t was on this date in 1957 that Sputnik was launched, and for several months it orbited overhead before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. I remember distinctly seeing it go overhead, eerie and silent in the dusk, though I somehow expected to hear it beeping in the night sky. It was at that moment, or soon after, that I decided to learn Russian—though in point of fact I never got much further than the alphabet and a few random words.
It’s possible that what I saw wasn’t the satellite itself, but its booster rocket, which according to some sources orbited with it and was brighter than the object itself. About that I don’t know. During the days in the late fifties, when we lived in North Portland and I went to a school in which whites were a minority, I saw a number of bright objects in the night sky. I watched a meteor go overhead, looking for all the world like a beam of a flashlight on the dome of the night sky. I saw the multicolored curtains of light that were the aurora borealis; I saw the craters of the moon through a telescope belonging to the kid who lived across the street from us; I saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter through my father’s binoculars. I learned how to find Polaris by using the bright stars in the Big Dipper, and how to follow the tail of the bear to find Arcturus. I learned to recognize Cassiopeia and Cepheus, Orion and Cygnus, the Pleiades and Sirius. I saw weather balloons and airplanes, but I never saw a flying saucer, though I had high hopes of it for many years.
But Sputnik I remember with special fondness. That wasn’t just something that happened to be up there—it was something that human beings had put in the sky, something that would not be there without human ingenuity and will. It was a sign of what people could do, for good or for ill, and an omen, or portent, of things to come.
Or so it seemed.