Did Sputnik Have a Fiery or Fractured End?

Sputnik's Key i i

hide captionThis key was removed from Sputnik before the satellite was launched on Oct. 4, 1957.

Eric Long/Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum
Sputnik's Key

This key was removed from Sputnik before the satellite was launched on Oct. 4, 1957.

Eric Long/Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum
Place in the Road Where a Fragment of Sputnik IV Landed

hide captionA brass ring embedded in a road in Manitowoc, Wis., marks the exact spot where a chunk of Sputnik IV landed in 1962.

Tina Prigge, for NPR
Sputnik Interactive Timeline
Lindsay Mangum, NPR/NASA

When Sputnik became the first manmade satellite to enter space on Oct. 4, 1957, its alien beeping shocked America.

Its signal stopped after just three weeks, and three months later sky gazers could no longer see a little moving dot. Many people thought that Sputnik was lost for ever.

But Bob Morgan claims to have pieces from the original Sputnik. He lives near Santa Barbara and runs a jet ski business. He describes the morning of Dec. 8, 1957, when his father woke up to a glowing object in their yard.

"He looked out the back window and there was something that was so bright in the back yard, he couldn't look at it," Morgan says.

Morgan's father and grandfather found a few tiny pieces of metal and thin plastic tubes. They used tree branches to put them in a cardboard box. Morgan, who was 11, wanted to look inside the box.

"I was grabbed by the back of my shirt and yanked backwards by my father telling me to 'stay away from it, we don't know what it is,' and it was really, really bright," Morgan says.

Later, Morgan's family heard that the nearby KDAY radio station was offering a $50,000 reward to anyone who found Sputnik parts. Morgan said when his family went to the station, the staff told him the reward was actually being offered by the Air Force, which wanted to find out what it was made of.

Morgan has a receipt showing that the military took the pieces. But, after days passed and no reward appeared, his grandfather got the pieces back and buried them under his house. The plastic parts stayed there for years. Morgan says the pieces are now in a safe deposit box.

Sputnik and Beatniks

The Beat Museum in San Francisco explores the lives of the Beatnik writers, who derive their name from Sputnik. Jerry Cimino, the owner of the museum, runs a Sputnik display at the museum.

Cimino says that one day, a visitor pointed up at a model of the satellite hanging from the ceiling.

"He says 'Oh, I see you have a model of Sputnik. I know the guy that's got the real thing,'" Cimino recalls. "And I'm thinking, 'The real what?' And he goes, 'The real Sputnik.'"

The museum guest was referring to Bob Morgan. Cimino was skeptical because he knew that the history books say that the satellite burned up on re-entry. So Cimino contacted Morgan to see for himself.

"I visited with Bob Morgan in his home and he showed me all the Sputnik pieces, and I was flabbergasted," Cimino says.

Cimino then held a news conference to garner interest for finding the truth about Sputnik's remains.

"Our real focus at this point," says Cimino, "is trying to get appropriate people to really show us, yes, this really is Sputnik. Or tell us, no, it's not."

Despite the recent publicity, no one has confirmed that the parts are real.

Experts Agree with the Books

Valentina Golovkina works at a museum in Moscow dedicated to Sputnik's chief designer.

"Sputnik burned up in the atmosphere. A month after the launch of that satellite, a second was sent up containing the dog, Laika. It orbited for five hours and died from overheating. That satellite also burned up. In any case, we have no evidence that something was found of Sputnik's remains. The first two satellites burned up in the earth's atmosphere." Golovkina says.

Nicholas Johnson is a NASA expert on space junk and how it falls to the ground. He agrees that it's unlikely anyone would find parts of Sputnik. He says researchers now have five decades of experience in studying how different kinds of manmade objects re-enter the atmosphere.

"Almost certainly that particular spacecraft, Sputnik I, would have re-entered and burned up completely," Johnson says.

Based on tracking data and modeling, Johnson says that Sputnik's official date of re-entry is Jan. 4, 1958. That is about a month after Bob Morgan's dad made his strange discovery.

The Key to the Real Sputnik Remains

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, is perhaps to most reliable place to find the last remaining parts of the iconic Sputnik.

Museum curator Roger Launius points to a small, flat piece of metal with a circular handle in a small glass case off in a corner of the museum.

"Well, this is what's known as the Sputnik key," Launius says. "It's a pretty basic thing, I mean, it's a little ring that you can pull with your finger."

Launius says the key sat inside Sputnik. It kept the radio transmitter from being activated by the battery. Someone pulled the key out before loading the satellite onto the launch capsule. A private collector later bought it and loaned it to the museum.

Sputnik in the Midwest

Red hot parts of another Sputnik, Sputnik IV, did land in the United States in 1962, according to the town of Manitowoc, Wis. A brass ring in the street now marks the exact spot where the parts fell.

"When it plummeted through the atmosphere, people could see it all over like a slow moving comet. And it ended up landing in Manitowoc, on Eighth Street, right in front of our museum, coincidentally," says Kevin Crawford, the mayor of Manitowoc.

According to Crawford, the government took the 20-pound blob of metal and returned it to the Soviet Union.

"Right now if it happened again I would never give that piece of metal up," Crawford says. "I would have that in City of Manitowoc's city hall, I think, on my mantel, instead of on some rich Russian's mantel."

While many are celebrating the launch of Sputnik I, Manitowoc is busy getting ready for a different kind of celebration.

"You know, some people like to be the home to the ice cream sundae, some people to the hamburger, and quite honestly, we haven't made enough out of it. The fact of the matter is, Sputnik IV landed in Manitowoc," says Crawford.

Next year, the people of Manitowoc will have a Sputnik-fest, to commemorate the day that a Soviet satellite fell to Earth.

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