• Sputnik IV impacts in Manitowoc 51 years ago today

    Posted on September 5th, 2013 Michael Goc No comments

    This article first appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Forward in Flight, a quarterly membership magazine published by the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame.

    Sputnik IV in Manitowoc
    WAHF has a new photo entry in its archives. The image depicts WAHF board member and space bug Tom Thomas at the exact spot where a fragment of a Soviet Sputnik satellite crashed in 1962. Tom is kneeling just about in the center of North Eighth Street in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where a brass ring marks the point of impact.

    Tom Thomas at Sputnik IV impact site

    Tom Thomas at Sputnik IV impact site

    The Soviet Union launched Sputnik IV in May 1960; three years after the famous Sputnik. It shocked the American aerospace community with the realization that “we” had lost the first round of the space race to our Cold War adversaries. With a manned space flight in their plans, the Soviets had placed a dummy “cosmonaut” in Sputnik IV. They also hoped to bring the satellite back from space and retrieve the “cosmonaut” and scientific data intact. They began the re-entry process in June 1960 but the ship’s orientation mechanism failed and Sputnik instead entered an elliptical and temporary orbit around the earth.

    The Soviets were still receiving radio transmissions from Sputnik until it re-entered the atmosphere in the early morning hours of September 5, 1962. At about 4:30 a.m., central standard time, a fragment 8- by 3-inches came out of the sky and bored three inches into the pavement on Eighth Street. City police soon arrived on the scene and took custody of the metallic hunk. Smaller pieces of debris were later found on the roof of a nearby church. All were turned over to the FBI and pieces were later transferred to several research labs for analysis. Scientists at Harvard University discovered traces of the rare black crystal known as wustite and the usually unstable mineral akaganite. Both were formed when iron and oxygen in the satellite were subjected to the intense pressure and heat of re-entry. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory sent staff to Manitowoc to search for additional specimens.

    After completing its analysis, the United States offered to return the fragment to the Soviets but, exhibiting the puzzling combination of arrogance, secrecy, and fear common at the time, they refused. After a few months passed and the publicity died, the Soviets said they would take the fragment after all. Replicas were fabricated, and one is on display at the Rahr West Museum in Manitowoc.

    Sputnik IV plaque, Manitowoc, WI

    Sputnik IV plaque, Manitowoc, WI

    The crash of the satellite was a surprise in Manitowoc but a corps of amateur and professional astronomers knew it was coming and observers from as far away as Eagle River in the north to Milwaukee in the south saw it break up on re-entry and appear to scatter more than one chunk of debris on its way down.

    Inevitably, questions have been asked. Could more fragments of Sputnik IV have survived re-entry intact? Might they yet be found in some backwoods farm field, or wetland in northeast Wisconsin? Nobody knows.

    The truth is out there.

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