Family rejects skeptics of Sputnik claim

Calif. man says he has pieces of first man-made orbiter

February 18, 2007|By New York Times News Service

SAN FRANCISCO -- For nearly 50 years, Bob Morgan and his family have kept a box full of charred debris that they swear fell out of the early-morning sky Dec. 8, 1957.

"My dad said it was glowing so bright that you couldn't look at it with your naked eye," Morgan said of the pieces of metal and plastic that came to rest behind his grandfather's house in Encino, Calif. "So they grabbed some sunglasses until this thing had cooled down."

Although no one has ever confirmed exactly what the objects were, Morgan has long believed that he has a piece - or 13 pieces to be exact - of one of the most famous objects ever to fly: Sputnik I, the first man-made object to orbit the earth.

Experts are skeptical, but Morgan has found a champion in an unlikely, but strangely connected, source: the Beat Museum, a small storefront collection of books and memorabilia of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other writers.

The museum, which opened in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco last fall, has made plans to sponsor a spring tour of Morgan's space scrap in a vintage Airstream trailer, creating a kind of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for the astronomy set.

Jerry Cimino, the founder of the for-profit museum, said he is mounting the exhibit as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Sputnik - which was launched Oct. 4, 1957, and inspired the name Beatnik - as well as something of an old-school, Merry Pranksters-style lark.

"I wouldn't call it a stunt, but there's nothing wrong to shouting out your message," said Cimino, 52, a former corporate computer salesman who started the museum in 2003 in Monterey, Calif. "And if I can use this story to call attention to the message of the Beat Museum, which is tolerance, inclusiveness, and having the courage to live your own individual dreams, that's a good thing."

Morgan says it is not a hoax, and he does have some evidence for his theory, including a 1962 letter from the Air Force referring to the objects as "the Sputnik parts," as well as schematic drawings from a 1950s Russian publication - "Technology for Youth" - showing a Sputnik with parts shaped similarly to those his family found. Some scientists also say that the pieces - two hard, clear plastic rings and a series of smaller plastic and metal parts - could have been part of Sputnik's booster rocket.

The official story, according to NASA, is that Sputnik I - which was about the size of a beach ball, with a radio transmitter and four tails - re-entered the atmosphere in the early hours of Jan. 4, 1958, almost a month after Morgan's space junk landed. Most scientists think Sputnik I burned up before it hit the ground. But its exact fate remains a mystery.

John Hargenrader, an archivist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said it is possible that what Morgan recovered is part of the final stage of the satellite's launching rocket, which was a much larger, heavier object, made up of about 90 feet of heavy-gauge aluminum. The final booster stage stayed in orbit with Sputnik I and re-entered the atmosphere in early December 1957. News accounts at the time show that Soviet scientists believed that the rocket had re-entered over Alaska or the West Coast of North America.

Hargenrader said hard plastics could have survived re-entry, although it "would be pretty well scorched or deformed." And Morgan's pieces appear, in fact, to be burned in several places.

Roger D. Launius, a space history curator at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution, agreed that it was possible that Morgan's items were part of the booster but said there would be a heavy burden of proof.

"You have to document its history since the point it originated," Launius said. "If it dates to 1957, where was it found, who found it, and where has it been ... these many years? If you don't get good answers to those questions, there's good reasons to question it."

Morgan said his family collected the pieces after they cooled and then took them to the police. "They just laughed," said Morgan, now 60 and a parts manufacturer for personal watercraft in Casmalia, Calif. "They said, `We don't know what to do with that.'"

Several days later, Morgan says, his grandparents heard about a reward for any pieces of Sputnik. The Morgans were later interviewed by military officials, who took the pieces for inspection.

Morgan's grandfather got the parts back, minus a small piece, which had been removed from one of the rings. Morgan's grandparents tried to claim the reward, writing letters to public officials, including President John F. Kennedy. But in 1962, an Air Force colonel wrote a letter to the Morgans saying that although the family had "recovered the Sputnik parts," there was no reward.

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