the Space Frontier (1952), and Conquest of the Moon (1953). Science fiction stories and novels, articles predicting space travel, and movies were all the rage. In an era of relatively slow propeller-driven airliners and jet fighter aircraft, the idea of space satellites or traveling was positively energizing.