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Did Sputnik Have a Fiery or Fractured End?
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Did Sputnik Have a Fiery or Fractured End?

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Did Sputnik Have a Fiery or Fractured End?
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first manmade satellite. When Sputnik came to life in space, its alien beeping shocked America. But the death of the Soviet satellite didn't get as much attention until recently.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: After just three weeks, the Sputnik's battery wore out and the beep, beep, beep finally stopped. For a while, sky gazers could see a little moving dot. But then, even that disappeared. Flash forward five decades. Jerry Cimino runs something called the Beat Museum in San Francisco. The museum explores the lives of the beatniks. Sputnik helped give the writers their nickname. One day, Cimino says, a visitor pointed to a model of the satellite.

Mr. JERRY CIMINO (Curator, The Beat Museum): He says, oh, I see you have a model of Sputnik. I know the guy that's got the real thing. And I'm thinking, the real what. And he goes, the real Sputnik. And I said, get the heck out of here. There's no way. It burned up upon reentry. He says, yeah, I thought so, too, but I really think it might be true.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cimino got the name of the Sputnik guy.

Mr. CIMINO: I visited with Bob Morgan in his home and he showed me all the Sputnik pieces and I was flabbergasted.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I called Bob Morgan, who runs the Jet Ski business near Santa Barbara. He says early on December 8, 1957, his father woke up on their family ranch in Southern California.

Mr. BOB MORGAN: And he looked out the back window and there was something that was so bright in the backyard, he couldn't look at it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His father and grandfather found a few tiny pieces of metal and some thin plastic tubes. They put them in a cardboard box. Morgan was 11, and wanted to look inside.

Mr. MORGAN: And I was grabbed by the back of my shirt by my father, telling me to stay away from it, we don't know what it is and it was really bright.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then, his family heard that a radio station was offering a reward for Sputnik parts. His family went to the station and talked to a receptionist.

Mr. MORGAN: My grandparents asked, why does a radio station offering a $50,000 reward for these pieces? And she goes, it's not us, it's the U.S. Air Force. And they want to see what's it made of.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Morgan has a receipt, showing that the military took the pieces - but no reward. So, his grandfather got the parts back and buried them under his house. They stayed there for years. Now, they're in Morgan's safe deposit box. This story got some attention earlier this year, when the head of the Beat Museum, Jerry Cimino, had a press conference.

Mr. CIMINO: Our real focus at this point is trying to get appropriate people to really show us, yes, this is Sputnik or tell us, no, it's not.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Despite the publicity, no one has confirmed that the parts are real. NPR contacted half a dozen experts. They all had, essentially, the same reaction.

Ms. VALENTINA GOLOVKINA: Sputnik's got (unintelligible) in the atmosphere.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Valentina Golovkina. She works at a museum in Moscow dedicated to the chief designer of Sputnik. She's saying there's no evidence that any piece of Sputnik crash-landed. Nick Johnson agrees.

Mr. NICK JOHNSON (Orbital Debris Expert, NASA): Almost certainly that particular spacecraft, Sputnik I, would have reentered and burned up completely.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Johnson is a NASA expert on space junk and how it falls to the Earth. He says Sputnik was tracked. And its official date of reentry is January 4th, 1958. That's about a month after Bob Morgan's family made their strange discovery. So if you want to see a piece of Sputnik - the last remaining part of that iconic sphere - you probably have to go to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Curator Roger Launius took me to a small glass case off in the corner.

Mr. ROGER LAUNIUS (Curator, Roger Launius National Air and Space Museum): Well, this is what's known as the Sputnik key.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's a small, flat piece of metal with a circular handle.

Mr. LAUNIUS: It's a pretty basic thing, I mean, it's a little ring that you can pull with your finger.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Launius says it was a safety device to keep the satellite from being prematurely activated. Someone pulled it out before loading the satellite onto the launch capsule. A private collector later bought the key and loaned it to the museum. That may not be as exciting as red-hot Sputnik parts raining down from the sky, but don't despair. One town says that did happen in the United States. In 1962…

Mayor KEVIN CRAWFORD (Manitowoc, Wisconsin): 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, Wisconsin.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kevin Crawford is mayor of Manitowoc.

Mayor CRAWFORD: And it plummeted through the atmosphere and it ended up landing in Manitowoc on A-Street, right in front of our museum, coincidentally.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Crawford says the government took the 20-pound blob of metal and returned it to the Soviet Union.

Mayor CRAWFORD: Right now, if it happened again, I would never give that piece of metal up. I would have that in City of Manitowoc's city hall.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So today, while everyone else is commemorating the launch of the original Sputnik, his town is planning a different kind of celebration. Next year, they're having a Sputnik fest to mark the day when at least one Soviet satellite came to Earth.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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