The newspaper article (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/26/science/astronomy-magazine-telescope.html) said that Sky and Telescope, a magazine for the armchair and more serious astronomer and the amateur telescope builder, was for sale. The magazine’s corporate parent was in bankruptcy and, thus, the sale. Sky and Telescope’s editor maintained, however, that the magazine itself was financially strong and expressed confidence that the publication would survive without missing an issue. The article taught me something I did not know. I had never thought much about the magazine’s name, which just seemed natural considering its content, but the newspaper story said that the magazine was founded in 1941 by Charles Federer, Jr. and his wife, Helen Spence Federer, by combining two publications: The Sky, published by the American Museum of Natural History, and Telescope, produced by the Harvard College Observatory. Mostly, however, the article made me think back to when I subscribed to Sky and Telescope in the aftermath of Sputnik.
October 4, 1957, felt like a date that would live in infamy. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, later to become Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, and the United States had an existential crisis. Mr. Cutting, my sixth-grade social studies teacher, whom I admired, said to the class the next day, “America is no longer the leader of the civilized world.” The 180-pound sphere with a two-foot diameter a couple hundred miles above us provoked many similar panicked responses. Russia was ahead of us into space. That must mean they are ahead of us in many areas. Other countries will see that we are second-rate and will not want to follow our democratic ways. The world will soon be dominated by commies. But it may not matter because the Soviet Union could launch orbiting weapons that we can’t defend against.
Within a few days after Sputnik’s radio signals were heard by many earthlings, President Eisenhower addressed the nation to calm the public. He conceded that the United States had to be better at science and technology, and the coming years would see the federal government sharply increase its spending on education. But for me the effect was more immediate. My teachers regarded me as bright (on this I agreed with them), and if I was going to be a patriotic American, I needed to be even better in science.
Science, however, did not mean botany or biology or geology. As far as we knew, our communist enemies weren’t ahead of us in these areas, and in any event, they didn’t matter much. Fission and fusion and thrust and telemetry mattered. Perhaps study chemistry, but better yet, be a physicist, and even better yet, be an astrophysicist. “Reach for the stars, young man” was more than a generalized aspirational slogan. No, really, reach for the actual stars or at least the moon and planets.
I joined school science clubs and participated in school science fairs. I went a step further. An astronomy club met at the public library. I was the only kid. I don’t know how much the other people actually knew about the stars and planets, galaxies and novas because I understood little of what they said. The library, however, had copies of Sky and Telescope on its magazine rack. I thumbed through the issues and decided if I were going to help save America from the red menace, I should subscribe, which I did from saved lawn-mowing and dog-walking money.
I would go through the magazine shortly after its monthly arrival, and I would have said the opposite of what so many Playboy purchasers said: “I got Sky and Telescope for the pictures, not the articles.” Those articles were written by professional astronomers and were way beyond my comprehension, and perhaps for the first time I may have realized I was not always as smart as I wanted to think I was. The pictures of spiral galaxies, Saturn’s rings, double stars, eclipses, however, were simply beautiful. They mesmerized me.
I wanted to understand what was written in Sky and Telescope but never enough to try to work at obtaining that understanding. I was content to have the magazine as a different kind of picture book from the ones I had grown up with. (However, I insist–absolutely insist–that I did read, and understand, articles in Playboy.)