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Space Age at 50: The Top 10 Sputniks

[ read the introduction ]

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#6. Sputnik On The Silver Screen

September 29, 2007

— A man is seen running down a Washington, D.C. hallway. Reaching a conference room, he excitedly bursts open the door.

"It's called Sputnik!" he exclaims.

"We know. Sit down," replies a man in the room tersely.

The scene, which comes 45 minutes into the 1983 film The Right Stuff, shifts the focus from air to space in the movie adaptation of Tom Wolfe's nonfiction novel about the United States' first astronauts.

A toy cowboy dolls watches a cliffhanger episode of the 1950s TV show that inspired his existence and has now made him a collector's item.

Woody shares the cover with Sputnik (Disney/Pixar)

"Hey, w-wait, What happened? What happens next? Come on, let's see the next episode!", begs the cowboy.

"That's it," replies a toy prospector doll, another character from the same show.

"What?" asks the cowboy incredulously.

"The show was cancelled after that," says the prospector.

"Wait, wait, wait. What about the gold mine and... and the cute little critters and the dynamite?" the cowboy queries. "That was a great show! I mean, why cancel it?"

"Two words," explains the prospector. "Sput-nik. Once the astronauts went up, children only wanted to play with space toys."

The scene, from the 1999 Disney/Pixar animated sequel, Toy Story 2 changes the world view of the toy cowboy.

The real Sputnik changed the real world, dividing the past from the future.

As former NASA historian Roger Launius once noted, "almost immediately, two phrases entered the American lexicon to define time, 'pre-Sputnik' and 'post-Sputnik'."

It's therefore no surprise that Hollywood filmmakers would use Sputnik as a plot device.

It was a movie released nine months before Toy Story 2 however, that gave Sputnik its first major role, beginning with its title.

Sputnik crosses the October Sky (Universal Pictures)

Universal Pictures' October Sky was based on the true story of Homer Hickam, Jr., a NASA engineer who as a teenager was inspired to pursue a career in spaceflight after watching Sputnik cross the evening October sky in Coalwood, West Virginia. Hickam and a few friends, the "Rocket Boys", designed their own model rockets, which led them to entering and winning a science competition.

As the film opens, the citizens of Coalwood are reacting to the news of Sputnik's launch. To most of them, its a curiosity and a brief distraction from the day-to-day life in the coal mine.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Homer Hickam (Universal Pictures)

"We're told that Sputnik will be visible to the naked eye about an hour after sunset and an hour before dawn as it traverses the October sky..." informs a radio broadcast.

Still, as Sputnik is scheduled to fly overhead the following evening, the town comes outside to see it. Hickam joins the crowd as someone spots the satellite, soon becoming entranced by the sight and setting his future in motion.

"I'm going to build a rocket... like Sputnik," Hickam tells his stunned-into-silence family at the breakfast table the next morning. "Well, I'm not saying it's going to go up in space or anything, but I'm going to do it. I'm going to build a rocket," he says with a wide smile.

"Well, just don't blow yourself up," replies his mother.

While a personal story, October Sky captured in Hickam and Coalwood an experience shared across the U.S. and the world.

Sputnik hits the headlines (Universal Pictures)

The public's reaction to Sputnik is the focus of a new film by director David Hoffman. Sputnik Mania (formerly: The Fever of '57) tells the whole story of the launch of Sputnik and what happened to America during the following year. The feature-length documentary has been completed just in time to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Sputnik's launch.

Learn more:

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