October 4th, to many of us, was simply another stress-filled day of midterms. However, 65 years ago, it marked the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, shattering the illusion of America’s supposed superiority. With the single press of a button, the space race began and the world expanded.
Nowadays the sky seems to be speckled with more man-made objects than stars: planes, space stations, rovers. However, in 1957, Sputnik––which in my mind only conjures up images of potatoes—became the first man-made object to enter space. Meanwhile, down on Earth, Americans scrambled to reclaim their place at the forefront of technology. A year later, the organization whose logo is now plastered on t-shirts and jackets alike at the nearest Target came into being: NASA. Unlike the multitude of acronyms at Yale, which no one can ever seem to remember, NASA is imprinted in the minds of individuals across the world.
With Sputnik already making its rounds in space, NASA had no choice but to one-up the Soviets and go to the moon. But once again, the Soviet Union beat the Americans to it, sending up satellite Luna 1 in January 1959 and then Luna 2 in September—as if one wasn’t enough. Then, less than four years after Sputnik, the Soviet Union really went above and beyond—literally—and sent the first man into space: Yuri Gagarin. Yes, before good old Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, Yuri Gagarin was holding onto his seat belt for dear life, probably regretting most of his life decisions, as he broke through the stratosphere and faded into the darkness of space. Nevertheless, after a couple more years of tinkering, America finally got it right and sent the first two men to the moon, taking “one small step for man, but one large step for mankind,” a phrase, which, if we are being honest, probably took Armstrong the whole journey to come up with.
Tonight if you look up at the night sky, you could probably see one of the 2,000 satellites that are currently in orbit. But what is the point? Why launch hunks of metal into the sky? Why send up monkeys and humans and dogs to float around in metal containers? The surface-level answer is knowledge. With satellites, we can see the world from a bird’s eye view—one that no bird could ever give us.
However, I think the real reason we allocate billions of dollars each year to explore the great unknown is for the sake of competition fueled by curiosity. It’s an innate human characteristic to be curious. We look around our surroundings and crave to understand them—to be in an environment that isn’t random but rather meaningful. Only through this comprehension can we achieve what we really want: control. Our curiosity is underlined by a desire to interact with systems so that we can in turn manipulate them for our own benefit. We want to hold dominion over our surroundings, and even more so, over each other. The Space Race was in essence just another competition, but rather than little boys chasing each other around a park, these were experts chasing each other to the moon. Their playground didn’t consist of rusty slides and broken swings, but rather of galaxies. Nevertheless, in the same way little boys play tag to show their superior athleticism, the Space Race was nothing more than a contest of intelligence. Who can plant their flag on the moon the fastest? The answer to this question would reveal which player was dominant, which one was in control.
The Soviet Union fueled American innovation as much as it did the other way around: the two countries pushed each other and, as a result, achieved a feat that seemed impossible only a few years prior.
However the glitz and glamor of the Space Race was merely a gilded cover page of a chapter otherwise filled with great unrest. Although technology and discovery were advancing at an unprecedented rate, the same desire that ignited the Space Race—a desire to control, to be the best—also gave rise to one of the tensest times in history: the Cold War. Two countries engaged in a silent race to assert their dominance. Like two strangers on treadmills at the gym—one always tried to go faster than the other, bringing out both the best and the worst in each other.
Therefore, even though October 4th may have just been another day for those of us huddled up in Bass or Sterling, it marked the beginning of a new era.