Sputnik Dreams

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik on this day in 1957. This was the starting pistol for the space race — a race, laments Marina Benjamin in Rocket Dreams (2003), that turned out to be more of a sprint than a marathon.

Benjamin’s book is both a memoir and an investigation of what happened to “the utopian, escapist, and conquistadorial hopes that originally enlivened the effort to put humans in space and meant so much to a generation of Space Age dreamers like me.” In the early 1950s, Benjamin documents, the popular magazines were explaining “The World’s First Space Suit: How and Where We’ll Use It,” and Arthur C. Clarke, in The Exploration of Space, was wondering, “What will we dowhen we get there?” By the early ’70s, the Apollo program was in shutdown mode and the space dreamers were suffering from reality check:

Though, at first, the rapid development of space technology fueled our dreams, the more we knew the less possible it all seemed, until, through the workings of some strange inverse law, the Space Age ended up demonstrating the limits of technology to create a new Eden. In spite of all the bullish talk of cosmic mastery and neoparadisiacal colonies, space continued to elude us and to preserve its essential mystery.

But the Space Age, in particular the photographs that came from the Apollo and later Voyager programs, at least helped to inspire the Age of Aquarius and the environmental movement. If the ironic legacy of the race into space is the race to save Planet Earth from self-destruction, that goal would get a boost, Benjamin argues, from the launch of Triana, the mothballed Al Gore project now known as the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). The observatory would not only gather essential information on global warming and other problems but be a planetary webcam, sending back live images and fulfilling “its Gaian charter”:

For my own part, as a Space Age dreamer who is left having to accommodate myself to our own world, much like the Apollo astronauts themselves, I’d like to see Triana launched. For one thing, it neatly subverts the traditional apparatus of surveillance in order to create a public resource…something that approaches humanity’s Third Eye. Too far away to spy on us and invade our privacy, Triana would nonetheless be close enough to produce images to tug at our heartstrings and perhaps even boost our flagging belief in humanity’s collective potential.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.