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Sputnik and Project Moonwatch in Adler History

October 4 marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of Sputnik, the first Earth satellite. Launched by the Soviet Union, Sputnik was a part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) from 1957 to 1958, a research effort involving scientists from sixty-seven nations. The United States and the Soviet Union, already deep into the Cold War, had both announced satellite projects in response to IGY’s 1954 call for artificial satellites to orbit the Earth and map its surface.  

A young man displays a “satellite spotter” telescope and Project Moonwatch equipment. (Adler Planetarium Collection, PHA-567).

A young man displays a “satellite spotter” telescope and Project Moonwatch equipment. (Adler Planetarium Collection, PHA-567).

In advance of the satellite launches, Fred L. Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, introduced a program for amateur astronomers to track artificial satellites. Project Moonwatch participants were trained and ready for action when Sputnik launched on October 4, 1957. In Project Moonwatch, thousands of amateur astronomers provided data for mapping the Earth, refining knowledge of the Earth’s shape and atmosphere.

Edmund Scientific Corporation, Edscorp Satellite Telescope. Barrington, New Jersey, ca. 1955 (Adler Collection, A-332).

Edmund Scientific Corporation, Edscorp Satellite Telescope. Barrington, New Jersey, ca. 1955 (Adler Collection, A-332).

Many Moonwatch participants built their own telescopes, but others purchased an Edmund Scientific “satellite spotter” for $49.50, equivalent to over $400 today. The mirror provided a wide field of view, giving the observer more time to track a satellite. To diminish participants’ neck pain over long observing periods, the telescope pointed down towards the mirror. The rubber ring around the eyepiece provided additional comfort. 

Around the world, 230 Moonwatch teams—the original “citizen scientists”—positioned themselves along a North-South line, carefully aligning the group so each person observed a different part of the sky, while still slightly overlapping the region observed by a neighboring team member. Volunteer observers recorded exact times when a satellite entered and left their view, and transmitted the information to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Professional astronomers compiled Moonwatch information and photographed the satellites. It is amazing to think about the careful coordination—well before email, the Internet, and digital photography.

An Adler exhibition about Project Vanguard (Adler Planetarium Collection, PHA-153).

An Adler exhibition about Project Vanguard (Adler Planetarium Collection, PHA-153).

At Adler Planetarium, director Albert Schatzel organized the Chicago Junior Astronomical Society as an official Moonwatch team. They were dutifully assembled on the roof of the Adler following the news of Sputnik’s launch. In addition, the Adler featured planetarium shows and exhibits on the International Geophysical Year and Vanguard (the U.S. satellite), and Project Moonwatch.

In Chicago and around the world, Sputnik prompted enthusiasm for scientific innovation. In addition, in the United States, the satellite aroused fear of Soviet attack. Many people worried about the military implications of artificial satellites. Project Moonwatch and the Adler’s programs fit naturally into this Cold War context; public passion for these programs was intertwined with the nation’s engagement in the Cold War. For nearly twenty years after Sputnik, the United States and the Soviet Union competed in a space race of satellites and manned missions, which ultimately led to extensive exploration of the Moon.

Look for this telescope in the exhibition Mapping the Moon, on display November 9 through January 26.

Written by Jodi Lacy, archivist and digital projects manager at the Adler Planetarium.

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