The Thing That Goes Beep

This is my first Medium post, which is republished from my blog at The things I publish here are made possible by my Patreon, which you can find at If you go there, you can choose to give me a small sum of money (like one dollar) for every article I publish.

Everyone loves space exploration. The oldest readers may actually remember the joy and optimism of the Space Age, and those who didn’t have that could at least look to the Space Race as a peaceful alternative to the arms race that went along with it. But the way we think about the history of human space exploration is very strange.

Center stage is always taken by NASA. NASA, who built a weird version of Thunderbird 2 that goes to space. NASA, who went to the moon. NASA, who did all these things

NASA has also never done anything without it being a reaction to the work of others. Wait, who were these others?

To tell you, we have to talk about the history of Russia.

The Russian Empire is considered by fans of the idea of absolute monarchism to be a horrible thing. European kings, monsters to the last, viewed the Tsars as the black sheep of the extended royal family.

Russia is very large. Prior to railways, the way the Russian Empire solved the problem of logistics is through a sort of person called a burlak. These were people who’s job it was to pull cargo barges upriver. This is a practice which existed from the 16th until the 20th century, because even then it was still cheaper to have burlaks pull a barge somewhere than to invest in a railway.

Russia is very cold. The houses afforded to serfs and other working people provided so little protection, that in winter many had to sleep on top of a burning oven to survive. This practice existed from the 15th until the 20th century.

The Imperial Russian 1897 Population Census counted the percentage of literate people in all Russia as 28.4%. For women, this was 13%. In the British Empire, a similarly barbaric entity, the literacy rate in 1750 was 54%. The earliest available statistic for the Russian Empire is 1820, when the figure is 8%. This means that for the entire time a Russian Empire existed, the vast majority of people in it were not literate. The impact of literacy is very hard to understand if you are sitting here, reading this. So I will take a detour to a different place, Cuba.

Here’s Michael Parenti talking about the effects of the Cuban Revolution,

And today this man is going to night school
he said “I can READ”
I can READ
Do you know what it means to be able to READ?
Do you know what it means to be able not to read?
I remember when I gave my book to my father (I dedicated one of my books to my father). Gave him a copy, he opened it up. He looks at it.
He had only gone to seventh grade, he was the son of an immigrant, working class Italian.
And he opens the book, and he starts looking through it. And he gets misty-eyed, very misty-eyed.
And I thought he was so touched that his son had dedicated a book to him. But that wasn’t the reason.
He looks up at me and says “I can’t read this, kid”. And I say “that’s ok dad, neither can the students, it’s ok. Don’t worry about it. I wrote it for you, it’s your book. And you don’t have to read it, it’s a very complicated book. It’s a very academic book.”
He says “I can’t read this book”. And the DEFEAT, the DEFEAT that this man felt, that is what illiteracy is about, that’s what the joy of literacy programs is. That’s why in Nicaragua you’ve got people walking proud now for the first time. They were ANIMALS before, they weren’t ALLOWED to read, they weren’t TAUGHT to read.

If you lived in the Russian Empire, and were not part of the small few who were afforded either the grand prize of noble blood or the tempting offer of social mobility, these were the things that were true:

- You would be extremely cold, because warm houses are for the few

- You would very likely be unable to read and write. If you were fortunate, you could ask a literate person to perform a great service to you: to teach you to write your name. Being able to do this small thing could mean the world to someone.

- You would work for someone else, and regardless of whether this work involved farming or craftsmanship, you would only see enough of the fruits of this labor to keep you alive.

This had always been true, and the only way in which it would change is under which Tsar it occured, and which labors your masters desired you to perform. And this would always remain true. This could not be changed.

Dissatisfaction with this notion slowly pushed the Russian Empire to revolution. Before that time, the Tsars attempted appeasement by quickly introducing the last 300 years of liberal reforms to monarchies, including the Duma. At all costs must order be maintained. If not this, what then? What then? Only chaos awaits, ready to swallow you all.

But people were not impressed by this. In an October that is retroactively in November; they grabbed hold of the bathtub, and threw out both the bathwater and the rotting carcass rulers assured them could not be thrown out with it. The Russian Empire, cruel tyrant, was thrown from the world stage. The stage hands who had done it bowed to their audience, and seized their right to be players. They called themselves the Soviet Union.

After this, they had to go out into endless Russia. To its dark corners they would bring electricity, education, and fair work. With education they also brought literacy.

In 1926, the literacy program was not performing as well as the Soviets expected. Oly 51% of the population over the age of ten was now literate. For men this statistic was 66.5%, but for women 37.2%.

According to the 1939 Soviet Census, 89.7% of people between the ages of 9 and 49 were literate. During the 1950s, the Soviet Union would achieve a near 100% literacy rate.

All of the things that could not be changed were changed.

What does this have to do with space exploration?

In 1954 it was decided that the creation of an artificial satellite would be a good avenue of research for the Soviet Union’s rocket technicians (Russians had, even in the 19th century, theorized the idea of space explorations). In 1955, Eisenhower announced the intention of the United States to do much the same.

Now, the United States is a very different sort of country from the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire.

In the 20th century the United States had established itself as the only ‘real’ superpower. At this time, such a position required that you were an imperial state which had crafted the world order such that you would be on top and remain on top as part of the functioning of the system. The United States worked on achieving this through its oppertunistic policies in both World Wars. From its behavior, we can tell the United States was utterly delighted with the prospect of a Nazi Germany-led Europe.

A state the US did not like at all was the Soviet Union. As an empire, the United States must count on the enduring belief of people that this is just how it is. That the way things are organized now is the best it could be given the situation. That altering it to remove perceived flaws could threaten the whole thing. You should never threaten the order that is keeping everyone alive! Especially not by doing something rash like overthrowing your oppressors. Nothing good ever comes of that.

But we have seen what good came of the Soviet Union. Despite the entire world being against it, despite agents of Imperial Russia committing acts of terror for decades after their Tsar was executed, the Soviet Union prospered. This is the worst thing. Who would be content with what America offers those it leeches life from when such a great leap is possible? Why would you hesitate for a moment to overthrow something that harms everyone you love and will not ever change?

“But no!”, America screamed at every worker yet to be liberated, “it’s not actually that great there. Now, I need you to ignore all historical context whatsoever. Look at this image. This doesn’t look like here. This seems pretty bad. I bet, even if we WERE preoccupied with FIGHTING THE NAZIS and winning World War 2, America would not look as bad as this!”.

Nothing was more important than this: to spread the message that if you were to do what the Soviet Union did, you would see nothing but misery.

But then the Soviet Union did something which frustrated this to no end.

They created a thing that goes beep.

The thing that goes beep was placed on top of a modified ICBM, and a small piece of metal preventing contact between batteries and systems was removed (this is the only surviving part of the thing that goes beep).

The rocket launched on October 5th, by the reckoning of the launch site. It climbed to an altitude of 223 kilometers. Then, something happened which had never happened before in the history of the world.

Humans put an artificial satellite in orbit around their home.

To announce this, a radio transmitter switched on. As the new satellite began to orbit, it beeped.

Everyone who turned on a radio and tuned to its frequency could hear the message of the thing that goes beep. A new companion to the travellers their ancestors had long considered gods.

The thing that goes beep could only say beep. But that is all it had to say. Because what it meant was this:

I was made by people who were said to be powerless.

Thousands in Europe and the United States heard the beeping through their radios. And it meant this:

I was put here by the will of a free people

As Eisenhower cursed from his slave-built office, the thing that goes beep announced ceaselessly:

Anyone who tells you

that you cannot change anything

is wrong

The thing that goes beep was called “Sputnik” (satellite), and it completed 1440 orbits of the Earth. A country which, for the most part, lived in the 17th century at the dawn of the 20th, had now done what America could not do. What America had explicitly set out to do.

This was a big problem. Whatever could be said in capitalism’s favor, it could not ever be “from pseudo-feudalism to the space age in 5 decades”.

Here the Space Race, and NASA, are born. With the full resources of the world's most powerful empire behind it, NASA would begin claiming its own milestones in space.

It would miss all of them. Well, though this happened prior to NASA, the United States CAN claim the honour of putting the first organism in space. They were fruitflies, and they pierced the void in a nazi rocket. Oh wait, that's not good, is it? I can never tell with you people and your unhealthy relationship with nazis.

In 1951 the Soviets would launch two dogs into space, and recover them from there. This might seem strange to you if you are a fan of space age history. You KNOW that LAIKA, the SPACE DOG, was CRUELLY MURDERED by the Soviet Space Program.

Laika was not the first space dog. Though one of these pioneer space dogs would die on a subsequent mission, the amount of animal deaths in the Soviet Space Program is considerably lower than that of NASAs (though there are more than I have mentioned here). In its attempts to safely put a human being in orbit, NASA risked and claimed the lives of several great apes.

Laika, though, was the first animal to orbit the Earth. Unfortunately, her mission did require the ultimate sacrifice. Because it was 1957, there was actually no technology at all to safely recover an organism from orbit. This mission would provide valuable data to actually create this technology.

The mission, then, was a success. Laika was the last space dog to be purposefully sent out to die. Dozens more would follow her into the cosmos (some of whom would die in accidents). Their descendants are still among us today. The Russians would always honour Laika; because without her, none of what would come next would be possible.

(Laika cigarrettes)

On April 12, 1961, the spacecraft Vostok 1 was launched. At this point, putting things in space was routine for a nation where the population remembered not being able to read. But this one was special. There was a human being on board.

Yuri Gagarin would be asked to do what no one had ever done before. He would become the first of us to leave our home. He would pass through a barrier beyond which none of our ideas about existence penetrate. Before he left the planet where he had been born as the son of a farmer, he wrote this message:

Dear friends, both known and unknown to me, fellow Russians, and people of all countries and continents, in a few minutes a mighty spaceship will carry me into the far-away expanses of space. What can I say to you in these last minutes before the start?
At this instant, the whole of my life seems to be condensed into one wonderful moment. Everything I have experienced and done till now has been in preparation for this moment. You must realize that it is hard to express my feeling now that the test for which we have been training long and passionately is at hand.
I don't have to tell you what I felt when it was suggested that I should make this flight, the first in history. Was it joy? No, it was something more than that. Pride? No, it was not just pride. I felt great happiness. To be the first to enter the cosmos, to engage single handed in an unprecedented duel with nature - could anyone dream of anything greater than that?
But immediately after that I thought of the tremendous responsibility I bore: to be the first to do what generations of people had dreamed of; to be the first to pave the way into space for mankind. This responsibility is not toward one person, not toward a few dozen, not toward a group. It is a responsibility toward all mankind - toward its present and its future.
Am I happy as I set off on this space flight? Of course I'm happy. After all, in all times and epochs the greatest happiness for man has been to take part in new discoveries.
It is a matter of minutes now before the start. I say to you, 'Until we meet again,' dear friends, just as people say to each other when setting out on a long journey. I would like very much to embrace you all, people known and unknown to me, close friends and strangers alike. See you soon!

Yuri Gagarin summoned the human space age to us with simple words; "Let's Go". He bid his friends, because that is what they were, at Star City goodbye for now; and ascended.

Soon his capsule would take him further than anyone had ever gone. He described, elated, the things he could now see:

The Earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing

Yuri Gagarin knew better than anyone the truth of Sputnik's message. His father had been a farmer, like his father had been. They had toiled endlessly for a Russia that would give them nothing back. Great destinies are not laid out for a farmer's son. Who would tell him - and mean it - "You will go up there. Where stars are. Where Gods are"?

Sputnik told him this. It told him that things will always change. That what is insurmountable now or what has been unthinkable for generations may not be in the future. That any argument against what could be is folly. That anyone who would benefit from holding onto a an unchanging status quo is doomed. He knew this more certain than he had ever before when he saw below him the blue marble on which every single thing that mattered to him had occurred.

Yuri Gagarin would touch down on the Kazakh steppes. The first human beings he met were a confused pair of grandmother and granddaughter. Gagarin calmed their fears:

I am a friend, comrades, a friend.

The Soviet Space Program would do more. It would put Valentina Tereshkova, technically a civilian, in space. Where she touched down on our earth, they would build a monument to her.

The Soviets would eventually build a space station, giving humans a home in the most inhospitable place, When the limitations of Mir (it was quite cramped in there, being the very first thing of its kind) became evident, the Soviets originally intended to boost it into a graveyard orbit. In the future, when technology had advanced, they wished to build a space museum around this grand achievement of the Soviet people.

The Soviet Space Program is a space program of a different sort. Where America felt compelled to match their achievements at every step, the early Soviet Space Program beams with the optimism of a free people that are trying to find out what it is that is possible now.

Going to the moon was the only thing left. At this point, all of the important research and trialing had already been done. Both the US and the Soviet Union were perfectly capable of going to the moon. All that was left to do was mash the technology and knowledge they had together in just the right way to get there and back. That the US, fueled by the blood of millions, got there first is not the landmark achievement it is portrayed as.

A landmark achievement is to step inside what is ultimately a diving bell for space, completely unsure of what it is even LIKE for a human being to exist beyond the Earth.

A landmark achievement is to take a device from Earth and to make it Earth's companion. To let this new voyager announce its presence to the entire world.

A landmark achievement is for all of those things to be done by human beings who remember what it was like to toil only for the latest descendant of a lineage of criminals. Human beings who were once told they could not change anything.

Sputnik is just a thing that goes beep. Every other thing we have put in space is more complicated than it. But it is only Sputnik which could be the prophet of the time to come. Only Sputnik, youngest god of a free people, could say this:

Anyone who tells you

that you cannot change anything

is wrong