This isn’t a new book, but it’s an interesting take on an old story not much discussed in the citizen science community. Perhaps historians of twentieth century citizen science are needed alongside their more common nineteenth century colleagues. – CJL –

Technological advances come in such small increments that we rarely think about their accumulated effect. Today, it is hard to imagine a world without photocopiers, colour television, mobile phones or e-mail. Or satellites, imperceptibly circling overhead, ignoring national boundaries, spying on hurricanes, solar activity and terrorist encampments, positioning us globally.

In Keep Watching the Skies!, Patrick McCray reconstructs an era when the world was taking its baby steps into the space age. He views it through the eyes of amateur star-gazers who experienced the excitement of those Sputnik days by joining Moonwatch, a worldwide effort to track the satellites that were launched for the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58.

Fred Whipple, the energetic new director of the venerable and nearly moribund Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), oversaw the observatory’s move north from Washington DC to join Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and propelled the SAO into the space age. Overriding the doubts of many of his peers, it was Whipple’s vision to engage amateurs across the United States, and then around the world, to watch for the passage of satellites. At each location, he proposed the creation of an ‘optical fence’ across the sky, using a row of modest wide-field telescopes to spot any satellite that might cross the celestial meridian.

Whipple’s stubbornness in defending the inexpensive Moonwatch programme paid off when the unexpected launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik 1, and shortly thereafter Sputnik 2, occurred before more elaborate satellite-tracking programmes were ready. The Moonwatchers’ observations gave the SAO just enough data to calculate the orbits of the satellites and to follow their decay. Three weeks after its launch, the batteries of Sputnik 1 died, rendering it silent to the multimillion-dollar radio tracking stations and amateur radio operators. The observations of the amateur Moonwatch teams suddenly became the main source of information.

Photo credit: Photo from article (see link below).

Source: Not so amateur

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