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Jan 16

movie log: Sputnik Mania (2007)

Posted on Friday, January 16, 2009 in movies

Viewed 5 days ago, January 11 2009: Sputnik Mania directed by David Hoffman and narrated by Liev Schreiber.

(A new blog and already I’m 5 days behind. This is, though, the only pending movie log entry. I waffled for a while about whether or not it fits my criteria for logging as a movie. But it does, so here it is.)

This is a documentary about how the US reacted to the USSR’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in October of 1957, and about the early days of the space race. It had been 50 years between that launch and the release of this movie, and many people have forgotten (or never knew) what the climate was like and to what degree the entry into space was seen as a military threat or opportunity. The documentary focuses on the culture and times, on the atomic weapons race, on each country’s view of and fear of the other – on those elements of circumstance as much as it does on the mere facts of launching satellites into space.

It’s hard to connect with what a shock the Sputnik launch was to people in the US at the time. To ordinary citizens who arrogantly believed that only the US was truly capable of making great advances and that the Soviets couldn’t even build a decent refrigerator, USSR being in space rudely revealed a different reality. Mentioned are the amateur rocket clubs that sprung up around the country (Homer Hickam, author of “Rocket Boys” — which coincidentally I read not too long ago — had a brief appearance) and the push for more and better science education. To the military, the initial space launch and those that followed were more sinister: to be able to put a heavy satellite into orbit was blatant proof of the current ability to launch a nuclear missile strike to any target on Earth. It also implied a future ability to put arms into orbit, stockpiling them until they could be hurled downwards.

A lot of interesting tidbits are to be found in this film. Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita and now a naturalized US citizen, remembered a joke about the USSR’s advice to its citizens. In one analog to the US’s “duck and cover” instructions, soviet people were told to tamp down the radioactive dust and then remain covered. The joke was that if you see a bright light, you should cover yourself up and crawl very slowly to the graveyard.

Interesting if you like this sort of thing (goes without saying, no?).