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Citizen Science and The Search for Sputnik IV: Part 1

The holiday season is once again upon us, and, as usual this time of year, my thoughts are running to stories of science oddities in preparation for the holiday serial.  This week I’ll present a three part warmup serial grounded in mainstream science with just a hint of the fringe… if you know where to look.

While writing on the topic of 1950′s crowdfunding and satellites, I happened upon an interesting article about Operation Moonwatch.  Operation Moonwatch caught my eye for two reasons.

1.  One of the members of Operation Moonwatch’s National Advisory Committee was Dr. Clyde Tombaugh.  Dr. Tombaugh not only discovered the erstwhile planet, Pluto, but also worked as a professor at my now twice almost-alma mater, New Mexico State University.  This story won’t be about Dr. Tombaugh though.

2.  The article focused on another hot topic of late, citizen science, and not just citizen science, but crowd-sourced citizen science.

Operation Moonwatch was a network of citizen scientists, specifically amateur astronomers.   It turned out the term Moonwatch was a bit misleading though.  Members of the project had little interest in watching the moon.  The operation was setup prior to 1957 to track meteorites and satellites should such exotic vehicles ever be launched.  Members of the Operation Moonwatch network were encouraged to submit time and coordinate data for satellites or meteorites that they observed to members of the aforementioned National Advisory Committee.  Because the operation was actually setup before the surprise Sputnik launch in 1957, its citizen scientist members were able to fill gaps in the nascent government system for tracking the Soviet bird.

Anyone with a telescope who made a request was provided with procedures on how to manage a moonwatch observation station with their neighbors and friends.  If you didn’t have a telescope, no problem, you could also request instructions on how to build your own moonwatch telescope!.  The Operation Moonwatch story was fascinating , but after taking a few notes, I was forced to squirrel them away while I dealt with other projects…

Civil Service Journal April-June 1963


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