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I-Reporters' dreams launched along with Sputnik 50 years ago

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(CNN) -- Albert Fisher of Los Angeles, California, spent the night of October 4, 1957, wondering whether he would see Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. At age 16, he had helped start one of many teams of amateur scientists working through the Operation Moonwatch network, initiated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to help track satellites.


Albert Fisher saw this model of a proposed U.S. satellite at a science exhibit in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1957.

The group spotted the Soviet satellite and helped pinpoint its location with relative accuracy for the 1950s. Participants tracked the satellite's locations by recording the time as it passed through the viewfinders of their carefully positioned telescopes.

Fisher joined other I-Reporters, including an Apollo 14 astronaut, in responding to the 50th anniversary of Sputnik's launch. Many shared stories and photos of how they were inspired by this starting point in space exploration and the "space race" between the United States and the Soviet Union. Some said this event had a profound effect on their own lives. Finding Sputnik gave Fisher recognition in the local media and caused him to change his career plans.

"The whole country went space crazy when Sputnik went up," Fisher said. "Here I am and I'm a 16-year-old kid and I get written up in the newspaper because we spotted Sputnik."

He was then asked to host a local science program for teenagers, causing him to abandon his plans to be a scientist in favor of working in television.

Fisher and other I-Reporters expressed great excitement about what they saw as a major achievement for humanity, but many also said they felt lingering fears of what the implications would be given the political tension with Russia in the 1950s. Below is a selection of the responses sent to CNN, some of which have been edited for style and readability:

Edgar Mitchell of Lake Worth, Florida
I was a Naval Aviator aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga returning to test pilot duty in the U.S. when Sputnik launched. I realized immediately that humans would follow robot space craft into space and decided then to pursue that objective. As a result I eventually flew on Apollo 14 in January 1971 the third lunar landing mission.

Sally Campbell of Austin, Texas
I remember being 9 years old and lying on my back in the grass in my front yard in San Diego with my 12-year-old brother and his buddy. We all lay back and watched the stars go by in the black sky and tried to see the "moving light" that the newscasts described and laughed about the name Sputnik. We did eventually think we saw it fly by ... but who knows what we really saw. I remember wondering if this was something that I would remember doing when I grew up. Obviously, I did. I may however remember the evening more because my brother's buddy asked me that evening if I were a pirate. I replied no, I wasn't... to which he replied, "then why do you have a sunken chest!?" Hah ha ha!

Kay Krause of Austin, Texas
On July 14, 1958, while spending the night at my Grandma and Grandpa's home, I anxiously waited for Sputnik 3 to cross overhead. After seeing it I immediately sat down and scribbled a note to "whoever might read this." It was something I remember to this day and a day when I hoped the U.S. would soon be in and ahead of the space race.

During the 50 years since Sputnik, there hasn't been an occasion for anyone to read what I wrote, but the event was important enough for me as a school kid to write a note so I could read and recall what I saw in the sky that night in 1958. In those years, watching a satellite was not a common event.

Editor's note: The U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer I, on January 31, 1958.

Albert Fisher of Los Angeles, California
I was 16 years old when Sputnik was launched, but the event became a cornerstone in my life. I was living in New Orleans, Louisiana, my home town. Years earlier, I had befriended the famed astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek. He became my mentor and father figure. In the mid 1950s Dr. Hynek was asked by President Eisenhower to set up teams of amateurs to track satellites if and when they were ever launched. This was called "Project Moonwatch." Dr. Hynek helped me set up a team in New Orleans through Holy Cross High School. We were the youngest team in the nation. As fate would have it, on Sputnik's second orbit in space, it passed over New Orleans and I became one of the first people in the U.S. to track it. Being just 16, I became a local celebrity and the CBS TV station, WWL-TV, asked me to do a show on science for teenagers. I had to learn to write, produce and host my own TV show when I was 16. The show eventually evolved into one of the first "magazine" format shows on TV. I then started a local comedy TV show in New Orleans which became the biggest [local] hit ever. It was called "The House of Shock" with Morgus the Magnificent. The host became a lifelong friend, Sid Noel. From that early start because of Sputnik, I went on to have a highly successful career as a TV producer and director. I have won the national Emmy, major film and TV awards and have had my own production companies in Los Angeles, California, for the past 20-plus years. It all never would have happened if I had not been tutored by Dr. J. Allen Hynek and if Sputnik had not been launched. The launch of Sputnik truly was the launch of my career!

Irving Stein of Rio Rancho, New Mexico
On October 1957 I was working for RCA Astro Electronics Division. We had a contract with NASA to design and build a weather satellite named TIROS. The launch of Sputnik invigorated/motivated us to perform a "super" effort to get Tiros launched successfully. And we did on April 1, 1960. Incidentally, the contract called for a minimum of 60 days operation, and we achieved more than 90 days.

Stephen Sand of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I was playing a card game with my brothers when we heard the report on the radio. I remember going outside a day or two later around five in the morning to see it pass overhead.

Bill Blakely of Butler, Pennsylvania
I was in second grade in 1957. Back then, the teacher would bring in a TV and we would watch rocket launches during school. I was so enthralled by Sputnik and satellites that I did a whole notebook on space. My mom probably still has it somewhere.

Editor's note: Blakely shared additional memories in a second e-mail:

America was very paranoid in the late '50s. One big result of Sputnik was that Science began to be taught in the elementary schools, usually through TV classes on, in my case, WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We also watched every rocket launch we could during school. Later on we got to see the recoveries of the manned missions, too.

I can also remember hearing about Laika, and Yuri Gagarin, and the first manned U.S. capsules. And finally, in July 1969 I was on a fishing trip to Canada with my dad. The Canadians we met were all excited about the moon landing, much more so than the Americans at the lodge. After only twelve years of research and experimentation, we were on the moon.

David Justian of Muskegon, Michigan
At the beginning of the school year the only bodies over our eighth grade heads were put there by God. At Phillips Elementary School we were still practicing how to defend ourselves against a Russian nuclear attack which would target the local tank engine factory with long range bombers. The day Sputnik was put up, the girls were still arguing over whether Elvis Presley or Pat Boone was the best looking. Sputnik proved the Russians could bomb us with rocket ships, or they could bomb us from space with Sputnik. I remember that first night, watching Sputnik blink across the sky, and was totally amazed when, a few minutes later, it crossed the sky again, and then again. The memory I have is one of fear, trauma and shock that my president had lied to me about how backward and stupid the Russians were, and about how safe we were from the far away enemy. I never trusted anything the government said after that day. When the Vietnam era came, well, I was on the front lines in the protest marches at Western Michigan University. I later volunteered to fight in the war in order to provide food for my new wife because no one would hire me because I was of military age. Sputnik proved that our government will lie to you for political reasons and, also, that other peoples aren't so stupid after all. It still lies to us and I hope Sputnik will keep us on guard.

Richard Adlam of Hamilton, Bermuda
I just turned 50 in September, so I am a child of the space age! I was not even a month old went it went up. Hmm, I guess those Russians aren't quite as backward as the media would have us believe, or perhaps as backward as vested interests wanted. Wonder who kept the space station going while the sophisticated shuttle was grounded? There's something in keeping some things fairly simple!

Having said that, I firmly believe the U.S. got to the moon. My father let us stay up to watch every part of it, particularly the flight down to Tranquility Base where the "Eagle has landed." Wow! What an achievement! Well done, NASA! I count myself incredibly lucky to be born into this era and to see it all unfold. Even Apollo 13 was an amazing recovery from a real life "Mission Impossible." I see no problem with a base on the moon, but as for a trip to Mars, I'm not sure what benefit is to be gained that probes can't give us. Do we really think we could live there? A moon base could bring benefits from mining ores or having early warning observatories looking for errant meteorites or tourism. Who knows?

Sue Pearlman of Morris Plains, New Jersey
My father was always interested in astronomy. That Friday evening he had instilled a sense of anticipated excitement, setting alarm clocks to get up the following morning at 4 a.m. to climb to the top of the hill above our street to see Sputnik. We watched as a tiny speck of light passed over our heads in the early morning hours, assuming we were actually watching the satellite pass overhead. That morning as I stood and watched that tiny spec of light pass over our heads, I began what would be a lifelong interest in our space program. I collected articles, watched any TV programs that covered any part of our new space program, became an avid star watcher at night, all of which continue today. I strongly believe that even with all of the social, political and financial issues we face as a country and world today, that it is imperative that the space program should continue throughout our international community, if we are to survive as a human race.

Earl Kirkwood of Colorado Springs, Colorado
One cold snowy night, my Mom and I went into the front yard to see if we could see John Glenn fly over. My Mom said it was important that we go into space and beat the Russians. That stuck with me and pointed me into a career in Space, working principally with military space programs.

Phillip Morgan of Houston, Texas
My father woke me up to hear the bleep-bleep of Sputnik 1 on BBC radio when I was a small boy growing up in North Wales, England. It caught my imagination and I have been crazy about the space program ever since. Now, almost unbelievably, I live across the street from the Johnson Space Center, and can proudly claim some astronauts as friends.

Michael Wilson of Pella, Iowa
I was a freshman in a new high school. Each class that day was all about Sputnik and how the Russians had beat us into space. From that day on all the talk was we need more science education.

Charles F. Perdrisat of Williamsburg, Virginia
I was a graduate student at the ETH [Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] in Zurich, Switzerland. As I remember it, it was just less than a year after the Hungarian upheaval, with lots of Hungarian students coming to Switzerland, vigils on the streets and more. Not to be forgotten!

Dan Kaepp of Coldwater, Michigan
When the news was flashed that the Soviets had launched Sputnik, I was a young man, recently graduated from high school, working at Grinnell Brothers Department Store on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. I was shocked, not so much that someone had done such a thing, but that it had been the Russians that had done so, mostly because they could now lob missiles into the United States at will, which I am sure inspired President Kennedy to beef up our space program and probably had an influence on his thinking about the invasion of Cuba, and later on the Cuban missile crisis. A lot of us were not only shocked, but very disappointed to think that we had come what we thought was so far, only to see our experts lose the battle for space, or so we thought.

Robert Inman of Winfield, Alabama
That Friday night my parents and I were on our way to Las Vegas, Nevada. My mom and dad liked to take the weekends off and stay out in the Mojave desert and sometimes "Lost Wages" as my father called Las Vegas. We heard the announcement on the radio. We lived in the San Fernando valley [California] and on weekend nights you could see the flair from static rocket engine tests. When times of overpass for the Los Angeles, California, area were published we were able to see it quite easily. You could still see the Milky Way at night back then.

Vanessa de Vera of Houston, Texas
I wasn't even born yet. But I have been following any space development since I can remember. I remember watching the lunar landing with my grandfather. It is one of my fondest memories. Since then I have been hooked, a confessed "space junkie."

Marion Aird of Santa Rosa, California
I was working for U.S. Strategic Air Command 16th Air Force in Seville, Spain. Everyone was out that night looking up at the sky. The U.S. military was not very happy.

Ivan Zenker of Woodbury, New Mexico
I remember the space race as our school's response to President Kennedy's challenge. As I entered seventh grade we were tested and placed in advanced math and science curricula to help us catch up. We wound up doing seventh and eighth grade math in one year in 1959.

Davy Chittam of Athens, Alabama
Growing up in the 1960s in north Alabama, my friends and I were near the heart of America's race to the moon. The Saturn V rockets that would propel the spacecraft toward the moon were developed and tested at Redstone Arsenal, where I now work. I remember the sudden shaking of the ground, the falling of dishes and things hanging on the walls - much like an earthquake - when the rockets were fired-up during testing at Redstone. My grandfather and several uncles worked on various project related to developing those rockets. Now, we are excited about the development of the new moon rockets at Redstone and the Boeing Rocket plant in nearby Decatur, Alabama. We are wondering if the ground will shake again with these new rockets.

Thomas Melrose of Longmont, Colorado
On October 4, 1957, I was 9 years old when my father and I heard on the TV that Sputnik had been launched. My dad worked at Republic Aviation in Long Island, New York, and our dinner conversations often were about planes, cars and rockets, so I knew almost instantly what this meant. The sky and space were opening up for me -- the future was wide open. All night I dreamed of whizzing satellites beeping way over my head. I probably didn't talk of anything else for a couple of months. The following Halloween my mom helped me dress up a football helmet with antenna, and I went out trick or treating as Sputnik. I am sure this event was one of the triggers that caused me to study science, and physics and become an engineer. I never believed the military "high ground" fears, but followed every launch up through today as part of man's great adventure and the future of the human race.

Steve Johnson of Cleveland, Tennessee
On October 4, 1957, I was sitting at our breakfast table preparing to eat breakfast with my mother and father and then go to class in the second grade. I will always remember that the radio newsman broke into a song and reported that Russia had just successfully launched the first satellite. I remember being so scared that I would have bombs raining down on me before the day was over. Luckily, the situation was not as dire as a second grader would think. Just think where we would be if all of the money that was spent on killing people over the last 50 years was applied to venturing into outer space.

Sherri McKee of Oroville, California
I was 7 years old and my parents had talked about the upcoming event, marveling at the technology involved. I was very interested, thinking it would be like a spaceship seen in cartoons. My father got me up. It seemed like it was the middle of the night (it was). The coverage was nothing like it became later on, but it was amazing none the less. My younger brother had a stuffed leopard that he renamed Sputnik. This was a time of backyard bomb shelters, nuclear bomb drills in school and an expanding space race. We followed the story in the newspapers every day and my folks talked about the joke that Orson Welles had played on people with his broadcast of War of the Worlds. One of my grandmothers had been listening to the radio and missed the disclaimer. Living in a remote mountainous area, she had been very distraught. The advertising industry jumped on the space travel interest: Furnishings, clothing and even cars had space themes. Life changed and the world moved into another mind-set from that time onward.

Richard DiBenedetto of Heriot Bay, British Columbia
I was 10 years old in 1957 and in the fifth grade. I remember that in 1957 the color combination of black and pink was the popular trend of the times and rock and roll was in its infancy. Soviet Russia was considered a big threat at the time but Sputnik temporarily transcended politics, at least in my family. The frightening possibility of nuclear war was ever present but Sputnik seemed somehow benign for me as an innocent 10-year-old.


Belmont, Massachusetts, was and still is a small-town bedroom community about two miles from Harvard University. Henry Kissinger lived there while writing his doctoral dissertation. My Dad was self-employed and inscribed names on gravestones for a living. After World War II, the Middle Class was larger than it seems today. In 1957 we had just moved into a new custom built home that cost $27,000. In 1998 when my mother died, it sold for $375,000. I spent two years in Vietnam from 1966-1968 in the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division and 5th Special Forces Group (ABN). ... The State Employment Security Department referred me to a job at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in December 1968 where I worked in the mail room before being promoted to Operations Specialist in the Center for Short Lived Phenomena which was an environmental clearinghouse for the scientific study of short-lived natural phenomena and we used the same computer system.

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory served as the headquarters for the world's satellite tracking network and had an enormous computer system which took up almost an entire floor of the building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Scientists from all over the world, including the Soviet Union, were often there sharing scientific data and discussing astrophysics and related topics. New types of satellites were under development and a variety of scientists walked the halls with their heads literally in the clouds. Carl Sagan who was to popularize astrophysics for the masses worked down the hall from me. In July 1969 when U.S. Astronauts landed on the Moon, I was in Europe; but when I returned in September the much awaited lunar samples had also arrived at Harvard's Geophysics Laboratory at 60 Garden Street in Cambridge. All the scientists, computer experts and support staff were eager to get a glimpse at the first lunar samples and one by one we all peered into the microscope awestruck. I am not a trained astrophysicist or geophysicist and only viewed the samples that one time. The mythical soil from space to my unskilled eye looked like ordinary dirt even though I knew it wasn't. Now there are tiny specks of lunar samples for public view in most science museums in the United States. It's been many years since then and I've traveled quite a bit before moving to Canada. ... It was an exciting time when science had purpose for a golden future of new possibilities. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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