The reason why I did science A-levels, and read physics at university, was the space race. I wasn’t even five years old when, on 4 October 1957, the USSR launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. I went to Wimbledon public library, and ogled books with massive illustrations of solar system. I resolved to be extremely fit, and brainy about astronomy too – the only way to become an astronaut.
By 12 April 1961, and Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth, I was even more hooked. The next month, the USA replied – modestly – with Alan Shepherd’s sub-orbital flight in a tiny 1.7m3 Mercury capsule. The race was on in earnest, and as the cover of a Tintin book so vividly put it, the purpose was obvious: Objective Moon. For me, humans actively conquering space was a noble thing, and in no way detracted from the beauty I observed through a Janik, Japanese-built refracting telescope (still in use).
Subconsciously inspired, perhaps, by John Sturges’ 1963 film The Great Escape, I now went down to Wimbledon reference library and – lacking science in my school curriculum – solemnly read Samuel Glasstone’s 1965 doorstopper Sourcebook on the Space Sciences. There, I learned that you needed to get up to seven miles a second to reach escape velocity, and so get off the planet.
Ah, transcendence! Since then, I’ve tried never to look back.
James Woudhuysen is coauthor of Why Is Construction So Backward? (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website.