Sputnik Crashed Here
The galleries of the Rahr-West Art Museum contain paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, Picasso, and Andy Warhol. They also contain a piece not even the Met or the Getty or the Louvre can equal -- a piece of space junk. It's not here because it's art. It's here because it crashed right outside.
It was with much fanfare that the Soviet Union launched Korabl-Sputnik 1, dubbed "Sputnik IV" in the West, on May 14, 1960. It carried a super-secret 7-ton payload including, it was rumored, a life-size "dummy cosmonaut." The Reds were so proud that they put their newest satellite on a postage stamp. But five days later, when its re-entry rockets were fired, something apparently exploded. Instead of a triumphant return to earth, Sputnik IV (and the dummy) drifted into space. This time there was no fanfare. The Russians said that they'd never planned to bring it back anyway.
Sputnik IV stayed in its useless orbit until September 5, 1962, when it fell screaming from the sky over Wisconsin. All 7 tons, including the dummy cosmonaut, burned up in the atmosphere -- except one 20-pound hunk of metal. That piece crashed into the street outside of the Rahr-West Art Museum. (A rival 14-pound piece, found on a loading dock in Sheboygan, was later dismissed as doubtful.)
Our helpful guide at Rahr-West takes us past the paintings and sculptures to see the piece. It rests serenely inside a plexiglass box atop a pedestal, a blackened disk of carbon steel perhaps six inches across. It looks like it broke off the bottom of a hot water tank. We're told that it was glowing "like the Blob" when two city police officers discovered it, and an accompanying display praises the patrolmen as "particularly astute."
The local newspaper at the time painted a less dramatic picture. The hunk had been embedded three inches deep into the asphalt of 8th Street, just off the center line, for an hour before patrolmen Marvin Bauch and Ronald Rusboldt noticed it from their squad car.
They thought that it was a piece of cardboard and ignored it. An hour later they noticed it again, stopped to move it, and found that it was too hot to touch. They then thought that it was a piece of slag from a local foundry that had fallen out of a dump truck. They kicked it to the curb.
It wasn't until noon that Bauch and Rusboldt associated what they had seen with the reported breakup of Sputnik. They returned to the spot and found it, still in the gutter, more than seven hours after it had fallen. A check at the fire department with a Geiger counter showed no radioactivity, so the lump was shipped to the Smithsonian.
Nine days after the crash, satisfied that what they had was essentially just a hunk of metal, the Americans offered most of it back to the Soviets. The Russians huffed and puffed and finally accepted, carrying away the hunk in a box -- but not before NASA had made two replicas. One was given to Wisconsin's democratic senator, the other to Wisconsin's republican representatives, on the one-year anniversary of the crash. Neither wanted them, and so both ended up back in Manitowoc, even though Manitowoc itself only wanted one.
On November 15, 1963, the International Association of Machinists embedded a brass ring in 8th Street to mark the exact spot where Sputnik had fallen. It's in the middle of a street, where drivers won't necessarily see you crouching with a camera -- so don't. Safer is a marker next to the sidewalk, a small slab of pink granite mounted flush with the grass, providing sparse particulars of Sputnik's demise.
The second Sputnik lump replica is supposedly in Manitowoc's Safety Building (police and fire headquarters). But we didn't have the time to verify this, and frankly we didn't relish the thought of calling the police dispatcher and asking, "Do you have a piece of Sputnik?" So we'll leave it to someone else to track down this final relic of the Space Race.
August 2010: Eric Thiede wrote us: "The other copy made of this fragment of Sputnik IV that fell in Manitowoc, WI in Sept. 1962 is at the observatory of the Milwaukee Astronomical Society in New Berlin, WI. I am sure because I saw it there in 2000."
[Replica photo published with permission of the Rahr-West Art Museum, Manitowoc, Wisconsin.]