The Oct. 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik marked the first time a manmade satellite orbited Earth. But for the United States, it brought a 1950s version of shock and awe, then concern that the nation was ill-prepared for the space age.
So amateur astronomers, including a local group of sky-watching stalwarts, soon began tracking the shiny basketball-sized spacecraft each night as it carved its path through space, history and humankind's imagination.
Members of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh used low-tech chutzpah -- small, low-powered telescopes with mirrors attached to the ends to reflect skylight into the lens, while men called out signals to mark its course. They tracked Sputnik as it circled the globe in varying orbits every 96 minutes. After traveling 37 million miles, it lost power and burned about Jan. 4, 1958 in Earth's atmosphere.
Bob Schmidt of Millvale, about 20 at the time, led the team in a temporary tracking station on Allegheny Observatory's roof in Riverview Park. As members of Operation Moonwatch, also known as Project Moonwatch, they switched their focus to Sputnik's orbit to gather data and send course readings to a central location that calculated speed, degrees of altitude of its orbit and other parameters. All the while, the world was frenzied with the start of the space age and its potential consequences.
As such, American curiosity gave way to uncertainty, then anger and fear that Soviet prowess in technology would produce transcontinental missiles, space-age surveillance and even intrusions into American media.
But U.S. officials realized from the start that the nation had to track Sputnik to better understand Soviet technology. So members of about 100 Project Moonwatch groups volunteered to scan space each clear evening and early morning from observing stations situated across the state and nation.
At Allegheny Observatory, the team led by Mr. Schmidt lined up 12 telescopes in a line north to south, with each one trained on a specific region of sky. Each field overlapped so at least one telescope could catch Sputnik's flight as it passed overhead and crossed the line of telescopes.
"The first guy who spotted it said, 'Hey, Bob, I see it!' " Mr. Schmidt said. "This in itself was exciting to see, even though it was starlike -- just like a third-magnitude star passing through the field. You could count for three to five seconds before it would be across the field" of a telescope.
Each night, the team spent three hours to spot Sputnik for five seconds, usually through the field of one telescope.
"Everyone was on pins and needles to see the little orb go through the field," he said. "At the time you thought you were a scientific god. It was the beginning of the space program."
Assuming the general direction of orbit, usually southwest to northeast, members used binoculars to spot Sputnik and alert members awaiting Sputnik to appear in their telescope's field. When it did, they yelled "mark." Seconds later when Sputnik left the field of their telescope, they yelled "mark" once again. The time signals were recorded.
"It was a pleasure to be part of it," Mr. Schmidt said. "I was one of the first persons to be involved in seeing a man-made object in space."
The thrill, he said, was tracking the shiny basketball-shaped satellite speeding about 150 miles high. "Everyone got a kick out of it," he said.
Other stations nationwide also recorded Sputnik's orbit as it headed northeast.
It had no onboard light source, but its polished aluminum and mirrors reflected sunlight, which could be seen through telescopes or binoculars.
Because sunlight was necessary, astronomers could track it only after twilight or during predawn hours.
Mr. Schmidt said their local station tracked Sputnik, then Sputnik 2, launched Nov. 3, 1957, for several months. There were 41 Sputnik missions, the second of which included the dog Laika, who died in space from heat and stress.
J. Allen Hynek, on leave as Ohio State University astronomy professor to join the effort to put a U.S. satellite into space, oversaw tracking operations statewide. He later gained fame as a UFO expert. Mr. Schmidt said he cannot remember where the orbital data was sent, but it helped the nation better understand early space exploration.
"It was all new for everyone," he said. "We did the timings, which now seem barbaric."
But he said the astronomers developed camaraderie and enjoyed their accomplishments. From a scientific standpoint, they helped determine Sputnik's routes and helped predict where it would be at certain times.
In time, the U.S. government established more elaborate tracking stations, making the amateur network no longer necessary. But it served its purpose in the first months of the space age.
Sputnik put the United States on course to establish NASA and hurry along its own space program, with the successful launch of Explorer 1 on Jan. 31, 1958. It also inspired a national timetable to land on the moon. Sputnik is the subject of books, academic treatises and an upcoming documentary, "Sputnik Mania," with little argument that it represents a milestone in human achievement.
"We were quite excited about this," Mr. Schmidt, now 70, said. "This was big stuff. It never happened before, so it was new at that time.
"I was very happy to be part of that situation."
David Templeton can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1578.