Wednesday’s Book Review: “Keep Watching the Skies! The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age”

k8645Keep Watching the Skies! The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age. By W. Patrick McCray. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. xvi, 308 pp. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-691-12854-2.)

Sometimes, scientists understand the public’s interest in participating personally in science, and in those instances everyone reaps the benefit; scientists gain support and assistance while the public gains an understanding of the scientific process and knowledge about the subject. Most of the time, however, scientists are less astute and the practice of science remains a “black box” misunderstood by most nonprofessionals. Operation Moonwatch was an instance when scientists engaged the public in a useful task. Formally initiated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in 1956 to support the tracking of orbital satellites anticipated as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), Moonwatch mobilized thousands of amateurs around the globe to spend hours “watching the skies” for signs of satellites.

Operation Moonwatch has long been recognized as a small part of the larger story of Sputnik and the birth of space age, but W. Patrick McCray’s account, Keep Watching the Skies!, places it in the larger context of the history of the space age. He describes how the SAO director, Fred L. Whipple, conceived of Moonwatch as a means of involving teenagers, amateur astronomers, school teachers, students, and others in a meaningful activity that contributed to the global body of scientific knowledge. SAO offered designs for special telescopes, which could be built at home or purchased in such stores as Radio Shack, organized teams in numerous nations, and collected and analyzed the data sent forward. Without those volunteers, efforts to accumulate information would have been more restricted. Even after the IGY, SAO operated Operation Moonwatch until 1975, a life-span unmatched by any other amateur science program.

McCray, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, emphasizes the value of “small science” in this book. The mobilizing of thousands of volunteers to accomplish a large, important task seems the antithesis of the “big science” activities of launching expensive, technologically sophisticated spacecraft into Earth orbit. He highlights the work of the endlessly iconoclastic and gregarious Whipple in overseeing the effort, but more interesting is McCray’s focus on ordinary people. We learn about local organizers such as Vioalle Hefferan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Richard Emmons of North Canton, Ohio. He also discusses the long-lasting effects of the program on those who participated. Some students, such as the astronomer Jay Pasachoff, went on to distinguished careers in science sparked by participating in Operation Moonwatch. Others gained an appreciation for the quest for science even if they pursued other careers.

Most important, McCray suggests the program helped establish a generation’s commitment to science and technology as critical to the success of modern society. Keep Watching the Skies! is a thoughtful reflection on a little-known but significant episode. It convincingly demonstrates the importance of citizen involvement in science and education and raises important questions about the public’s engagement with the pursuit of scientific understanding.

This entry was posted in Cold War Competition, Earth Science, History, Science, Space and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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