Kazakhstan was a place where secrets could be kept. Part of the USSR since 1920, the central Asian “republic” featured many wild, uninhabited areas. It was a perfect place to hide things from the world. That is why Russia built a secret site (later to be named Baikonur) there in 1955. Located on a broad, flat plain surrounded by wilderness, it was the perfect place to test missiles. There, failures could be hidden and successes built upon, both shielded from watching eyes. Or so they thought.
The site was primarily used to test versions of the Soviet R-7 rocket, which they hoped would be capable of carrying a hydrogen bomb payload to the continental United States. Hurried tests of the rocket took place during the summer of 1957. The first three tests were unmitigated disasters as the rocket either exploded on the gantry or just as it was lifting off. Design changes led to more successful launches, but it was apparent that much more development was needed to turn it into an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
6,200 miles away from Kazakhstan was a parking lot in Terre Haute, Indiana.
In March 1957 it was announced that a “dedicated group of amateur scientists” in Terre Haute had formed a Moonwatch group. Operation Moonwatch was one of many American projects undertaken during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958. Overseen by the Smithsonian Institution and its observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Moonwatcher groups were formed to eventually help trace the path of the proposed US effort, called Project Vanguard, to launch a satellite.
The Terre Haute group was led by Nunz Addabbo, an engineer at the American Brass company. The initial group included a geography professor, a civil engineer, a dentist, salesman, housewife and astronomy student. Their observation stations were built on the Allis-Chalmers parking lot located on Terre Haute’s far northside. A local bank agreed to purchase the needed materials to construct a wide-angle telescope.
When the American satellite was launched it would only be visible at dawn and dusk, but it could be continuously tracked by its radio signals. It was estimated that it would orbit the earth every ninety minutes, and traverse Indiana in a mere 35 seconds. The Terre Haute group’s task to track the “artificial moon” was likened to “finding and tracking a golf ball that had been thrown from an airplane traveling 700 miles an hour, flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet.”
Meanwhile in Kazakhstan thoughts turned to repurposing the R-7 rocket.
Three years earlier, the chief Soviet rocket scientist, Sergei Korolev, had proposed launching a satellite into earth orbit. It took more than two years to finally steer his idea through the byzantine Soviet bureaucracy, but Korolev’s project was finally approved. Scientists reckoned that the R-7 was not ready to carry an ICBM, but it might successfully launch a satellite.
Baikonur hummed with excitement during the first few days of October 1957. White-coated rocket scientists mingled with engineers and workmen to prepare their surprise for the world. Sitting atop the R-7 on October 4th (it was already October 5th in Kazakhstan) was a 184-pound round object that looked like a basketball with long antennas attached. It was called Sputnik which meant “spouse” or “fellow traveler” in Russian. Finally, the button was pushed and the R-7 lifted off carrying the first “artificial moon” to orbit earth.
The launch shook the ground around that remote corner of Kazakhstan, but its reverberations would set the whole planet atremble.
After being assured the launch was successful Soviet authorities (who wisely waited 90 minutes to make sure it was a success before they informed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev) released a report about Sputnik on their official news agency Tass. Coincidently, a group of American scientists were attending a function at the Soviet Embassy at the same time. They immediately understood the significance of the announcement and rushed to inform government officials. The Cambridge Observatory sent an urgent message to its 160 Moonwatcher groups to be on the lookout for the satellite.
By 5:45pm that October Friday evening Terre Haute Moonwatchers had gathered in the parking lot. Suddenly, machines started beeping. Startled ears pricked up and anxious eyes looked skyward. At 6:50 pm volunteer James McKamey (called Don McKamay in some reports) saw a “steady white stream” flash across the heavens. Volunteers tuned their radio tracking equipment. Al Formicella, another volunteer, had been scanning the sky. At 7:44pm he saw a “pale, blue phosphorescent glow” scudding high in the sky.
A hurried call was placed to Cambridge to report the Moonwatchers’ findings.
The next morning the United Press correspondent in Cambridge reported that “the Terre Haute observation station was reported to be the first in the United States to see the Russian earth satellite which was launched yesterday.” Upon hearing the news, Nunz Addabbo noted that Columbus, Ohio had seen and reported Sputnik a few seconds later, but Terre Haute observed it first because the satellite was traveling west to east. A few hours later the head of the Cambridge Observatory said he did not believe that Terre Haute or any other site had actually seen the satellite due to the angle of the sun. Addabbo responded that indeed the Terre Haute group had tracked an object that did “resemble the satellite in direction, speed and light intensity.”
Within 24 hours Sputnik had changed the world. Though President Eisenhower initially refused to comment, others were soon shouting their concerns. How did Sputnik change the balance of military power between the Americans and Soviets? Would Russian bombs soon be raining down on the US from space? How had the United States, the most technically advanced nation in the world lose out to the “backward” Russians? Were our universities to blame? Who in the government dropped the ball on all this? Accusations and acrimony flooded the media. Fingers were pointed in every direction. America and much of the rest of the world were benumbed by collective shock at the news.
Thus, began the space race. Ironically, Sputnik was launched during the International Geophysical Year. One of the reasons for the IGY was to cool Cold War tensions between the US and USSR. Only China, among major nations, refused to take part. By sharing scientific information amongst each other it was hoped to engender a great sense of cooperation and ensure peaceful relations.
Instead Sputnik brought with it an arctic blast, further ratcheting up tensions. The Cold War entered into a possible nuclear winter.
At first the Soviet Union tried to play it straight. A line in their press release rather casually mentioned it had bested the US, but afterward it issued straight forward scientific information about Sputnik. But that later gave way to “spin.” Russians began to use the satellite for propaganda purposes. It became a 184 -pound truncheon to pummel the United States and to try to convince third-world nations that the USSR was THE power in the world. The propaganda only intensified when the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. This time the capsule carried Laika, the Space Dog.
The need to save face may have caused Americans to move forward too quickly on its “hot, but mainly secret” space race with the Soviet Union. America’s first attempt to launch its satellite came on December 6, 1957. The televised launch was a disaster. Two seconds after liftoff, having risen only four feet, the Vanguard rocket toppled back onto the launch pad and exploded. The failure further damaged American prestige around the world. Foreign newspapers derisively labeled the American effort as “flopnik,” “Kaputnik, “stayputnik,”” and “oopsnik.” Interestingly, Sputnik also inspired the name “Beatnik” for the 1950s’ Beat Generation.
It was not until January 31, 1958 that the Unites States successfully launched a satellite when Explorer 1 was rocketed into orbit. The Terre Haute Moonwatchers gleefully tracked it progress.
Sputnik stopped transmitting radio signals on October 26, 1957, the day its battery died. It had completed 326 orbits around the Earth. It continued its journey until January 4, 1958, exactly three months after its launch. By then, it had made 1440 laps around the planet and covered 43 million miles before it burnt up during reentry.
Though it can be reasonably argued that the Terre Haute Moonwatchers were not the first to “see” Sputnik, they did track its signal and were the first civilians in the US to inform the world about the little traveler from Kazakhstan.