Raleigh’s Radioactive “Acorn”
Raleigh’s famous copper acorn sculpture, aptly enough entitled “Acorn”, has dazzled visitors to the capital city since the early 90s and features in the city’s annual First Night Acorn Drop, a grand New Year’s Eve finale, reminiscent of New York City’s famous Times Square ball drop. But one little-known fact about the gargantuan oak nut is that the gleaming iconic sculpture traces it’s true origins to 330,000 ft above sea-level.
Sculptor and coffee extremist David Benson created “Acorn” in 1991, after being commissioned to create the work of art in honor of Raleigh’s Bicentennial the following year. And so a gleaming embodiment of the City of Oaks, the “Acorn” was birthed. Over 250 times the size of a regular acorn, the sculpture is made of steel and copper, some of which the artist and city often tout originated from the dome of the original NC state Capitol building. But one detail that has been minimized is that the rest of the 1,250 pounds of nut began life as a Soviet-era spy satellite.
When Raleigh businessman John Watkins, commissioned the “Acorn” sculpture in 1991, it also marked the final year of the Soviet Union, and thus the end of the Cold War competition between the two space superpowers. The timing could not have been more apt, as Benson found himself scrounging for inspiration and material. Originally, Benson proposed making the acorn out of stainless steel, much like the space-inspired Unisphere in Queens, New York. But stainless steel proved to be expensive and difficult to work with, so the next best thing was needed.
Pennies from Heaven
At the height of the Cold War, Zenit was a series of military photoreconnaissance satellites launched by the Soviet Union. To conceal their true nature, all flights were given the public Kosmos designation. In September 1985 Kosmos 1686 was launched, supposedly as part of tests to attach scientific expansion modules to stations in Earth orbit.
Kosmos 1686 docked unmanned to the Soviet space station Salyut 7 in October of 1985. Salyut 7 had experienced several problems during it’s time in orbit, including fuel leaks and battery failures that led to repeated repair attempts. Thus Kosmos 1686 was diverted from covert surveillance in an attempt to keep the Salyut 7 space station viable, engines boosting the station’s orbit. However, unexpectedly high solar activity in the late 1980s and early 1990s increased atmospheric drag on the station and hastened the docked Kosmos 1686 and Salyut 7’s orbital decay. It underwent uncontrolled reentry on February 7, 1991. American officials reported that the majority of debris re-entered the atmosphere over Argentina after the spacecraft overshot its intended entry point, however, the bulk of the Kosmos 1686 satellite broke away from the station early in the descent, plunging into the Caribbean where it miraculously remained intact, caught in the swift western boundary currents of the Gulf Stream. Aided by major tropical storm activity in the summer of 1991, the Kosmos 1686 satellite was eventually recovered off the NC coast by maritime students from East Carolina.
Back in Raleigh, with the idea of stainless steel being much too cavalier for the city’s proletarian citizens, Benson had settled on copper as the fairly adequate material for his work, citing its organic appearance and natural color. A portion of the metal was procured from the basement of the State Archives, which was purported to be a piece of the original Capitol dome, but more was needed. As luck would have it, a windfall of celestial copper would soon be on it’s way to Raleigh. As the Kosmos 1686 wreckage was brought ashore as maritime salvage, it was quickly identified as communist space junk, and those exposed were quarantined while it was shipped to the State lab for testing to ensure no major public hazard existed.
State scientists determined that the object did emit elevated gamma radiation, consistent with objects that have spent extended time in Low Earth orbit, but that the amount of radiation posed no immediate biological or human threat. After disassembly, components of Kosmos 1686 were distributed to several departments across state government, such as the electronic components and circuitry which soon found life as a mainframe server utilized for inmate records by the North Carolina Department of Corrections. The satellite’s exterior copper-bronze shielding was slated to be melted down for use in NC Highway signs across the state when the City of Raleigh and David Benson came calling.
Thus with the bones and skin of Kosmos 1686 cannibalized for a cut-rate rabid-squirrel Statue of Liberty, the citizens of Raleigh enjoy a unique monument to both it’s humble beginnings and the heights of human achievement. Plus, it bestows a pretty nice tan. It gives off a distinct wavelength of radiation, the effects of which haven’t yet been comprehensively documented but have been recorded in a study of MRI scans. Indeed, visitors to “Acorn” often remark how it always seems warm to the touch, even in the midst of December during the often frigid First Night festivities.