A thread on sci.space.policy brought to mind the question of what people were actually looking at when they "saw Sputnik."
In developing our book The First Space Race: Launching the World's
First Satellites, (Texas A&M, 2004) I and/or co-author Erika Lishock discussed this with a lot of people, including James Van Allen. The consensus was that Sputnik 1 itself
was never observed with the naked eye, except possibly for brief
flashes near dawn and dusk. (Jim Oberg has an authoritative article on this in the new issue of Astronomy magazine.) What the newspapers and everyone else
announced about where to look for Sputnik related to the core stage of
the R-7. Even this usually appeared as a small, although sometimes
very bright, point of reflected light.
This in no way diminishes the importance or impact of the experience
people all over the world had in watching a Soviet satellite (whatever
piece of hardware it was) track across the night sky. Among other
things, it was the experience of watching with the naked eye that
inspired the physicists and engineers at China Lake to start one of
my all-time favorite programs, the audacious shoestring satellite
effort called Project Pilot or NOTSNIK.
Alas, work schedules will force us to miss the big commemorations.
I'll make it to the AAS National Conference in November, which might
be called one of the "close out" American commemorative meetings, to be
on panel about what NASA's first 50 years offers in the way of
projections about the next 50.