Keep Watching the Skies!: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age

Fifty years ago, Sputnik’s launch – part of the International Geophysical Year – started the Space Age.  Teams of citizen-scientists including teenagers, homemakers, long-time amateur astronomers, school teachers scanned the night sky in hopes of spotting it. As members of Moonwatch, a program initiated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, these amateur scientists contributed to what became the twentieth century’s grandest science project.

Moonwatchers were initially supposed to just assist “real” scientists. However, given the surprise of Sputnik, they played a far more prominent role than anyone ever imagined. For the first few months of the Space Age, Moonwatch was the only global system in place to visually spot the first satellites.

Thousands of science buffs served on Moonwatch teams during the International Geophysical Year. In the U.S., local businesses sponsored local teams with nicknames like the Order of Lunartiks and Spacehounds. The observations from these dedicated amateurs and their counterparts overseas proved valuable when satellites were still a novelty.

Long after the IGY ended in 1958, these heretofore unknown “citizen-scientists” continued to track satellites, their activities often blurring the boundary between professional and amateur. Teenaged Moonwatchers chose science careers while the Smithsonian’s program stimulated broad interest in science among ordinary citizens. Largely forgotten today, Moonwatchers’ contributions played a critical role in the early Space Age.

Keep Watching the Skies places their story within the context of the Cold War and 1950s culture. It takes a perspective never before examined – that of people around the world caught up in the excitement of science and space exploration. Indeed, the book’s central theme shows how amateur scientists contributed to a modern scientific enterprise. The book’s story reveals how citizens once engaged with science and suggests how this passion might be stimulated once again.

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