Tuesday, May 20, 2008

W. Patrick McCray's "Keep Watching the Skies!"

W. Patrick McCray is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology and Glassmaking in Renaissance Venice: The Fragile Craft.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Keep Watching the Skies!: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age, and reported the following:
When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, thousands of ordinary people across the globe seized the opportunity to participate in the start of the Space Age. Known as the “Moonwatchers,” these largely forgotten citizen-scientists helped professional astronomers by providing critical and otherwise unavailable information about the first satellites. Using homemade telescopes and other gadgets, Moonwatchers witnessed firsthand the astonishing beginning of the Space Age. In the process, these amateur scientists organized themselves into a worldwide program of satellite spotters that lasted until 1975.

When I flipped to page 99 of my new book on Moonwatch, I found myself caught in the story of Nunz Addabbo, a professional engineer living in Terre Haute, Indiana, who organized and led one of the world’s best Moonwatch teams. Addabbo’s tale points to how Moonwatch in the United States drew upon three different “Cold War cultures.”

One was a culture of vigilance. In the 1950s, many Americans feared a nuclear strike delivered by the Soviet aircraft. In response, hundreds of thousands of Americans – the patriotic and the paranoid alike – joined the Ground Observer Corps and maintained alertness against a Soviet bomber attack. The Corps combined watchfulness with strong elements of civic participation and, in some cases, a fair helping of Cold War suspicion. The appearance of Soviet satellites in American skies extended the general public’s fear of invasion into outer space. Addabbo, a new arrival in Terre Haute, experienced some this paranoia himself when he tried to start his Moonwatch team and found that his unusual name and itinerant professional experience aroused initial suspicion in the local civil defense office.

Moonwatch also drew strength from the vibrant and active amateur science community. Enthusiasts read about science, saw it depicted in movies and television shows, and bought toys and hobby kits with science themes. Like automobile tailfins and hula hoops, the resurgence of citizen-scientists reflected America’s postwar economic prosperity. Budding investigators used their disposable income to buy telescopes, ham radio gear and other instruments manufactured by one of the many companies that sprang up in the 1950s. The growth of amateur science clubs was part of the 1950s era pattern of civic engagement when membership in groups like Rotary and the Kiwanis Club peaked.

Amateur science activities also held a special attraction for children and teenagers. Before the surprise of Sputnik, toy companies produced a wide range of science kits that helped stimulate scientific curiosity among children. Science fiction movies and the UFO craze of the early 1950s help stimulate their interest. Think of the huge popularity of Mr. Wizard…over 100,000 kids claimed membership in one of the 5,000 Mr. Wizard Science Clubs that sprang up in North America. The fact that his “assistants” were precocious children added to the show’s long-lived popularity.

Together, these three groups – vigilant citizens, amateur scientists, and science-oriented teens – became the basis for Moonwatch. Page 99 of Keep Watching the Skies shows how civic duty, the virtue of vigilance, intense public interest in science and space, and the long tradition of amateur science in the U.S. were all strands in the Cold War cultural tapestry of the 1950s. Taken together, they helped create the cloth from which Moonwatch was fashioned.
Read the Introduction to Keep Watching the Skies!, and learn more about the book and the author at W. Patrick McCray's website.

--Marshal Zeringue