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Merrily - In Perspective: The Dawn of the Space Age

Merrily We Roll Along follows the story of three friends (Frank, Mary and Charley) over a period of 20 years. They meet at the dawn of the Space Age and their friendship disintegrates as the Vietnam War comes to an end. The politics and history of the time influence the way they think and their dream of changing the world with their artistic vision. In this historical perspective, Gregor Duthie looks at how their lives were shaped by the events of the 1950s....

It's difficult for us now to imagine a time before Sputnik.

As you read this blog on the world wide web, with the whole collective of human learning only a click away at your fingertips, it is hard to conceive of a time when distance mattered to communication. We are all now connected by the internet, but even before the world went on-line satellite technology was the key to carrying messages over a long distance. Now, we switch on our mobile phones and expect them to tell us where to find the nearest restaurant/bus-stop/24 hour shop. But the technology that tells this little piece of plastic where we are relies on a series of satellites in constant orbit around the globe.

We take those satellites for granted now. We know that it's possible to put a man on the moon, and so we don't even question that there may have been a time when even launching objects in to space seemed an impossible dream; when NASA didn't exist; and when space really was the Final Frontier.

In the mid-1950s, the US was still healing. This was very-much a post-war era. To idealistic young students in New York in 1957, the second World War was not a historic event, but a fresh memory - a paradigm shift more recent to them than the 9/11 attacks are to us now. And in the intervening years, North Korea had invaded the South. No sooner had the World War ended than the Cold War had begun.

Hope was at a premium. It seemed that mankind had progressed as far it had could go. The threat of war was constant, and though the Civil Rights movement was underway, segregation would continue for another seven years until the passing of the Civil Rights Act.

In 1955, the US Government committed to the Vanguard Project - a naval operation to launch the first ever satellite in to orbit. There was no over-arching 'space agency', no plans for manned space flight. It was, at face value, America's contribution to the International Geophysical Year - a coming together of scientific endeavours from 67 nations. 1955 was also the year in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus to a white man, after a hard day's work, lighting a fire in the Civil Rights movement that would quickly take hold. Whilst the United States attempted to impress its international neighbours with its scientific endeavours, closer to home neighbours just wanted to be peaceful neighbours.

However, the United States were not the only ones contemplating space flight. The USSR were testing their Inter-Continental Multistage Ballistic missiles concurrently with the US - the 'space rocket' had not yet been invented. And with the Cold War underway, both sides kept a watchful eye on the other. In August of 1957, it was confirmed that the USSR had carried out six successful missile tests in that year alone. Although discovery of space may have been the goal, neither side could ignore the military implications of such experiments.

But as the year progressed, hope began to appear. For three liberal students in New York City, there were signs that the post-war status quo might not be here to stay.

On September 24 1957, in the town of Little Rock, Arkensas, President Eisenhower mobilised the 101st airborne division of the US Army, together with the whole National Guard of the state of Alabama, to protect the rights of nine African American schoolchildren to attend a previously all-white school. The tide was beginning to turn.

Less than two weeks later, on October 4, and without any warning or publicity, the USSR launched Sputnik 1, the first ever man made satellite. Although only 23 inches in diameter, Sputnik was clearly visible from earth and emitted an electronic pulse that could easily be heard by amateur radio operators on earth. It travelled 70 million kilometres, and spent nearly three months orbiting the Earth before finally burning up in the atmosphere on January 4, 1958.

Spaceflight was now possible. Although the USSR had 'won' this element of the space race it paved the way for global endeavour - for Telstar, (the satellite which revolutionised transatlantic communication); for manned spaceflight; for putting a man on the moon; and for the launch of the Space Shuttle. Just six months after Sputnik burned up, President Eisenhower announced the formation of a new body to champion these new endeavours: the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).

Although no one could say when or where such progress would be made, Sputnik made it possible. To the young and idealistic, its launch meant one thing - hope. Mankind had broken new barriers. If space could be conquered, surely there was no limit to what mankind achieve?

And if there's no limit to what mankind can achieve, surely there's no limit to what one man can achieve?

You and me, pal - we can change the world...

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