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That first man-made star

Friend and fellow genealogist Kevin Shue raised the issue yesterday on Facebook.

What, he asked, was the first major news story that folks remembered?

Some of our colleagues — a tiny bit older than The Legal Genealogist — remembered the McCarthy hearings.1

Others — a fair amount younger than The Legal Genealogist — remembered the assassination of President Kennedy as the first news story they could recall.2

But for me… for me, it will always be the story of the stars of California — and the time when a new “star” appeared in the night sky.

I’ve told this story before3 — that’s why this post is titled a reprise — but like so many stories in our lives, it’s worth retelling.

sputnikWhen I was quite young, my family spent a few months in San Rafael, in Marin County, California, when I was in the second grade.

I no longer remember exactly what the work assignment was that took my father all the way west from our home in New Jersey. I do remember, vividly, being pulled out of Mrs. Ponder’s second grade class, riding my first airplane across the country, and sticking my toes for the first time into the Pacific Ocean.

I remember that we rented a house high on a hill and I remember walking down about a kazillion steps on hillside sidewalks to get to the Short Elementary School… and I remember choosing to walk up the roads on the way back because it was easier than climbing all those steps.

I remember that it was winter much of the time when we were there, which means the rainy season. I remember keeping a change of clothes at school because, often as not, we’d arrive drenched to the skin.

I remember visits from my Uncle Bill, who was in the Navy. I remember he always brought us presents. I remember the huge dolls he brought us with articulating elbows and knees and wrists and ankles.

I remember the police officer who lived down the street whose daughter was a brat — a hair-puller and a biter… but we put up with her because her parents owned something we’d never seen before in our lives: a color television. And how it was, on that television and on our own, that we began the trip into wonder.

And, more than anything else, I remember the wonder itself.

The wonder of discovering that the universe I lived in was bigger than the world I lived in.

Because the months when we lived there in San Rafael were in late 1957 and early 1958. Sixty years ago now.

And because I remember being taken out into the backyard, 60 years ago, to watch what looked to me to be a star, moving across the sky.

NASA describes it this way:

History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball (58 cm.or 22.8 inches in diameter), weighed only 83.6 kg. or 183.9 pounds, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.


The story begins in 1952, when the International Council of Scientific Unions decided to establish July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY) because the scientists knew that the cycles of solar activity would be at a high point then. In October 1954, the council adopted a resolution calling for artificial satellites to be launched during the IGY to map the Earth’s surface.


In July 1955, the White House announced plans to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite for the IGY and solicited proposals from various Government research agencies to undertake development. In September 1955, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Vanguard proposal was chosen to represent the U.S. during the IGY.


The Sputnik launch changed everything. As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard. Its size was more impressive than Vanguard’s intended 3.5-pound payload. In addition, the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S. Then the Soviets struck again; on November 3, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier payload, including a dog named Laika.


Immediately after the Sputnik I launch in October, the U.S. Defense Department responded to the political furor by approving funding for another U.S. satellite project. As a simultaneous alternative to Vanguard, Wernher von Braun and his Army Redstone Arsenal team began work on the Explorer project.


On January 31, 1958, the tide changed, when the United States successfully launched Explorer I. This satellite carried a small scientific payload that eventually discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth, named after principal investigator James Van Allen. The Explorer program continued as a successful ongoing series of lightweight, scientifically useful spacecraft.4

A newfangled miracle of miracles — a satellite.

That moving star was made by people… and it was moving in space.

Now I’m not going to get into the question of whether what I saw was Sputnik itself or its booster rocket.5 Whatever it was, I can still remember standing there in the darkened yard in San Rafael looking up at that moving star.

And realizing that my world had gotten smaller… and my universe so much bigger.


Image: Replica of Sputnik I,

  1. See “Army-McCarthy Hearings,” ( : accessed 25 Nov 2017).
  2. See “November 22, 1963: Death of the President,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum ( : accessed 25 Nov 2017).
  3. Judy G. Russell, “The stars of California,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 15 Oct 2016 ( : accessed 25 Nov 2017).
  4. Sputnik and The Dawn of the Space Age,” History, ( : accessed 25 Nov 2017).
  5. There are those who contend that the booster was easily seen and Sputnik impossible to see. Others say it was harder but possible. See the thread “Was Sputnik Visible Naked Eye?,” Cloudy Nights ( : accessed 25 Nov 2017).
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