On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union hurled a shiny silver ball into space and changed the world forever.
Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be put into Earth's orbit, was not only a bold display of military might but also a defining moment for popular culture that stretched far beyond its Kazakhstan launch pad. Almost overnight, everything from toys and clothes to cocktails and film began to incorporate sputnik and space iconography. And the pages of newspapers, as well as reporting on the escalating space race, began to fill with science, technology and futurism-themed comics.
This Saturday, 28 April, I’ll be hosting an event in Los Angeles with BBC Future and Atlas Obscura called Retrofuture: Celebrating a Future That Never Was. It will be a paleofuturist party of sorts, showcasing a range artefacts from my personal collection including many items from this defining period. Amongst the space age toys and others artefacts I have chosen to display some of my favourite comic strips triggered by that Soviet launch, including Closer Than We Think and Our New Age, both of which started just one year after Sputnik soared above the Earth.
Closer Than We Think was illustrated by Detroit-based commercial artist Arthur Radebaugh, who was known for his streamlined-futuristic style, most notably doing illustration work for the automotive industry in Detroit. His techno-utopian sensibilities brought stories of future technologies to life, and helped define the jetpack and flying car futurism that so many people look back fondly on today. At its peak, Closer Than We Think reached 19 million readers every Sunday, exploring everything from the future of education to the mechanisation of war.
The first strip ran on 12 January 1958 and was appropriately satellite-themed - a pulp-and-ink answer to the soviet launch. The language in the strip was optimistic: “The far reaches of space are no longer distant. Space stations, anchored in the sky beyond the full pull of gravity, are being planned today. They’ll be the next, nearby step after man-made satellites have proved themselves.” The imagery would not look out of place in a Stanley Kubrick film, but the strip was based on the thinking of the time. Specifically it references a report that outlined a plan by a “famed rocket expert” to build a space station orbiting the earth. The module would be built from pieces carried by a “dozen” rockets, he said.
It all sounds very familiar, particularly to a generation that has grown up with Mir and the International Space station. However, it is also a reminder of just how recently these projects – that are so easy to take for granted – were in the realms of fantasy.
The strip would often draw from news stories of the time and extrapolate fantastical technologies. For example, the 11 May 1958 edition of Closer Than We Think took a report from the American Rocket Society about the potential medical benefits of weightlessness and imagined space hospitals “anchored in the heavens”. The strip went on to describe how “one of these hospitals might be shaped like a disc atop elevator tubes leading to the control section. The mushroom-like disc would contain weightless operating rooms for treating heart and other organic troubles as well as bone diseases.”
Of course, the strip did not just focus on space. Sputnik had lit a touch paper on the whole scientific endeavour. For example, the 9 February 1958 edition of the strip took a quote about solar technology from a vice president at the car company Chrysler and imagined the solar powered vehicles of tomorrow: “Tomorrow the sunmobile may replace the automobile. The power of bottled sunshine will propel it. Your solar sedan will take energy from sunrays and store it in accumulators that work like a battery. This power will drive your car just like gasoline does today.”