Sputnikfest 2014


Rahr-West Art Museum - click HERE for more info!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sputnik IV is the one that has caused all the fuss – it went up over there, and come down upon us!*
The Soviet Union launched Sputnik IV on May 15, 1960, as a test of life support systems for future manned spaceflights.  The spaceship contained a functional cabin that could, supposedly, have contained a real life cosmonaut, but instead contained a “dummy.”  Just in case the ship was recovered by someone not familiar with the mission parameters, we are told the dummy had the word “Maket” (Russian for “dummy”) printed on a sign under its faceplate.  After four days in orbit, on May 19, the ship was supposed to maneuver into a lower orbit for an eventual controlled descent and recovery.  Something went wrong and the ship moved into a higher orbit instead and became, in a very real sense, “lost in space.” 
On Wednesday, September 5, 1962 members of the Milwaukee Moonwatch satellite tracking team saw a “bright reddish-orange star-like thing” cross the sky from the northwest to the southeast at 4:49 AM.  At about 5:30 AM two Manitowoc policemen on routine patrol saw “something” in the middle of the 600 block of 8th Street.  Seeing that it was a hot chunk of metal embedded in the pavement, and assuming it to be a piece of scrap metal from a nearby foundry, they moved it to the curbside.  Later in the day they heard news accounts of the breakup of Sputnik IV and returned to collect the metal fragment, on the outside chance that it might be part of that satellite.  It was transferred to government authorities and analysis discovered a metric bolt thread not commonly in use in the U.S. at the time.  This circumstantial evidence was later bolstered by measurements of trace radioactive isotopes which proved the item had been in outer space. 
The Russian authorities initially denied the metal fragment had originated as part of their space program.  An attempt to return the object to the Soviet Ambassador on September 14, 1962 is recounted in the memoirs of U.S. Ambassador Francis Plimpton.  Ambassador Plimpton says his Soviet counterpart refused to accept the  Sputnik IV fragment when it was placed on a table in front of him, saying “I do not know to whom this piece of metal belongs …” and that “he looked at it as though it were a viper.”  A representative of the Soviet Union did take custody of the fragment on January 5, 1962, exactly four months after it landed in Manitowoc.  
This September’s Sputnikfest marks 50 years since Sputnik IV met its demise.  For most of that time, there has been only minimal acknowledgment of the event.  A brass ring was placed in the street at the impact site and a rather modest plaque was installed at the curbside where this artifact of the space race spent its first morning back on earth.  A cast replica of the satellite fragment has been on display at the Rahr-West Art Museum for many years. 
I remember seeing this when I was probably about 10 years old and being decidedly underwhelmed.  I expected to see a part of a “spaceship” – and though this metal fragment is that … I have to agree with the assessment of the two patrolmen who found it on that September 5 morning in 1962: it looks much more like a piece of foundry scrap than a satellite.  Looks can be deceiving.  This rather unattractive chunk of metal is a tangible link to mankind’s first tentative steps into the cosmos.  In reply to that Soviet Ambassador of so many years ago, I’d like to say “We do know to whom this piece of metal belongs.”  The piece of metal – and Sputnikfest – belongs to anyone with a love of history, a sense of adventure, and an appreciation for the way random events can impact our lives. 
With a whole big wide world where this thing could have crashed, and plenty of oceans where it could have splashed – what chance it would pick the Midwest to come down?  And not just the Midwest – it came down in our town!* 
Come celebrate the 50th anniversary of this historic event with us on September 8, 2012.  Planet Terry
(note: the source material for much of the historical information in this post is a paper by Charles A. Lindquist titled "A Sputnik IV Saga.")
* Sputnik: the Manitowoc Connection 
Way back in the 50’s when things were just swell – way back before digital, cable, and cell
with seams on our nylons and fins on our cars - we dreamed of the future and looked to the stars.
Then – one day in October 1957 - The Russians! They beat us up into the heavens!  And then, just to add to our Cold War type fears, TIME named some Russian guy Man of the Year!
One rocket for Russia, one big leap for man, that fateful “Red Monday” the Space Age began.  Sputnik I was the first, a big shiny chrome ball – but it wasn’t the last – there were ten Sputniks in all.
Sputnik II carried Laika, a cosmonaut pup.  Unfortunately though she survived the ride up and became the first space traveler of the 20th Century – Sputnik II and the doggy burned up on re-entry.
Sputnik III was cone-shaped with antennas and arms and an instrument payload (no critters were harmed).
Sputnik IV is the one that has caused all the fuss – ‘cause it went up over there and came down upon us!

It weighed five full tons – this big Russian tin can, - and instead of a dog, Sputnik IV held a man!  Well, not a real man in this Soviet rocket – the word “dummy” you see, spelled in Russian is “maket.”  It was a test run for a real live space man, would ride Sputnik next - (at least that was the plan).  As best-laid plans go (for both mice and for men) Sputnik IV had some problems and met a bad end.  Did the rocket misfire?  Was some part out of place?  Well, they had one more first – yes, the first “lost in space.”

For two years, thre months, and some twenty-odd days Sputnik IV stayed aloft – then came down in a blaze.  What goes up must come down, that’s a true now as then - the big problem  was no one knew where or when.  With a whole big wide world where this thing could have crashed and plenty of oceans where it could have splashed - what chance it would pick the Midwest to come down?  And not just the Midwest – it came down in our town!
While most of the Sputnik burned up from the heat, a twenty-pound chunk came down on 8th Street and embedded itself in a three-inch-deep hole.  Later, found by police officers out on patrol – it was studied and photographed “the news of the day” – and though it’s been part of a Rahr-West display, Manitowoc’s ties to the early space age have been kind of forgotten – no longer “front page.”
It’s time that this oversight just has to end.  Sputnikfest!   It’s coming!  Tell all your friends!

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