Following on from my recent post on the beauty of the Satellite dish, our editor-in-chief himself suggested why don’t I have a look at how artists have responded to space exploration. Actual real existing space exploration, that is, not the far-in-the-distant-future kind. Good one, I thought. I should certainly do that.
I guess any blog about actual real existing space exploration has got to start with Sputnik 1: that endearing little artificial satellite which the Soviet Union’s space scientists and engineers managed to launch into orbit back in 1957, taking everyone by surprise, and especially the US space scientists and engineers, who had hitherto assumed that their own space technology was vastly superior.
Well perhaps it was, but they clearly lacked the chuzpa of their colleagues on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The idea behind Sputnik 1 is ridiculously simple: let’s see if we can throw a ball so high up that it will stay in orbit. And let’s attach some radio antennae, so we can track it.
So that’s what the first Sputnik satellite was: a ball, with some radio antennae attached to it. It makes for a minimalist design whose stark simplicity has probably not been attained again until Pacman came along.
Artists have responded to this by coming up with their own minimalist versions of depicting this iconic feat of technology. There’s the retro aspect of emulating 1950’s design style.
There is the political dimension: the space race was very much part and parcel of the Cold War, and the USSR had just managed to score an ace. This was back when the Russians and the Communists were still Public Enemy Number One in the West, not the Muslims and ISIS – and so the event caused the Sputnik crisis, a period of heightened anxiety particularly in the US, when people feared an imminent attack coming from space. It was the starting point for a technology and arms race which carried on until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s.
After Sputnik 1 came Sputnik 2: the first dog in space. Laika, the female mongrel dog chosen for this mission, survived for a few hours before she died due to the cabin’s overheating, supplying the first ever data of a living organism’s reactions to being launched into space.
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