Book about Moonwatch: Keep Watching the Skies!

From: Ted Molczan (
Date: Wed May 14 2008 - 03:15:30 UTC

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    I have just read the new book, Keep Watching the Skies!, historian W. Patrick
    McCray's richly detailed story of Operation Moonwatch. I thoroughly enjoyed
    reading it, and recommend it to anyone interested in the early history of the
    space age. It is of special interest to the SeeSat-L community, since Moonwatch
    was the birth of our hobby.
    Moonwatch was the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's program through which
    thousands of volunteer amateur observers around the world participated in
    tracking the first artificial satellites launched by the U.S.A. and the
    U.S.S.R., as part of the International Geophysical Year. Patrick McCray's
    thorough research, based on archival materials and interviews with numerous
    surviving participants, brings to life the nearly two decade story of Moonwatch.
    The book begins by exploring the social and political conditions in post-WWII
    America that attracted large numbers of people from all walks of life to amateur
    science, which made Moonwatch possible. As the story unfolds, a large and
    diverse cast of characters is introduced, including the professionals who
    developed and operated Moonwatch, and many of the citizen-scientists who funded,
    organized, trained and participated in local Moonwatch teams. The following are
    but a few examples.
    The late Fred L. Whipple is best known for proposing his "dirty snowball"
    concept of the composition of comets, but he was also an early and successful
    practitioner of big science - research done on a large scale, often with
    government funding. The book traces Whipple's life and career, showing how he
    came to  propose and win support for his program to visually track the world's
    first satellites, using separate networks of professionally staffed cameras and
    teams of amateur observers.
    Prominent among the citizen-scientists, was the late Richard Emmons (fondly
    remembered by many on SeeSat-L), who formed the Moonwatch team of North Canton,
    Ohio, which he trained in the small planetarium that he built inside his garage.
    The book tells the story of his life-long devotion to amateur science, his
    contribution to public education about astronomy, his long and productive
    participation in Moonwatch, and his research based upon satellite observations.
    Teacher Vioalle Clark Heffernan organized Albuquerque High School's long-running
    Moonwatch team, which was in the top-tier of performers, rated "Prime A" by the
    SAO. Anyone who has been inspired by the special efforts of a good teacher will
    appreciate the story of Ms. Heffernan and her students.
    Keep Watching the Skies! covers in depth, Moonwatch's achievements, its
    operational challenges, and its controversies. The biggest controversy: whether
    amateurs could be relied upon to produce observations of sufficient accuracy to
    guide the professionally run Baker-Nunn cameras, was settled soon after the
    launch of Sputnik 1 - they could and they did. Before long, Moonwatchers were
    asked to improve their precision, so that their data could be used directly for
    scientific research, and many successfully met this new challenge. Several
    former Moonwatchers continue to observe, including Russell Eberst, who began
    observing in late 1958, and is quoted in the book.
    I would be interested to know what others think of Keep Watching the Skies!, and
    it would be a welcome topic on SeeSat-L.
    Ted Molczan
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