Soviet rocket 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 descent of the launcher stage was closely
studied and highly anticipated, since it would be the first object 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.
Soviet Premier 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:
"We know it fell on the United States, " he said. "But they do not want to give it back to us."
"Apparently 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."
The following day the Soviet Academy of Sciences issued a formal appeal to the US to return the debris.
The 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.
The Academy's appeal tonight was more formal [than Khrushchev's]. It requested the rocket remnants and available data in the interests of science.
The same edition of the New York Times confirmed that the US Army actually had searched for the rocket in Alaska on December 1:
The 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.
The 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 search
US authorities from the White House to the State Department to the Pentagon unanimously denied knowledge of any such recovery.
Astronomer 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.