1957: Nikita Khrushchev claims that the Sputnik 1 launcher decayed over
of Sputnik 1,
at launch, left
designer Sergei Korolev was determined to make the launch of the world's
first artificial satellite a huge technical coup for the Soviet Union.
And he succeeded: in addition to the famous 185-pound Sputnik orbiter
(1 above, concealed by protective cover), the first Soviet satellite launcher
put a substantial portion of itself into orbit. Nearly 100 feet long and
weighing about 16,000 pounds, the R-7 launcher's entire "core stage"
(right, above) remained in an elliptical orbit for nearly two months after
its October 4, 1957 launch, and was designated "Satellite 1957 Alpha-1"
by western scientists. Its size made it easy to detect both visually and
by radar. The decay of the launcher stage was closely studied and highly
anticipated, since it would be the first manmade hardware ever to return
to Earth from orbit. (Sputnik itself continued in orbit until early January
1958). The rocket was known to be essentially the same as the Soviet ICBM
which had successfully lofted test warheads from Kazakhstan to the Kamchatka
peninsula earlier in the year. Its performance and design were objects
of intense interest in the west. The rocket's decay occurred on December
1 (GMT) -- but where? The computer and satellite tracking capabilities
of both the US and USSR were still rudimentary and the reentry dynamics
of such a large, tumbling object were full of unknowns, so there was much
ambiguity about the exact location of the reentry.
Nikita Khrushchev made headlines on December 7 by insisting that the rocket
had "fallen in the US." When asked by reporters if he meant
that the rocket had burned up over US territory, Khrushchev insisted that
he meant that parts had landed on US soil:
know it fell on the United States, " he said. "But they do
not want to give it back to us."
part of it fell on the United States," he said, when asked whether
he did not mean that it had perhaps disintegrated in flames over the
United States. He also said, in answer to a clarifying question, that
when he used the word "America" he meant the United States
and not part of the American Continent. When this correspondent asked
whether he was really serious or merely joking, Mr. Khrushchev replied:
"I was absolutely serious." "We relied on them,"
Mr. Khrushchev said of the United States, "trusting in their decency,
but they did not live up to it."
day the Soviet Academy of Sciences issued a formal appeal to the US to
return the debris.
Soviet scientists reported on the destruction of the rocket carrier
without qualification. They did not give their sources, but said that
"according to available data remnants of the rocket carrier fell
on the west coast of North America." Tonight Tass, the official
Soviet news agency, declared that the rocket's decline became obvious
last Saturday. Its fall toward the earth became "especially intensive,"
it said on Sunday while it was passing over the city of Irkutsk, the
Chukchi Peninsula in Siberia, and Alaska and further along the west
coast of North America.
Academy's appeal tonight was more formal [than
It requested the rocket remnants and available data in the interests
edition of the New York Times confirmed that the US Army actually
had searched for the rocket in Alaska on December 1:
Defense Department asked the Army today to check a rumor that the Soviet
rocket had fallen in Alaska. Reports that it had dropped in an area
about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks reached Army circles in Alaska
last Sunday. However, scientists there immediately discounted them,
saying a large meteor had presumably given rise to the rumors.
Army last week ordered a search near Fort Greely Reservation, 100 miles
southeast of Fairbanks, for an unidentified flying object believed to
have landed there. The hunt was called off. An Army spokesman in Alaska
said heavy snowfall in the area had been a factor in abandoning the
from the White House to the State Department to the Pentagon unanimously
denied knowledge of any such recovery.
Fred Whipple of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge,
Massachusetts, had been studying the descent of Satellite 1957 Alpha-1
for weeks and denied the Soviet claims. Whipple and J. Allen Hynek, director
of SAO's "Project Moonwatch" satellite tracking program (which
was originally designed to observe the US Vanguard satellite) are shown
below plotting Sputnik's orbit.
Moonwatch (external site)
7, Whipple told the New York Times that he had "nothing more
to add" to his earlier statement that the rocket had decayed far
from US territory.
have been in contact with scientists in Alaska and they reaffirm that
reports of falling objects the day the rocket was believed to have crashed
to earth were definitely fireballs"...
Whipple had stated earlier that it was his belief that the rocket carrier
had fallen over "the eastern Pacific, the South Seas, the Indian
Ocean or continental Asia."
US report issued a few months later contained the following map and asserted
that the rocket had decayed on revolution 880, which passed west of North
Project "Harvest Moon" analysis of
reentry of Satellite 1957 Alpha-1
the spectacular failure of the first US satellite launch attempt on December
6 may have overwhelmed the significance of Khrushchev's statement, and
the "crash-retrieval" flap quickly disappeared from the major
in Alaska the story was anything but cold. Reporters in Fairbanks were
discovering that the Army had called in eyewitnesses who believed they
had seen the Sputnik rocket's fiery descent near the US Army's remote
Gerstle River Test Range (an arctic biological and chemical warfare test
facility under authority of the Dugway Proving Ground) southeast of Fort
Greely. They also learned that the Army continued to search for possible
debris for at least a week after the reported fireball sightings on the
afternoon of December 2 (local time).
And in classic
manner, the eyewitness accounts of the suspected rocket fireball manifested
in the form of typical UFO reports:
Daily Newsminer, Dec 10, 1957
Residents Describe 'The Thing'
Something soared over Big Delta a week ago last Saturday.
something was, nobody has a sure-fire answer.
say the blazing light from the north was a rare meteorite, but other
witnesses of the strange light aren't convinced.
rocket was due, and to them a few minutes either way cuts no ice as
they say in the north. Of course, they all admit to not being scientifically
this "something" was, it has caused repercussions of international
importance from little Big Delta to the Pentagon in Washington and the
Kremlin in Moscow, to say nothing of the Communist satellite nations
and the members of the friendly NATO nations.
with first things first, let's go back to the beginning.
2, a week ago last Saturday, it was common knowledge that Sputnik's
rocket would be making one of its last swings over Fairbanks at 3:19
p.m. However, a later corrected time received by the Geophysical Institute
at the University of Alaska gave the calculation time for the rocket
to zip overhead at 3:37 p.m.
or fortunately for the scientists something did zoom overhead at the
first calculated time of 3:19 p.m. or very close to it. It was bright,
fast and shooting on virtually the same course taken by Sputnik and
to the learned scientists, it wasn't the rocket, but a ball of fire,
otherwise known as a meteor. A rare one they said, but still a meteor.
They too saw it.
AROUND THE EDGES
and down the highways, from Fairbanks, along the Alaska Highway to the
Glenn Highway a whole flock of laymen also saw the phenomenon. To them,
scientific logic means little. They all saw something, and to be colloquial,
"It t'wernt no meteor."
Almstead of Big Delta said he was delivering oil and looked into the
sky and saw a ball about three feet in diameter [sic] soar over. It
had a glow like a light bulb or moon, not real bright. And according
to Almstead, his "Thing" had a flame around the edges and
flames out the tail, trailing about 100 feet back. Almstead said, "I've
seen meteors before, but nothing like that. Maybe I was just never that
close to one before. It was heading towards Gerstle and the Granite
Mountains when I last saw it."
witness was Dwain Gibson, a carpenter from Big Delta. Gibson was returning
from a Thanksgiving holiday in Anchorage when he saw the strange light
in what he later judged to be the Gerstle area. He was approximately
25 miles from Glenallen on the Glenn highway when he saw the object.
said, "I was driving along coincidentally thinking of seeing Sputnik's
rocket when off to my left I saw this object. I hollered to my wife
Rachel and my brother who were both asleep in the car, but by the time
they awoke it was gone."
to Gibson's version, it was a dull red when he first saw it and it seemed
to get lighter as it went over the horizon or came closer to the earth.
It was round and it didn't have a tail. "I have seen meteors before,
so was sure it was either Sputnik or its rocket," he said.
added, "It looked to me like just as it was about to hit, or go
over the horizon it just went out. It didn't explode or nothing."
he thought what he saw was Sputnik's rocket, Gibson said, "I don't
think it was a star and I don't think it was a meteor. It was perfectly
round. I'd sure like to take a tour looking for it."
like to get into a plane and go down to where I saw it and then fly
on a direct course to where I last saw it. I think the same thing should
be done from the University of Alaska where the scientists saw the object
and also from where Vic Corrodo on Gerstle saw it. That way it could
be pin-pointed pretty good."
viewer of the object however, was Victor Corrodo, who with two companions
was hunting moose on the Gerstle River.
said, "We- Ken Taylor, Sgt. Bob Medford and I - drove a jeep up
the river. It was getting dark and we were returning. I was walking
ahead of the jeep scouting for moose. All of a sudden I looked up and
saw this thing right in front of me. It was cutting the treetops. It
was going so fast that when I turned around to see where it was, it
didn't have to raise my head to see the thing. It was about 200 feet
from me and making a whistling noise when it went by - something like
a fan. I never heard it hit," he said. "I was more anxious
to see where it fell."
added, "It was a big round object, but at first it looked oblong
and then round and shiny and sort of milky white with little flames,
both reddish and bluish."
outstanding thing about "The Thing," Corrodo said, was that
it appeared to be revolving or tumbling through space.
time, Corrodo says he has been "hounded to death" by press
associations throughout the country, scientists and the Army at Fort
Greely who conducted the search for the object.
night, he and other residents of the area who saw the object were called
to a meeting at Fort Greely to be further interrogated by Army officials
and scientists from the University of Alaska.
to Army public information officials at Fort Greely, the search for
the object was called off because of a deep snow fall in the general
However, it was learned by this reporter that the snowfall in the area
where Corrodo sighted the object hasn't been severe and that also daily
searches for the object were still being made.
if it wasn't Sputnik's rocket and it wasn't a meteor - whatinellnik