If you've seen the movie Red Dawn you have a clue about the mindset of many of my friends and me during the 1950's. I had a war surplus tent that i kept erected in the back yard. (The back-back yard, actually, our house having a yard for sitting and walking to the garage and such and a yard beyond the garage that had once upon a time been a garden. Beyond it was the alley where the remains of the old out-house were.) My friends and I called the tent 'Fortress America,' and we built weapons to repel the Russians should they attack. (We were also expecting aliens, and would try flashing morse-code messages at con trails in hopes we might lure little green men to land in our back yard on Jefferson Avenue.) Lengths of pipe with one end capped, a hole drilled through the cap for a cherry bomb fuse, were the basis of our most serious defenses. We also had bb guns and killer rubber band guns, which used sections of old inner tubes for missiles.
We also dabbled in rocket science, using balloons laminated with aluminum foil and rubber cement for our fuel tanks, and metal water pistols filled with denatured alcohol for personal propulsion when we reached space. (Denatured alcohol fortunately burns at a fairly low temperature, so we survived the tests with only minor injuries.)
The Russians beat us to space. Their rockets simply held much more fuel than even the largest balloons we could find at Woolworth's. Imagine--or remember if you're old enough--our disappointment to learn in October of 1957 that they had put a grapefruit-sized satellite in orbit over our backyard, and well out of range of our water-pipe bazookas.
But there were fringe benefits. Sputnik made math and science hot fields of study even in Jonesboro, Arkansas. My geekiness didn't quite make me popular in my school, but it afforded me a certain begrudged respect. I was allowed to 'perform experiments' on school time, and to post a daily weather report on the bulletin board in the front hall by the piano. Even though my predictions were more often correct than the ones published in the local newspaper, a comparison that would be the basis of a science fair project, I don't think the weather predictions were nearly so impressive to my classmates as my ability to compute batting averages.
More important was that sputnik and the other satellites and then manned rockets that followed gave Frank and Gary and Robert and me an optimism about our abilities that convinced us that we could indeed go to the Moon. My relatives who returned from World War II were expected to stay in Jonesboro. My Father, for reasons that escape me, had wanted to move to Fort Worth. His family was horrified. My uncle actually did move to Texas, but that was because he married a girl from El Paso. New York, California, the Moon or Mars seemed equally possible to me in 1957.
I still haven't gone to the Moon, but the amount of rocket science available to me now so far surpasses what was available to me in 1957--mostly the library's Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, the books of Patrick Moore, and my 1946 set of encyclopedia--that I may as be on Mars. I feel much more at home in the universe now. It is discouraging that Russia is once more going into the burying business and much of the U.S. government is even more reactionary than Senator McCarthy. My friends and I had been ready to defend against the Russians, who had after all recently fought against kids about our age in Poland, but we were also ready to welcome aliens. It is encouraging to me that I still meet kids ready to welcome aliens, and I'm hoping that the Tesla Model R.2 might let those kids looking for aliens make the trip.