"Sputnik Mania" documents first space satellite

10/01/07 Seán Kinane
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Thursday, Oct. 4, marks the 50th anniversary of the launch by the Soviet Union of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I.

The launch of Sputnik is widely seen as the beginning of the space age and as the start of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Sputnik weighed about 184 pounds, was the size of a basketball, and needed about 98 minutes to make each of its elliptical orbits of the Earth. A new feature-length documentary film called Sputnik Mania has just been completed. It investigates the launch and its historic affect on the American psyche.

The Soviet Union beat the United States into space in 1957 despite the White House announcement two years earlier that the U.S. would launch a satellite by the end of 1958. But the U.S. turned this perceived defeat into a crusade to make the sciences a national priority.

Today, three of the people involved in the production of the film Sputnik Mania, including its director David Hoffman, held a telephone conference to describe the film and the historical relevance of the satellite’s launch.

Earlier this year author Paul Dickson published Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, the book on which the film is based.

“It was a defining moment for me because David [Hoffman] has taken this story that I have worked with all these years and really turned it into just the most thrilling depiction of what really happened. We’ve been living with fictions about this whole period, about what really happened, what we really knew. But this case truth literally is stranger than fiction. Truth is a better story.”

David Hoffman is the director of Sputnik Mania.

“It really wasn’t about Sputnik, it was what happened after Sputnik, about what happened to America, about something that I had lived through as a young guy, but barely understood the full impact of.”

Hoffman said that America’s transition after Sputnik had similarities and differences to the country’s reactions after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“This is looking at American leadership. This is looking at something surprisingly like 9/11 and seeing an outcome, my god, we turned on ourselves. We redid our education system. We treated women in the sciences and engineering and math different from that moment on.

"We built thousands of weapons; we built lots of fallout shelters at a lot of peoples’ recommendations. My movie is about this next year. What does it show? It shows that America when afraid, reacts incredibly, we know that. And when it reacts, it can react by looking outside and inside.”

Jay Walker is the film’s executive producer.

“In a matter of days the story went from awe and wonder … to fear, to panic, to in many ways a mania which lasted in some ways to the current time. And that mania is a mania about nuclear war, a mania about the threat of the high ground, a mania about the militarization of space, a mania that fundamentally changed the course of American education for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people.

"And it was a mania because in most ways there really was no threat, certainly not from the Sputnik. The threat was more about the relative geopolitical situation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time, and even that was largely a manufactured question.”

Because of his interest in the subject and as promotion for the film, Walker purchased one of the authentic Sputniks produced by the Soviet Union. Sputnik I burned up upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. Walker bought the Sputnik from a former U.S. Air pilot.

“For many years the only direct commercial flight between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was a flight from Washington, D.C. to Moscow, it was flown by U.S. Air. And, as you might imagine, the pilots became pretty good friends with a fair number of Russian citizens and senior people. The American pilot was actually paid with space memorabilia ...”

Learn more:

Sputnik Mania

NASA on Sputnik

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