We work hard to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. If lucky, we’ve got some time left over for other activities. Patrick McCray’s book “Keep Watching the Skies – The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age” is the story of a program that took advantage of some of those spare hours. During its time, this program had people encouraged, organized, and trained to view the skies and contribute to the nascent space age.
In McCray’s book, the reader gets transported back to the heady days of the mid 1950s when anything seemed possible. Martians could land, asteroids could impact and enemies could lob projectiles across the skies. But, governments had no capability and scientists had no clue as to how to detect any intransigencies. Hence, the call went out for civilian volunteers to watch for transits. With enough volunteers spread across the world, then we’d have the ability to know where, when and perhaps what has briefly streaked across the inky blackness.
As a well written book by an historian, there’s lots of interesting detail within. McCray lays out the basis for the Moonwatch program by including many references to the global politics of the day, whether McCarthyism or socialism. In addition, he gives a cross section of societal attitudes, principally being civic duty and a near adoration of science and technology. Expanding upon this, he goes into the personalities: especially Fred Whipple of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who set the basis for the program, Len Campbell who acted as the voice of the program, and the many volunteers, such as Vioalle Hefferean who used their time and abilities to scan the skies. Out of this mix comes an entertaining and detailed assessment of everyday talents and the enthusiastic amateurs who were so enthralled with the safety of their nation and contributing to hard science.
This later concept overrides the theme of the book. Though the book is principally a review of a scientific program, it’s also a valuable insight into how amateurs and professionals relate. For instance, some amateurs showed their capabilities to be as good as or better than the professionals. And some professionals wouldn’t support amateurs, no matter how beneficial. As such, this book can provide a reader with some significant insight into the interactions of these elements of society. Also, it shows a fascinating change from almost universal public support for technology toward disregard or disfavour. In it, the reader sees just how flighty public support really is. But, as a history of the little known Operation Moonwatch, this book makes a pleasant, detailed and well referenced story.
The dawn of the space age brought a whole new realm of space science immediately and forcefully into people’s consciousness. Some rebelled at this new perspective, but many were drawn into this wondrous realm. In Patrick McCray’s book “Keep Watching the Skies – The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age“, this scientific field gets shown for the pure delight that could be derived from participating and contributing even without being a scientist.