June 5, 2020

Keep Watching the Skies! by W. Patrick McCray

Quick note: The Phoenix has landed! Full details in next weeks’ post!

The 1950s were heady times for both the public and amateur and scientists alike.

Rarely have the contributions of rank amateurs been acknowledged publicly. In Keep Watching the Skies! The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age, W. Patrick McCray reveals a forgotten saga. It’s hard to imagine that only a scant fifty years ago, “satellite spotting” (a future movie?) was not as common or mundane as it could be considered today.

The author is detailed almost to exhaustion; who knew that Little Richard allegedly quit rock n’ roll after spotting Sputnik? Or had ever heard the country music ditty “Jesus hits like an atom bomb?” (Yes, we read footnotes!) Still, some of the anecdotes were enlightening. I hadn’t realized that what most of the public saw when Sputnik passed overhead was not the tiny satellite, but the large booster rocket that put it in orbit.

Born of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957, Operation Moonwatch was a child of the early space age and a creation of astronomer Fred Whipple. Armies of volunteers created a network of satellite observers who diligently tracked the early space shots. Such critical data enabled scientists to map the effects of atmospheric drag and the shape of the planet, as well as keep track of what the Russians were doing in orbit. Shunned at first by most professional scientists, Operation Moonwatch proved to be a critical tool once the Soviets got a jump on the West. Indeed, most of the Baker-Nunn cameras and the Navy’s Vanguard program proved to be woefully unprepared. Moonwatch volunteers, many high school students, stepped in to fill that void. They also provided an invaluable public relations service, giving local grass roots access to the Space Age.  As an amateur observer and satellite watcher myself, I particularly enjoyed hearing the “nuts and bolts” of how Moonwatch teams operated. I know first hand how difficult it is to intentionally catch a given satellite in an eyepiece! Such perseverance it of itself is noteworthy.

The author also does well to site the 1950s and the “culture of observation.” This was an age of UFO’s, preparation for atomic warfare, and sci-fi movies so bad they were good. In fact, the title is taken from the sci-fi classic “The Thing”. While Sputnik may have caught the West unaware, Moonwatch represented a larger and more fundamental push to educate Americans in science at the ground level. Such a drive ultimately propelled us to the Moon and beyond.

Could such a collaboration happen again? The author points out and brings in to focus some interesting parallels. During the Cold War, there was an encouragement for amateur scientists to contribute. But the reverse may be true today in the current Global War on Terror. A classic case of a classified payload launched from the payload bay of the Space Shuttle illustrates the point; the government created a cover story that the satellite had rapidly decayed and reentered the Earth’s atmosphere; however, diligent satellite watchers easily recovered the “lost” spy satellite. Score one for amateur-dom! Such avocations as model rocketry, remote aircraft practitioners, and even our own beloved amateur astronomers are now viewed with suspicion. Use of a simple laser pointer may arouse alarm; the concern is that terrorists may use one to blind aircraft pilots. There are portable 300 milliwatt monsters available on the market; such beasts can pop balloons or ignite match heads. Even 5mw models are just barely legal and the only version allowed on aircraft, although I would bet they would still raise some unpleasantness at security, as most people do not recognize these devices. Best to leave the lasers and home!

In summary, “Keep Watching the Skies!” was one of the best books on science I’ve read this year, and would recommend it both to science educators and aficionados alike. Such a fascinating glimpse of grass roots astronomy needed to be told, as it may never happen again. Or perhaps, the next revolution will happen everywhere and nowhere, via the Internet. As noted here at Astroguyz a few weeks back, there’s lots of real science for all those idle PCs (& Macs!) out there.  Project Moonwatch was conceived in an era of tinkerers, people who yearned to see who was behind the curtain. Sometimes, I wonder if such a spirit is alive today; people who hack their Iphones or snark Bluetooth connections give me hope. I’d like to see a science education initiative in tandem with the new journeys to the Moon and Mars. A Moonwatch for the 21st century could fill the gap and make people feel reconnected with science. Imagine what legions of amateurs could accomplish with the technology now available. With any luck, the spirit of Moonwatch will live on!


  1. [...] only when or if they were successes. Hence the United States enlisted volunteers via the Moonwatch program in an effort to keep tabs on them. It even led to the ridiculous, such as Project Blue [...]

  2. [...] went into low Earth orbit and stayed there. Trust me, independent satellite spotters (remember Project Moonwatch?), not to mention our then arch enemies, the Soviets, would have picked up on this trick and [...]

  3. [...] Satellite spotting used to be a matter of national security. As recounted in Patrick McCray’s Keep Watching the Skies! Operation Moonwatch  recruited amateur spotters to keep tabs on the Russians, as our country found [...]

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