When Sputnik Crashed in Wisconsin

Half a century later, the town of Manitowoc commemorates its biggest day ever.

Festival goers enjoy last year's “re-enactment” of the day a piece of Sputnik IV landed in Manitowic.

It came from outer space…. and crashed down in the middle of a street in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

That surely sounds like the start of a sci-fi movie. But half a century ago, the town was on the receiving end of a 20-pound smoldering hunk of the Soviet Union’s five-ton Sputnik IV satellite.

Media reports from the September 6, 1962 event say there were no eyewitnesses, but “there are hundreds if you ask now,” says J. Gregory Vadney, executive director of the Rahr-West Art Museum, which hosts the festival. Vadney says he heard there were “two police officers on routine patrol when they spotted the piece in the street. They believed it to be a metal ingot from one of the local manufacturing plants, speculated that it fell off a truck, and left it. Following patrol, they returned to the city police station, where they heard that a search had been called for the Sputnik IV spacecraft” and suddenly realized what they’d found.

The metal debris was sent off to the Smithsonian-Harvard Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which confirmed it was a piece of the satellite and sent a field agent out to collect smaller bits that landed around the area.

The Soviet space encounter with an American city is now celebrated at Manitowoc’s annual Sputnikfest, a party that began in 2007 and that organizers readily admit is “wacky tacky.” Vadney says, “That a Soviet spacecraft would ‘land’ in front of a museum in northeastern Wisconsin is just absurd, so why not celebrate it in the most absurd way possible?”

In true Chamber of Commerce style, the advertising pitch for the seventh annual event says it all: “Sputnik landed here…Why don’t you?” The event features food, music, raffles, and lots of contests. Dress up your dogs and cats (or ferrets, or rabbits) for the alien pet challenge, compete in the Sputnik Downhill Derby, or enter the Ms. Space Debris Pageant, open, according to the rules, to all “human life forms.” Or you can take in the Masquers Community Theater “re-enactment” of the Sputnik that went “kerplunknik,” replete with Coneheads and Stolichnaya vodka.

To Sputnikfest-goers this September 6, Manitowoc resident Tina Prigge advises a pilgrimage to the brass ring that was embedded by the city to mark the exact spot where the scrap of Sputnik IV dinged the road 52 years earlier. She says, “Put your fingers on the ring and make a wish…when there is no traffic approaching, of course!”

Visit Manitowoc.info for more information on attending the festival or visiting the year-round exhibition.

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