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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pieces of Sputnik or Scrap Metal in California?

SAN FRANCISCO -- For nearly 50 years, Bob Morgan and his family have kept a box full of charred debris that they swear fell out of the early morning sky on Dec. 8, 1957.

"My dad said it was glowing so bright that you couldn't look at it with your naked eye," Morgan said of the pieces of metal and plastic that came to rest behind his grandfather's house in Encino, California.

"So they grabbed some sunglasses until this thing had cooled down."

Although no one has ever confirmed exactly what the objects were, Morgan has long believed that he has a piece -- or 13 pieces to be exact -- of one of the most famous objects ever to fly: Sputnik I, the first man-made object to orbit the earth.

Experts are skeptical, but Morgan has found a champion in an unlikely, but strangely connected, source: the Beat Museum, a small storefront collection of books and memorabilia of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other writers.

The museum, which opened in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco last fall, has made plans to sponsor a spring tour of Morgan's space scrap in a vintage Airstream trailer, creating a kind of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for the astronomy set.

Jerry Cimino, the founder of the for-profit museum, said he was mounting the exhibit as both a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, which was launched Oct. 4, 1957, and inspired the name Beatnik, as well as something of an old-school, Merry Pranksters-style lark.

"I wouldn't call it a stunt, but there's nothing wrong with shouting out your message," said Cimino, 52, a former corporate computer salesman who started the museum in 2003 in Monterey, California.

"And if I can use this story to call attention to the message of the Beat Museum, which is tolerance, inclusiveness, and having the courage to live your own individual dreams, that's a good thing," he said.

Morgan says it is not a hoax, and he does have some evidence for his theory, including a 1962 letter from the Air Force referring to the objects as "the Sputnik parts," as well as schematic drawings from a 1950s Russian publication, "Technology for Youth," that shows a Sputnik with similar-shaped parts to those his family found.

Some scientists also say the pieces -- two hard, clear plastic rings and a series of smaller plastic and metal parts -- could have been part of Sputnik's booster rocket.

The official story, according to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is that Sputnik, which was about the size of a beach ball, with a radio transmitter and four dramatic tails, re-entered the atmosphere in the early hours of Jan. 4, 1958, almost a month after Morgan's space junk landed. Most scientists think Sputnik I burned up before it hit the ground. But its exact fate remains a mystery.

NASA archivist John Hargenrader said it was possible that what Morgan recovered was part of the final stage of the satellite's launching rocket, which was a much larger, heavier object made up of about 30 meters of heavy-gauge aluminum. The final booster stage stayed in orbit with the Sputnik I and re-entered the atmosphere in early December 1957. News accounts at the time show that Soviet scientists believed that the rocket had re-entered over Alaska or the West Coast of North America.

Hargenrader said hard plastics could have survived re-entry, although it "would be pretty well scorched or deformed." And Morgan's pieces appear, in fact, to be burned in several places.

Roger Launius, a space history curator at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, agreed that it was possible that Morgan's items were part of the booster but said the claim would face a heavy burden of proof.

"You have to document its history since the point it originated," Launius said. "If it dates to 1957, where was it found, who found it, and where has it been lo these many years? If you don't get good answers to those questions, there's good reasons to question it."

Morgan said his family collected the pieces after they cooled and then took them to the police. "They just laughed," said Morgan, now 60 and a parts manufacturer for personal watercraft in Casmalia, California. "They said, 'We don't know what to do with that.'"

Several days later, Morgan says, his grandparents heard about a reward for any pieces of Sputnik, which had electrified -- and somewhat terrified -- the nation. The Morgans were later interviewed by military officials, who took the pieces for inspection.

Morgan's grandfather got the parts back, minus a small piece that had been removed from one of the rings. Morgan's grandparents tried to claim the reward, writing letters to public officials, including President John F. Kennedy. But, in 1962, an Air Force colonel wrote a letter to the Morgans to say that although the family had "recovered the Sputnik parts," there was no reward.

Morgan inherited the parts in the mid-1990s. About five years ago, he had a forensics lab run a test on the plastic, which found nothing special. But he also found schematic pictures of the original Sputnik and compared them to what he had. What he found surprised him.

"There's a lot of pieces that resemble stuff, and there's a lot of pieces that don't," he said. "But one of the pieces I have has the same screw-holes in the same places."

Still, Hargenrader says the Russian diagrams Morgan cites were most likely copies of pictures of U.S. satellites reprinted in Russian magazines.

So, if the pieces are not Sputnik or its rocket, what are they?

Paul Dickson, a historian and the author of "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century," said the skies around Encino, in the San Fernando Valley, were probably very active in 1957, during the International Geophysical Year, a global effort to study geophysical phenomena.

"The whole country was enmeshed in experimentation," he said.

That year was also big for the Beats, a group that was also enmeshed in experimentation, with sex and drugs, and often in San Francisco. It marked both the publication of "On the Road," Kerouac's generation-defining travelogue, and the trial and acquittal of Lawrence Ferlinghetti on obscenity charges stemming from his publication of Ginsberg's poem "Howl."

The beats and the Sputnik are linked by nomenclature if nothing else: Herb Caen coined the word "Beatnik" in a newspaper column about a party held for "50 Beatniks." "They're only Beat, y'know, when it comes to work," Caen wrote in April 1958.

Cimino says that connection alone would be enough for his museum to mount an exhibit. But both he and Morgan also say they would like to know the truth.

"At the worst, I'd like someone to say this was a weather balloon launched three days before, and I know because I was there," Cimino said. "If that's the answer, God bless America. But, wow: Wouldn't it be great if it was true?"