The Red Rocket's Glare
John Williams of Melbourne, Florida, was having trouble with his garage door. The damn thing was opening by itself at all hours of the day and night. The first time it happened, at 2:00 A.M., he woke up and thought someone was trying to steal his car. He grabbed his gun, ran outside, but found no one. He assumed the thief had fled.
Then it happened again. And again.
It finally dawned on him that something must be wrong with the electronic mechanism that opened the door. He called the firm that installed it and explained the problem. They said not to fret. It was happening to loads of people lately. It was all due to that Russian thing in the sky, you know, Sputnik. That satellite was broadcasting on the same frequency as some remote control garage door openers. Williams put down the phone and pondered one of the weirdest conversations he'd had in his life. He couldn't figure out whether to be relieved—or scared.
Sputnik arrived at a time when the news was already consistently gloomy. Grisly murders dominated the nightly news. A flu epidemic in 1957 would eventually kill 70,000 across the United States. In Little Rock, Arkansas, tensions were high due to the enforcement of new integration legislation at Central High School. Americans were already feeling despondent, even before the arrival of that Russian thing in the sky.
At the New York public library, staff noticed an unusual demand for articles on rocketry and for the works of Jules Verne.1 The American Rocket Society claimed that, because of Sputnik, the ranks of amateur rocketeers had swelled to more than 10,000. At hospitals around the country, emergency room doctors encountered an astonishing number of young boys who had been injured while playing with their potentially lethal toys.* The problem got so bad that the state of New Jersey attempted to ban the hobby.2
* The society reported 162 injuries during the period June to December 1958 (NASA
History Office, Folder 6718).