Victor Bloom MD
We keep being reminded of the millennia, but we overlook a historic leap into the future back in October 1957, when the Russians sent up Sputnik. That was the beginning of the Space Age, and the world would never be the same again. Sputnik was only a piece of crude metal, but it was sophisticated enough to be transmitting a signal that was picked up and broadcast by radio. Eyes turned upwards to see what appeared like a moving star in the sky. For the first time in history, a man-made object became an astronomical event. Intuitively, the people grasped the impact of this technological achievement, and they craned their necks and used binoculars to get a better view.
Speculations ran wild. What does this mean about the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union? Could they spy on us? Can their rocket missiles reach us? We imagined dire consequences if the Soviets had superior technology. Sure enough, in time we constructed ICBM's (inter-continental ballistic missiles) and so did they. The potential existed for over-kill and massive-retaliation. Kubrick came out with Dr Strangelove (How I Learned to Love the Bomb) and many movies dealt with the apocalyptic consequences of brinksmanship--- a nuclear holocaust. School children at the time were taught what to do in the case of a nuclear attack. Shelters and bunkers were built, with supplies of medicine, food and water. Children were taught to 'duck-and-cover'.
Then there was the Cuban missile crisis, and the world was really at the brink of nuclear war. Through skill, determination and luck, negotiation and compromise resolved the superpowers' differences. Meanwhile, more and more countries are developing rockets which can guide missiles to pinpoint targets. As we enter a new millennium, the danger of nuclear terrorism grows, unimpeded. This is the modern version of saber-rattling. This is what we call balance-of-power. The power balance has been in our favor because of our persistent lead in technology.
The movie, "October Sky" shows the early reactions to Sputnik, which was put there by a Soviet rocket which launched it with exceeding power. It was the first time something was shot up which didn't come down. It was a unique happenstance that a man-made object was thrust beyond the force of gravity. Gravity was the counterforce which kept the man-made object in orbit, so that it could be seen again and again. Later, rockets would burst beyond the earth's gravity and head toward the sun, other planets, and outer space.
"October Sky" is the true story of a prodigious high school student whose brilliance was hidden in an out of the way high school in a coal town in West Virginia. When Homer saw Sputnik for the first time, he was thrilled and he found his calling. He wanted to learn everything there was to know about rockets. No one understood this in a town where education was geared to funneling the graduates into the coal mine. The movie showed how dark and dangerous coal mining was. The boy's father was a foreman and thought the boy should follow in his footsteps. Homer looked at the dank, noxious mine and looked into the sky, and it was clear he was meant for open air, the light and freedom of the stars.
His main support was his schoolteacher, who thought her professional dedication was in vain if she could not propel at least some of her students away from the coal town and the associated mentality. We are reminded of the tremendous importance of some teachers to certain kids at the crucial turning point in their lives when lifelong and consuming choices are made. Eventually, Homer's determination and enthusiasm were contagious, and he enlisted three other classmates. The four of them had no choice but to accept the ridicule and rejection of the rest of the town.
Homer wanted to make rockets and he did. There was a lot to learn from the books and then a lot to learn from trial-and-error. There were many misfirings and explosion, which is the inevitable part of the history of the development of rockets. Fortunately for Homer, his mother was on his side and didn't think rockets were silly. She could see a better life for him than in the mines. She stood up for him and against her husband, his father. It was hard. It was educational to see the many quirks and surprises of the early rockets. Homer and his friends went through what Werner Von Braun did when he was a young man. It took a long time to get a rocket to go straight up, instead of curving around and nearly killing people and scaring them half to death.
The movie is about his eventually succeeding, overcoming many obstacles. That is the American genius, descendents of immigrants seem to have capacities above and beyond their forbears. American freedom and enterprise brings out the best in people, which is the main source of our strength. Because of kids like Homer, and the vision of JFK, we quickly out-distanced the Russians and used rockets to put men on the moon and return them to earth. The Russians put up a space station and we eventually joined in the undertaking. Today rockets put up the satellites from which we get signals for television and cellular phones. Our spy satellites can photograph almost any spot on earth with great accuracy.
The film should not be missed because it is inspirational about the human condition. We are not content to live in darkness or be earthbound. We want to feel the freedom of the stars and smite the black which fogs our straining minds. And go where no human has gone before.
Dr. Bloom is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University School of Medicine. He is a member of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and he welcomes comments and questions at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.