Posts Tagged ‘space’

Sputnik at 60

26 October 2017

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It is the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik this month, in 1957, the moment when the Soviet Union arrived at the peak of its power and influence. It was 40 years after the Revolution, and only 32 years to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Francis Spufford, who wrote Red Plenty, captured that moment this way:

This was the Soviet moment. It lasted from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 through Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight in 1961 and dissipated along with the fear in the couple of years following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962… But while it lasted the USSR had a reputation that is now almost impossible to recapture.

John Naughton shared the front page of the New York Times on his blog.

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In the UK, The Engineer devoted more than a page to it, with a refreshing disregard of any concessions to design or layout. (You can read the whole issue here, in pdf).

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NASA added a poem by the then Democrat Governor of Michigan, G. Mennen Williams (I say ‘poem’, but it would hardly have troubled the Pulitzer Prize judges that year), in which he complained that Soviet satellites were beeping away overhead while the President was busy playing golf.

Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it’s a Commie sky
and Uncle Sam’s asleep.

You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.

10 years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary, NPR broadcast a piece on songs that had been influenced by Sputnik. A lot of these are really good fun, but the one I enjoyed most was “Beep Beep!” by Louis Prima.

And finally, a more recent contribution to the genre from the British band Public Service Broadcasting.

As Spufford says in his article on the USSR’s Sputnik moment:

While the Soviet moment lasted, it looked like somewhere which was incubating a rival version of modern life: one which had to be reckoned with, learned from, in case it really did outpace the west, and leave the lands of capitalism stumbling along behind.

Which didn’t happen. Which didn’t happen so thoroughly that the way the Soviet Union seemed to be between 1957 and 1964 or thereabouts has been more or less displaced from our collective memory.

 

 

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Moment#9: The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

21 May 2017

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The technical name for a film like The Glass Bottom Boat is a “confection”. It is a vehicle for Doris Day to play Jennifer Nelson, a kooky and accident-prone youngish widow who gets a job in the PR department of a space lab that has developed a gravity simulator called GISMO. Day was 44 at the time, but looked 30-something thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. The boffin/genius (Bruce Templeton, played by Rod Taylor) who runs the lab falls in love with her, at which point she is suspected of being a Russian spy. Is is a spy spoof? Is it a romantic comedy? Frankly it’s impossible to tell, as you can see from a quick look at the trailer at the end of the post, or the poster at the top.

It was directed by Frank Tashlin, a well-regarded comedy director, towards the end of his career, and it made a profit.

What it definitely is, is of its time. In 1966, we’re only four years on from Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech, and a couple of years after a British Prime Minister had won an election on a slogan about the “white heat of technology”. We’re still in a moment when people can believe in the meaningful advance of technology, before the internet closed down our horizons.

This means that the boffin’s house has the kind of paleofuturist automated kitchen that used to come with a breathless Pathé voiceover, he has a motor boat driven by remote control (of course the remote control ends up in the water, with hilarious consequences), and the lab itself provides opportunities for some good gags and some excitable 1960s gee whizzery. And since it’s a vehicle for Doris Day, a couple of songs are shoe-horned in: the whimsical title track, and a quick reprise of her calling card, ‘Que Sera Sera‘.

The moment: a neat bit of set-up/pay-off in a slapstick sequence involving a cake and a waste bin. Man fixing the PA system at Templeton’s house for a big party accidentally steps on a big cake that Day has brought over. Trying to minimise the mess. she inserts his shoe and the remains of a cake into a waste bin, where it gets stuck. And then the ladder he’s standing on topples over. There follows some comic physical business as she tries to get his shoe back out again.

MAN (in overalls, with foot stuck in wastebin): You know something? You’re irritated with me, I’m irritated with myself [as Nelson/ Doris Day helps him to his feet]. It’s just a good thing that I didn’t fall into the pool, with my cold, that’s all.

At which point you know that sooner or later he’s going to end up in the swimming pool. And he does. But not until we’ve had a bit more slapstick involving some physical comedy, cake icing, and Day getting her foot stuck in the bin as well.

There’s a terrific visual gag at a party where the man from U.N.C.L.E.  Napoleon Solo pops up at a party, and then vanishes again. Blink and you’d miss it. As you also would if you’re younger than about 50.

Voskhod over Edinburgh

21 August 2016

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When I was seven, my father took my brother and I out onto the street outside our house to see a Soviet spacecraft whose orbit of earth took it directly over Edinburgh. I think I was seven, at least, but I could be wrong about that, and I think it was the autumn, and although I could check the details, that’s not the point, because this is about the memory. It still seems, at this distance, an other-worldly experience, a moment of wonder. It was still the age of Red Plenty, at a time when the Soviet Union was leading in the space race, before American arms expenditure bled the economy dry. But in truth, it wouldn’t have mattered much whose spacecraft it was; the wonder was because it was up there flashing across the sky and we were able to watch it from the street right outside of our house.

This memory is prompted by finding while tidying a poem I photocopied years ago which captures, more eloquently, the same sense of wonder. From memory, although the name is not on the photocopy, it’s by the Scottish poet Alan Bold, who died suddenly in 1998. Bold was interested in both radical politics and technology (and if I have this wrong, please let me know.) Judging from the internet, it also seems to be out of print, so I trust that the publishers will forgive me from reprinting it here.

On Seeing Voskhod Over Edinburgh

On a cold October night

Edinburgh’s sky was punctuated,

Not by a divine presence,

But by the stabbing cigarette-end-like apparition

Of three men in a spaceship.

I looked out from my house

In a hundred-year-old tenement

And felt that Komarov, Yegerov and Feoktistov

Were fellow travellers of mine.

For it’s a long way from Zazakhstan to Scotland

And it’s a long way my house is from Voskhod.

Yet I saw

The stabbing cigarette-end-like shape,

I watched as the red light flashed

Across the sky.

For four minutes we Scots saw

The scientific age in action.

And as we retreated back into our tenements

And thought once more of slums,

We also saw that an alternative existed.

(Alan Bold)

The image at the top of the post is from the website Spacefacts, and is used with thanks.