In the wee hours of December 8, 1957, an 11-year-old boy spending the night at his grandparents’ ranch in Encino, California, looked out the window and saw a mysterious glowing light near the base of an oak tree. “Picture a falling star landing in your backyard,” the boy later said.
The grandfather put on a welding visor and grabbed a pitchfork; the boy donned a pair of goggles. They found about a dozen red-hot pieces of wire and plastic (they thought it was glass) that looked to be parts of something from outer space. One of the items was a clear plastic ring about 20 inches in diameter. The grandfather insisted they let the parts cool down before touching them.
Later that day and over the next several days, radio station KDAY broadcast the news that the Sputnik satellite, which the U.S.S.R. had launched a couple of months earlier, had crashed to Earth in the local area—and the U.S. government was offering a $50,000 reward for it. It was the midst of the Cold War, the early days of the Space Race; Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Only a few days earlier, a U.S. satellite had exploded during liftoff.
The boy’s grandparents, Earl and Mary Thomas, learned of the reward, telephoned KDAY on December 10, and the next day drove to the radio station, where they met Colonel Dean Hess of the U.S. Air Force. Hess provided the Thomases with a receipt for “twelve (12) plastic items, unidentified” and said that the air force needed to examine the parts before it could provide the reward.
And so began a maddening series of events that can be interpreted as a government conspiracy, bureaucratic incompetence, or perhaps even the fallout from a hoax. Over the next few weeks, the Thomases made multiple appointments with Hess, each time visiting his office only to find that the colonel was unavailable. By chance, after several attempts to meet with Hess, the Thomases were allowed to wait in the colonel’s office, and there on the desk sat a box containing the plastic and wire parts. A three-inch section of the large plastic ring had been removed, apparently for testing. The Thomases took the box and let themselves out of the air force building. They returned home, wrapped the parts in oilcloth, and buried them under their house as ransom, fearful that the air force would seize them. It didn’t. The Thomases later tried to contact Hess again and were told that he had been sent “overseas.”
The Thomases pursued the $50,000 reward, writing letters to President Kennedy, President Johnson, California governor Pat Brown, air force generals, and others—and got nowhere. In 1962, they received a letter from the air force denying that a reward had been offered. In 1965, they received another air force letter, this one contradicting their version of events but mentioning a $500 reward.
After Earl Thomas passed away in 1988, his grandson Bob Morgan, who as an 11-year-old had spotted the mysterious objects glowing in his grandparents’ backyard, inherited them and eventually took up the cause. In 2007, with the help of San Francisco’s Beat Museum (the word beatnik was a pejorative inspired by Sputnik), Morgan held a press conference in San Francisco, seeking help from Silicon Valley engineers to identify the parts. Other than some media coverage, little came of it.
According to NASA, Sputnik burned up as it fell to Earth on January 4, 1958, about four weeks after Morgan and his grandfather made their backyard discovery. And Sputnik II, which carried Laika, the space dog, also had a fiery end. However, on September 6, 1962, Sputnik IV survived reentry and crashed to the ground in Wisconsin. And years later, it was revealed that the KDAY disc jockey who had announced the $50,000 reward had had ties to U.S. intelligence.
Bob Morgan passed away in 2014. The mysterious parts, and the story of their origin, have been entrusted to his daughter, Crystal Morgan of Ventura. She says that her great-grandparents very much wanted the reward—$455,000 in today’s dollars. Her father, however, knew that the truth was out there. “My dad really wanted the story to be told,” she says. “He didn’t want the parts sitting in a safe. They belong in a museum.”