My Private Sputnik

In the end I wasn’t among those who thought the Reds were going to beat us up from outer space. My dad worked in the aerospace industry, and more than 50 years ago, when the USSR’s first Sputnik appeared in the night skies, he promised me he wouldn’t let it happen.

Our family was like many who came to California after the Second World War, mid-westerners looking for sun and a new life. “An orange tree I can see from my kitchen, and church close enough for the kids to walk to,” were Mother’s requirements for the home Dad should seek. The house, with a kitchen sink that looked out over a single orange tree in the yard, a glory of a tree that melted yearly from buds to white blossoms to real fruit, and never looked dead, was easier to find than employment. Dad stayed in the Navy after 1945 to work on the transition to peacetime, and other young vets had already grabbed jobs. One day, “just driving around” in the rocky foothills of old Azusa, in Southern California, he saw a hand-lettered sign stuck in gravel that announced, “Hiring-Aerojet.”

It was a pretty good life, feeling we had a special stake in any movie that featured rockets at the 25-cent Saturday matinee, which in my memory, was most of them. We knew Dad designed the things, or some part of them. At a company picnic, he introduced us to Theodore von Karman, the pioneer of supersonic flight, although my recollection of an astonishing stilt-walker that day is much sharper. Before dawn some mornings, we’d

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be awakened to watch, live, a blast-off from Cape Canaveral, where it was already sunny; “5-4-3-2-1” and there it would rise, on the small, black and white screen. “That’s what feeds you kids,” Dad would say, and we would marvel, then shuffle back to bed.

Sometimes when there was an eclipse of the moon, or special planet event, we’d go to the famous Mt. Wilson Observatory, six kids dressed in identical white fringed leather jackets, the better to keep track of us. “And what do you see?” a lady once asked my youngest brother, then a toddler, as the line moved toward the telescope. His answer created an emblematic story my parents, both of them scientists and religious, never tired thereafter of telling. “I see God,” he said. None of us became a rocket scientist, though one followed Dad as an engineer, and another gave up his principal’s office for astronomy. A sister named her daughter after a comet. Most of us remember the constellations.

The night we watched for Sputnik, we lined up on the grass and gazed into the quadrant where the thing was supposed to emerge. False alarms of aircraft and even a shooting star jabbed our emotions — “There it is!” — then let us down again. When Sputnik appeared however, there was no mistaking it, and forever after we would know the difference between the look of a plane, or what God put up, and the clockwork light- dark-light-dark of a man-made satellite.

It was the Russians who were out there over our heads now, the same who would be launching the nuclear catastrophe from which we hid under our desks during drills. I didn’t know then that the real concern was not so much the satellite, but the rocket that launched it, the first intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of hitting towns in the

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United States from half a world away. But for a child, Cold War fear did not have to be precisely delineated; like tension between parents, or the cloying smile of an adult who means you harm, apprehension about what was in the air and what you cannot control was palpable.

As the oldest child I was the worrier. Usually this meant doing a backup head count as our troop left the beach, or making sure there were enough sweaters in the car. Now with Sputnik, worry became cataclysmic. Could they shoot us from the sky? Could they take pictures, and aim at our houses one by one later, whenever they wanted? Night after night, even when the satellite’s schedule meant I’d miss the top 10 record countdown on the radio from eight p.m. to nine, I’d stand outside, alone after the thrill wore thin for others, and watched, and worried.

When my father came out one evening, I told him my fears. He did not laugh or dismiss me. Instead, he looked worried too. We were quiet together.

“Why don’t we do one of those too, Dad?” I pleaded. “What’s going to happen to us?”

He told no fairy tales, didn’t try to placate, only put a hand on my shoulder. And he ended the Cold War for me at that moment, when for many it was just beginning.

“I’m working on it, baby,” he said, regarding me seriously. “I’m working on it.”