Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Did Beatniks Find Sputnik?

Today October 4 is 54th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. Sunday I found a replica of Sputnik hanging in the main hall of Washington's National Air and Space Museum. The replica hangs alongside the original Spaceship One and X-1. The place of honour is well-deserved, for Sputnik was the first step into Space. The effects of Sputnik on human society are too numerous to mention.

On Broadway in San Francisco's North Beach is the Beat Museum. The museum, slightly smaller than NASM, is devoted to the Beat Generation poets and writers like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In the 1950's they gathered nearby at City Lights Bookstore and Cafe Vesuvio to counter American culture. In 1958 legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the term Beatnik in response to Sputnik. Among its books and artifacts, the Beat Museum also displays a replica of Sputnik. Another fascinating story has that the Beatniks has located remains of Sputnik!

Sputnik was presumed to have burned up on reentry around January 4, 1958. The exact date and location are unknown, for missile tracking systems as we know them had not been completed at the time. In November 2006 a man wandered into the Beat Museum with a strange story. Pieces of Sputnik had fallen in America.

The trail led to Southern California resident Bob Morgan. He was 8 years old early in the morning of December 8, 1957 when a strange glow appeared near an oak tree. Investigating, Bob Morgan and his family found some glowing plastic pieces that appeared to have fallen from the sky. In 1957, man-made parts falling from Space could mean just one thing--Sputnik.

The Morgan family contacted the military through a local radio station. They handed the parts over to some representatives of the government, hoping for a promised 50,000 dollar reward. The reward never appeared, but the Thomas family recovered most of the parts weeks later. The military seemed to forget about the incident and the reward.

In the ensuing years, Bob Thomas attempted to ascertain exactly what the parts were. Fortunately Soviet magazines published diagrams of Sputnik to compare with the parts. The diameter of one tube does neatly correspond to Sputnik's interior, and the tubes do resemble parts pictured within Sputnik. The only instrument within Sputnik was a radio transmitter, but it also contained a cooling system for the extreme temperatures of Space. Plastic tubing could have formed part of the cooling system. No official investigation has ever been made as to the origin of these mysterious parts. Nevertheless, Sputnik parts falling to America make a fascination tale.

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