Driving down 8th Street in Manitowoc, you may pass by an inconspicuous brass ring embedded in the middle of the road. While the ring may not appear to be anything extraordinary upon first glance, it actually marks the crash site of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, a piece of astronomical history that has given rise to one of the most bizarre festivals in Wisconsin.
The brass ring in 8th Street is a memorial to a 20-pound piece of space junk that struck the town on September 5, 1962, after breaking off from the 5-ton Korabl-Sputnik 1 (called “Sputnik IV” in the West). It’s truly out of this world.
The Soviets had launched the spacecraft into orbit two years earlier, in 1960, 5,000 miles away from Manitowoc. But when the crew had tried to return it to Earth a few days later, the spacecraft inadvertently went even higher into orbit due to a computer glitch. When Sputnik finally left orbit in 1962, most of it was burned in the atmosphere, except for a little chunk that crash-landed in Manitowoc.
Once the blackened, fiery space junk crashed, most of the people in town ignored it, including two police officers, who assumed it was merely a piece of scrap metal from a nearby foundry. But when the officers heard the news that the Korabl-Sputnik had reentered Earth’s atmosphere, they were able to put two and two together.
The policemen sent the space junk to the Smithsonian, who, perhaps mockingly, sent it back to Russia to remind them of their embarrassment. Two replicas were made, one of which is still on display in Manitowoc’s Rahr-West Art Museum.
The crash landing of the “Kerplunknik” space junk is perhaps Manitowoc’s biggest claim to fame, and it has even been the inspiration for the annual Sputnikfest, a space-themed festival featuring the Ms. Space Debris Pageant, the Cosmic Cake competition, the Alien Drop raffle, and various other extraterrestrial oddities. What’s best is the ridiculous costumes that emerge, spanning from coneheads drinking vodka to Russians with a hammer and sickle.
Know Before You Go
The ring that marks the crash site is located in the dead center of 8th St. just a few feet north of its intersection with Park St.