Write Columbia's History
The Launch of Sputnik
Thomas Wm. Hamilton
Alum
Columbia College 1960

I was a sophomore, taking Astronomy 1 with Professor Jan Schilt, when Sputnik 1 was launched on Thursday, October 4, 1957. The class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On the first class after the launch, Tuesday, October 9, Professor Schilt walked into class and, in his wonderful Dutch accent, said, "Well gentlemen, it is not every day we have something new in the sky to talk about." He then spent the entire class proving, with diagrams and math, that the Soviets had deliberately launched Sputnik into an orbit that would not be visible in the USA for its first six weeks.

However, when the first word of the launch was announced at around 6:10 p.m. on October 4, I was home having dinner. We were listening to the radio. (It was so long ago that people did not watch TV news while eating dinner). Ken Banghart said in a rather amused tone, "The Russians claim to have launched something into space they call a sputnik, and it's going around the Earth."

I put my fork down on top of my lamb chop, and literally ran to the number 1 subway (I lived one block from Baker Field), and got down to WKCR. A group there had already organized to go to the campus shortwave station W2AEE. (I think WKCR engineer John Pegram was involved with both stations.) We taped the beep of Sputnik 1 as it first came above New York City's horizon. Then, we walked back one block to WKCR and repeatedly played the beep throughout the evening and night.

Clearly, someone was listening to WKCR, even in those 10-watt days. The next morning, at about 9:05 a.m., two men walked into the station and flipped badges showing they were from the FBI. "We understand you have a tape of that Russian thing out in space," one said. "Oh yes," everyone at the station burbled proudly, since we were the first radio station in the USA to get it on the air. The FBI men then stole the tape. I say "stole" because they never returned it, paid for it, or replaced it.

During my 32 years as an astronomy teacher at Wagner College on Staten Island, I told that story to each class as I discussed the history of the space program. One semester in the mid-70s, I had a student object. He said that his uncle worked for the FBI and that he resented my calling them a pack of thieves. To the cheers and applause of the eighty other students in the class, I told him that if he could get his uncle to have the tape returned as a valuable historical artifact, I would give him an A+ for the course with no need for him to take any tests, submit any papers, or even show up again. Three days later, I got the student's drop notice.



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