On October 4th, 1957, the U.S.S.R launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, to the shock and amazement of the entire world. This eventually led to the launching of thousands of other satellites pinnacled in the International Space Station, and—just 12 short years later—to the first landing of men on the Moon in 1969.
Along with about a thousand other awestruck people, I saw its first pass over the United States while participating in an observatory public star party in Pittsburgh. (Actually, we likely saw the third stage booster since Sputnik itself was probably too small to be seen with the unaided eye.) Dozens of telescopes were set up on the observatory lawn by the local astronomy club. Someone ran out of the building itself screaming that it was just announced that Russia had launched a satellite! It was one of those moments that are indelibly etched in our memories.
Yet, as exciting and momentous as this historic event was, sadly, not one person in a thousand today if you ask them knows what the significance of October 4th is. Likewise, most have no clue what July 20th—the first Moon landing—was either. The launching of Sputnik and the beginning of the Space Age should definitely be on the calendar as an international holiday. And likewise, should Apollo 11 be as a national (or international) holiday. After all, we celebrate Columbus Day every year in this country. Yes, Columbus landed on another continent. But the Apollo astronauts landed on another world! I have campaigned for many years now to get “Moon Day” as I call it (or “Moon Landing Day” if you like) on the calendar but to no avail. Planetariums, in particular, should at least remind their show audiences of the significance of these dates whenever they occur each year.
Another date worth remembering as a skywatcher (but admittedly not as significant as Moon Day) is the annual Fall Astronomy Day, which occurs this year on October 13th Astronomy clubs across the country will be holding both day and evening (stargazing parties!) public events, as will many planetariums and some observatories. To see what is happening in your area, go to:
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com