OSI at 75: Chasing Sputnik

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union used a converted intercontinental ballistic missile to launch Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to ever orbit the Earth.

Sputnik 1 was a metal sphere weighing approximately 184 pounds and it was roughly the size of a basketball. The only cargo on board was a low-power radio transmitter which broadcast a beeping noise at regular intervals that was heard by radio listeners around the world. 

Traveling at a speed of 18,000 miles per hour and traversing more than 43.5 million miles as it completed 1440 trips around the planet, Sputnik 1 remained in orbit for nearly three months before it burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. 

On Jan. 12, 1958, the OSI field office at Carswell Air Force Base, which at the time was located near Fort Worth, Texas, received a handwritten letter from a concerned citizen from the State of Texas who claimed to have witnessed the Sputnik 1’s fall back to Earth. The citizen reported that ten days earlier he and his two adult nephews had been traveling via automobile northbound from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, when he made his purported observation. 

In his letter, the citizen wrote:

“We saw what definitely was Sputnik No.1 fall January 2nd at 7:50 p.m. (Thursday) just north of New Orleans. This is a desolate locality with swamps etc. This object fell one mile in front of us straight down and we were able to view it for 10 or 15 seconds. It was a perfect sphere with a glow around it and the circle itself was white. Having worked in an aluminum heat treating department during the war I am familiar with heated metal.” 

The citizen went on to describe in his letter about how he initially reported his sighting to the Dallas Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation several days after the sighting. The FBI, later in turn, told him they had passed on the information to Air Force authorities at Carswell AFB. The citizen was concerned that his observation was being bounced around between agencies without discerned action and that it might eventually get lost or dismissed without further scrutinization. His letter to OSI, was intended to inquire directly with the Air Force to ask if it was investigating further.

The citizen closed his letter, writing:

“My two nephews and myself are lifelong residents of Dallas and certainly know there is no reward collected with finding this satellite. We know that finding the satellite intact would be of immense scientific value as well as historical. We have withheld this evidence from the press thinking maybe the government wanted to keep it secret for a while. We haven’t been shown the courtesy of advising us whether they are looking for this or not and we don’t want the report pigeon-holed someplace. If you want to release this to the press you have our permission to do so or if you want to keep it a secret, we will do likewise. I have seen comets, meteors, falling stars, and they all have tails and this didn’t. You may be sure that we are positive this was the satellite.”

Examining the letter, there was immediate skepticism from within OSI as to the reliability of the citizens report.  First, Sputnik 1 had actually began reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere on Jan. 4, 1958, two days after the citizen claimed to have seen the event. OSI investigators, consulting with scientists from various space-related government agencies, determined that satellite’s complete disintegration would have likely occurred by January 5th or January 6th.  

Regardless of any concerns with the authenticity of the observation, special agents did their due diligence and followed up directly with the citizen contacting him by telephone and conducting an interview. Their report of this conversation ended simply: “After telephone contact, took no further action.” Despite this, as was standard practice with reports of this type at the time, the report was forwarded to OSI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. for archiving.

Not satisfied with OSI’s response, the citizen reached to Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, also of Texas, hoping a Congressional inquiry would convince the Air Force to further the investigation. On Feb. 6, 1958, Air Force Headquarters in Washington, D.C., received a letter from Senator Johnson. 

The letter read:

“I am enclosing a communication which I received from one of my constituents.  I will appreciate your giving serious consideration to this problem based on its merits. Please let me have as prompt a reply as possible.” 

Faced with a Congressional inquiry, Air Force Headquarters reached out to OSI, asking: “It is requested that your files be checked to ascertain if any satellite or UFO report and/or investigative action occurred on the basis of the report as described in the letter to Senator Johnson. It is requested that your reply be forwarded as soon as possible.” 

This chain of events suddenly reinvigorated the requirement for a more thorough investigation and another analysis of the citizen’s observation was begun. Air Force Headquarters tasked OSI with lead responsibility for the investigation. OSI’s efforts were supported by Air Force Headquarters intelligence office, known as AFCIN, and the Air Technical Intelligence Center, known as ATIC. Base commanders at Carswell AFB, Texas, and Keesler AFB, Mississippi, were also enlisted to assist with the investigation as needed. 

The initial analysis report that was completed following the reopening of the investigation, dated Feb. 28, 1958, read:

“The Soviet satellite is a hollow, polished sphere approximately 23 inches in diameter. As such it is the opinion that it would probably burn up between 30 to 80 miles altitude upon reentry due to atmospheric drag. It is unlikely that it would be seen as a perfect sphere if it did reach the Earth without fragmenting. Assuming that the satellite remained intact or did not fragment, it would tend to strike the Earth at a rather flat angle. The source states it came straight down.  Information available to us indicates that the sphere entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated a few days after the incident reported by source. Source states that he observed the object for 10 to 15 seconds and was able to describe its shape and color in detail. The sighting duration appears to be unduly long, even if the satellite arrived at terminal velocity. On the basis of the above it appears improbable that the object was a Soviet satellite.”  

This analysis report was presented to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Washington, D.C. who concurred with OSI’s conclusions. 

Despite the bulk of the evidence indicating that the reported object was not likely going to be the fallen Soviet satellite, to be completely thorough, OSI decided to reach out to the citizen and his two nephews to reinterview them. The intent was to allow OSI to reverify and double check the claims made in the original report, but also to reach out to them to better ascertain the probable area of fall of the reported object. This would potentially help OSI conduct a search of the impact area to better clarify the probability of its existence or perhaps even recover the reported object itself if found. The case was held open until the interviews and a possible search could be completed.

On March 26, 1958, the citizen and one of the two nephews who was with him when he witnessed the alleged event were interviewed. The agents reported they experienced “much difficulty” locating the individuals to make initial contact and schedule the interview as neither was “listed in Dallas directories.” They also reported that upon meeting them, they learned that citizen had “recently suffered a nervous breakdown and may have not been at peak mental efficiency during the interview.” The nephew, however, “appeared perfectly sound in every respect.”

The report of that interview read:

“The general impression from the interview was that the reliability of the initial sighting should be reconsidered. At the time of the initial report both men stated they had seen Sputnik 1 fall. They seemed very sure of this. However, when asked this at the interview what they had seen they replied they could not be sure. It might have been an airplane light, a falling star, or a reflection of some kind. Though they initially reported that the object had fallen ‘straight down,’ during this interview they seemed to agree that it fell across their line of vision at an angle of approximately 60 to 75 degrees with the Earth’s surface. As to the size of the object, which was initially reported as being 24 inches in diameter, they stated that it was impossible to estimate the size with any accuracy saying it could have been as ‘big as a television set’ or as ‘big as a house’. One described the object as being perfectly round and glowing on all sides, but the other stated that the object appeared more irregular in shape and that it was glowing only on the underside. Both agreed the object was soundless and the glow appeared to have stopped when the object passed from their line of vision behind some trees and apparently struck the Earth.” 

“It seemed the reason both men were initially sure what they had seen was Sputnik 1, was the fact they had been hearing on the radio news all day that the Soviet satellite was expected to fall anytime.  It was also noted they had undergone a great change in attitude on this matter.  Originally, they had delayed reporting the object for four days and then had waited six more days to request Congressional assistance. But in this interview, they repeated several times that as far as they were concerned the matter was a thing of the past, they were not particularly concerned about it either way, and they were not particularly interested in the disposition of their report.”

A subsequent follow-on interview that occurred on the same day with just the nephew further reported: “It was learned the citizen had been doing a good bit of reading about the earth satellites and apparently became quite obsessed with the idea in general. After reporting he had seen Sputnik 1 fall, the citizen had become convinced his telephone was being tapped and did not use it for several weeks for fear of releasing some important information.”

The investigator closed his interview report writing: “With the above interview in mind, and with the impression I received of the two men, it is my opinion this report should be viewed with more skepticism.”

On April 7, 1958, the Air Force concluded: “No further action required.”

The investigation further noted:

“In brief, after all the furor caused by the source in demanding Congressional and FBI intervention, investigators found he was of questionable reliability, contradicted much of his original statements, and in general, viewed his report with skepticism.”

On June 9, 1958, a reply to Senator’s Johnson’s inquiry letter was formally forwarded by Air Force Headquarters: “Although all facts surrounding the incident have been carefully studied, nothing was found which would indicate the unidentified object sighted was Sputnik No.1.” 

There has currently been no historical record located that indicates any further correspondence between Senator Johnson and the Air Force regarding this incident.

Closing the inquiry, the final Air Force report simply stated: “Upon investigation, source adjudged unreliable and inconsistent. The observation possesses the characteristics of a meteor sighting and the case is evaluated as a meteor.”

Editor’s Note: OSI at 75 is an installment of OSI’s year-long commemoration of its 75th Anniversary Year based on the theme: “Inspired By Our Past – OSI’s Future Starts Today.”