Soon after the western world was taken by surprise by the launch of Sputnik 1 on 4 October, 1957, Australians were told it might become naked eye visible after sunset.
Millions of people looked to the skies, even in the big cities, in times when you could easily see the stars from the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. It was probably the early evening of 9 October.
In Clovelly, the then battler part of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, the headlands were occupied by those who didn’t have backyards with clear views of the sky. My dad said even the pub was half empty. The windows of a few well-to-do households shone with the characteristic fluorescence of early black and white television consoles.
And suddenly, the space age ambushed suburbia. Low in the south-west, right beside the two bright Pointers to the Southern Cross, a third bright yellow star appeared. It was moving silently ever higher, with a purposeful, unnatural momentum.
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For maybe the first and only ever time, you could hear entire suburbs with your own ears. A tumult of excited voices, cries of surprise and amazement. “It’s moving… there it is, oh *$#@*%@ will ya look at that.” It was Maroubra, Coogee and Clovelly shouting at the satellite, the voices carried for miles on the wind.
Then this interloper, this artificial satellite from the Soviet Union, which was really the core rocket casing, and not the much smaller and harder to see tin moon that it had lofted into orbit, slipped into the earth’s shadow and disappeared out to sea.
The remorseless aural abrasion of waves breaking under the cliffs of Gordon’s Bay resumed as the voices fell away until it sounded just like every other night of windswept suburban living on the ocean’s edge of Sydney in the 50s.
But we had seen, and acclaimed, the start of the Space Age!
Historical note: The first sighting of Sputnik 1 in orbit was by Dexter Stegemeyer, who spied it, while seated, through the open door of his outhouse at Fairbanks, Alaska, early on 6 October 1957 local time. Stegemeyer said he didn’t know at that moment what had caused his moving experience, but sure knew it wasn’t an aeroplane.
The Stegemeyer “Sputnik” dunny remains in use to this day (see right), its place in history acknowledged by an obscure brass plaque.