First Photo of Sputnik


During their first furlough to the US, the Stouts had a chance meeting with then-Senator Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird, who invited them to their ranch in Texas. Johnson was an avid space enthusiast, and upon hearing of Brazil’s numerous observatories, offered John access to US data for satellite tracking, an effort underway by the US to observe suspected plans by the Soviet Union to launch a satellite.

Upon returning to Brazil, John was assigned to the University of Lavras in Southern Brazil, where he became Chair of the schools of Petroleum and Chemical Engineering. As part of his curriculum, he also taught orbital mechanics to a group of students interested in observing the stars.

Using the coordinates provided by the U.S. photographic society, John and his students improvised several makeshift “satellite predictors” made of cardboard and celluloid for converting the US azimuth to their location in Brazil. The predictors proved remarkably accurate in class exercises for determining when and where a satellite would appear.

John then erected a tripod in the jungle near his home and mounted a homemade camera on it for use by his celestial mechanics students at the University of Lavras in photographing Venus. In order to photograph moving objects, he devised a series of rotating wooden wheels to move the film past an Angus lens and track a meteor or satellite through an arc in the sky for roughly five minutes. It was a technique he had learned in high school known as “smear” photography. Searching around for something to power the wooden wheels, he connected the apparatus to a mechanical Westclox alarm clock that would rotate the entire mechanism at an adjustable speed.

To complete the bizarre device, a friend of John’s from Columbia loaned him a 30” telescope with a finely ground parabolic lens which he mounted on the side of the camera. The resulting contraption cost less than $10 and had all the characteristics of a fifth-grade science experiment. In truth, it was a structure of sheer genius.

When word of the Soviet launch of “Sputnik” came on October 4, 1957, Stout was ready. Then something fortuitous occurred: As if reserving his place in history, the town had a total blackout that night, which left Stout standing alone in total darkness in the woods outside his missionary home, waiting for the tiny blinking sphere.

As it appeared on the horizon, he wound the Westclox alarm clock and the wooden wheels began rolling.  And as Sputnik came into view, he captured the first clear photos of Sputnik ever taken. His calculations worked so well, in fact, they proved to be more accurate than the Russian’s own predictions.

Local newspapers were incredulous. The Journal de Brazil blazed headlines of Stout’s across the front page of the newspaper. The publisher of the newspaper was so impressed he offered John unlimited access to the newspaper’s broadcasting stations on 23 networks throughout Brazil.

News of his Sputnik photo circulated rapidly, elevating Stout’s name in both Brazilian and U.S. scientific circles; and in 1958, he was asked by the U.S. International Observatories of Satellites to oversee Brazil’s fifteen observatories as a part of a national network of satellite tracking stations around the world.

During his furlough to the U.S., he attended Texas University, where a lecturerer from the  University of California,  told the audience the university had nominated a missionary from Brazil for the Nobel Peace Prize for his bold outreach to savage tribes.  He was shocked when Stout walked up from the back of the room and asked, "Are you talking about me?"

In 1971, a portion of Stout’s doctoral thesis on multi-cultural communications was reportedly submitted by then-US Ambassador George HW Bush to the United Nations.  Bush was an acquaintance of John’s during his years at NASA and was a member of the Apollo Prayer League.


First Photo of Sputnik