Psychology of the Spectacle: Considering the Impact of Sputnik in the Post 9/11 Era
Interviewees in David Hoffman’s new film, Sputnik Mania, compare the launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, to “the discovery of America,” “the first shot at Lexington and Concord,” and “the second coming of Christ.” Scott Hubbard, of NASA describes it as “one of those moments in history when all of a sudden all of your thought processes changed.”
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, “the first man made object ever to leave the atmosphere and successfully orbit the earth” on October 4th 1954, America reacted with fervor (Sputknikmania.com). It was the height of the cold war and this bold display of Soviet strength struck terror in the hearts of political and military strategists who saw in the rocket “an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially carry a nuclear bomb.” On the Monday following Sputnik’s launch, “political and military leaders appeared in print, on the radio and on TV, telling [the American people] that Sputnik was a threat to [their] security [and] that it was launched as an aggressive attack.” Sputnik, they said, was “the first shot in a cold war that could quickly become very hot” (Sputnik Mania).
The film, released as part of a year- long program commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the satellite’s launch, draws upon archival footage and interviews with key figures from the Sputnik era, including individuals from NASA, The Jet Propulsion Lab and NPR. Key insights into the Soviet view are provided by Sergei Kruschev, son of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who lead the Soviet Union in the years after Sputnik’s launch.
Sputnik Mania deftly portrays the launch of the rocket and key events in the year that followed. The film’s emphasis however, is not upon historical detail. Hoffman is concerned less with relating the exactitudes of the technological and political developments represented by Sputnik, than by conveying the “spectacular” dimensions of this event and the transformative effect it had upon Americans’ worldview.
In Cultures in Orbit, Lisa Parks describes the ways in which vision has been transformed by the satellite. She uses the term “televisual” to describe not only “the technical apparatus or popular pleasures of broadcasting,” but also, and more significantly, the “different structures of the imaginary and/ or epistemological structures that have radiated from and taken shape around the medium over its history”(12).
The launch of Sputnik grossly undermined Americans’ sense of security and superiority. Life magazine described the launch as a “devastating blow to the prestige of the United States” and a man interviewed on a nightly news program expressed confusion, asking, “Where is our pride? Where are we? Why don’t we have a satellite up there?” Senator Lyndon B Johnson himself lamented, “Soon the Russians will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks from freeway overpasses.”
America hurried to catch up with the Soviets and launch its own satellite. It was like salt in a wound when a much-anticipated launch at Cape Canaveral in December failed. Sputnik Mania’s narrator Liev Schreiber relates, “It took just seven seconds to set back a nation’s pride.”
Hoffman depicts two distinct though not unrelated sides to the American reaction to Sputnik. Many were struck with fear, of annihilation or at least of the triumph of the “godless communists.” Hoffman explains that “fear changed people” and notes that “Hollywood and our office of civil defense fed this fear.” Montages in Sputnik Mania attest to the proliferation of apocalypse films, and clips from government advertisements include messages recommending that individuals “build shelters and build them right [away].”
However, Hoffman suggests that there was also a positive side to the post- sputnik psyche. He details the evolution of “space culture,” including the composition of “satellite songs” by popular musicians and the establishment of the Rocket Boys club. Hoffman suggests that there was a feeling of liberation (The New York Times announced, “Soviet scientists have launched a symbol of man’s liberation from the forces which have hitherto bound him to earth.”) and a renewed curiosity in the world beyond one’s backyard.
Parks provides a critical framework for understanding the two- sided and apparently contradictory nature of the emergent social and psychological state. She writes of the “dialectic of distance and proximity” which has emerged in the age of the satellite and describes the propagation of a “structure of feelings that enables an experience of simultaneous connection and separation”(174). Parks suggests that the satellite engenders an “anxious disorientation” and a feeling of “pleasurable remote control,” as well as a “desire for the presence of the absent other.”
Sputnik Mania arrives fifty years after the launch of Sputnik but only six years after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Hoffman does not address parallels between the two historical moments explicitly. When asked about this choice he said, “Am I going to talk about the present? I’m never going to mention it. But I’m going to make a drama about 50 years ago that everyone of you is going to connect to today.”
Hoffman is successful in suggesting these connections without stating them plainly. One cannot help but think of George Bush warning America about the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction as you watch a clip in which a 1950s political leader says to his constituency, “Lets not fool ourselves. This may be our last chance to secure the means to save our nation from annihilation.”
In an interview with San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Steven Winn, Hoffman reflected upon our reaction to 9/11 and made a distinction between the two moments in history. He said, “Recently its just been fear, fear, fear. I think that the more inspirational side that characterized the space race… has completely gone missing” (San Francisco Chronicle, October 3, 2007).
Reflecting upon Hoffman’s statement, I am led to wonder if there are in fact any “Rocket Boys” in the post 9/11 era. If there were, who would they be? Is there a still a possibility for a “structure of feelings that enables an experience of simultaneous connection and separation”(174) or does George Bush preclude the possibility of this dialectic as he “audaciously declares to the global community [and to the American people], 'you’re either with us or against us!'" (Parks,178)?
Hoffman, David, Sputnik Mania, 2007.
Hoffman, David, Global Media Lab, Watson Institute, April 23, 2008
Parks, Lisa, "Cultures in Orbit (Satellites and the Televisual," Duke University Press, 2005.
Winn, Steven, "On the waves Sputnik I continues to make 50 years later," San Francisco Chronicle, October 3, 2007.