The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 ushered in the Space Age and ramped up fears in the midst of the Cold War. Five years later, a chunk of another Sputnik landed in Wisconsin. Meg Jones has the story of this Soviet invasion.
If you’re over a certain age, you remember the Cold War well.
The Soviets were America’s enemy in every arena. We taunted each other. Each side tried to build more nuclear weapons in a race that started shortly after World War II ended and had heated up by the 1960s. America’s military trained for what many suspected would be World War III.
World War III never happened and we never fought the Russians on a battlefield, at least not directly.
But what if I told you the Soviets actually did invade Wisconsin? Or at least a piece of Russia came here.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 6, 1962, a chunk of metal dropped from outer space on to a street in Manitowoc. It landed with a thud and perhaps a hiss, though this is purely speculation since no one actually saw it land. A couple of Manitowoc police officers on patrol spotted it on North 8th Street, but figuring it was a hunk of junk that probably fell off a truck, they left it. They never thought it could be a piece of a Russian space satellite called Sputnik 4.
The unmanned Sputnik 4 had been circling Earth for a couple of years when it fell back to terra firma. As it was yanked back into the planet’s atmosphere, Sputnik split apart and the pieces burned up as they descended. But some of those bits survived the fiery re-entry. The metal mass that came to rest in Manitowoc was embedded three inches into the pavement. It weighed 20 pounds and looked sort of like a rusted hub cap from a go-kart. A short time later the police realized what they saw might have been the remains of Sputnik 4. And suddenly Manitowoc was on the front pages of newspapers around the country.
This all happened just a month before the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The actual piece of Russian space junk is no longer in Wisconsin. Initially it was sent to the Smithsonian where tests confirmed its identity and eventually returned to Mother Russia. But a replica is on display at the Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc. And sharp-eyed visitors can see a ring embedded in the street in front of the museum, near the center line, marking the spot Sputnik landed. A small plaque nearby marks the cosmic collision.
The Cold War ended a couple decades later with a whimper, not a bang. But the good people of Manitowoc still fondly remember the day Russia invaded their community. Each year in early September, the city on Lake Michigan schedules a weekend Sputnikfest featuring an alien pet contest for people who want to dress up their cats and dogs in tin foil and funny hats. There’s another costume contest for humans. And in a purely American way of celebrating an otherwise ordinary looking piece of metal that fell out of the sky more than 50 years ago, Manitowoc also crowns a Ms. Space Debris.