Eyes on the Sky
In the waning daylight of a Friday in June 1961, a red and white Ford station wagon rambles down the hilly twists and turns of Zion Road, pushing out beyond the western edges of Cincinnati. The breeze blows through the open windows of the bulky 1957 wagon, brushing along the sleek painted sides and whipping past the pointy tail fins.
To the two young men sitting on the roomy front bench seat, their elbows propped out the open windows, the warm wind across their arms and faces feels like freedom.
Dennis Smith pulls the car into the driveway of an old farmhouse. The gravel crunches under the tires as he maneuvers the wagon into an open field and parks it by three small sheds. He and his sidekick, Thomas Van Flandern, hop out carrying sacks stuffed with Frisch’s Big Boy burgers, onion rings, strawberry pie and sodas. They drop the sacks on a bench in the grass and duck inside each of the small buildings.
Working together, going from shed to shed, they push back the roofs, which are on rollers, exposing to the elements the most advanced astronomical tools of the 20th century—three large telescopes. Two are white, one is silver. Each is slightly larger than the next, measuring 8-inches, 14-inches and 16-inches in diameter.
They point each scope toward the clear evening sky. The two Xavier students have received a request from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., to observe the Transit 4-A satellite, its carrier rocket and two other satellites that are being launched from Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast.
It is the middle of the Cold War and the leading edge of the Space Race. Three years earlier, Russia launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, and the U.S. has been trying to catch up and pass the Soviet efforts ever since, filling the skies with more and more artificial stars. The three new satellites being launched tonight are a big part of that effort, and they should appear over Cincinnati about 90 minutes after launch.
The two have time, so they grab their burgers, sit in the grass and talk about what this new world of unmanned satellites circling overhead truly means.
Smith was in the car with his parents parked at a Frisch’s drive-in for lunch when the news came over the radio that the Soviet Union had just put a satellite into orbit. It was Oct. 4, 1957.
The news shocked most Americans, but the idea of satellites orbiting Earth so fascinated Smith that his parents took him to the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, a 140-acre site west of Cincinnati near Cleves, Ohio, where amateur astronomers had been observing the stars since the early 1900s. He remembers the president of the group pointing out Sputnik passing overhead on the night they visited.
“It just turned me on to see that up there,” Smith says.
While others were looking at moons and planets and galaxies, Smith was captured by the artificial objects. He began helping out with the Astronomical Society’s Operation Moonwatch team, one of 153 amateur satellite spotting teams around the country that were organized in preparation for America’s first satellite launch. With the surprise launch of Sputnik, however, the teams scrambled to begin observing the beeping beacon in orbit overhead and report their findings to the Smithsonian Observatory.
Before the launch of Sputnik, there was nothing manmade beyond Earth’s atmosphere. But Sputnik broke the silence, followed by Sputnik II, III and IV, while the United States launched Explorer I into orbit in January 1958 followed by Vanguard I and Explorer 3. As the number of satellites in orbit continued to grow, volunteer satellite spotters with the Moonwatch teams stepped up their observations.
Among the most prolific of the early Moonwatch teams in the U.S. was the Cincinnati group led by Smith’s friend, Van Flandern. As a child, Van Flandern loved watching the moon out of the car window and reading the children’s book, The Stars, by H.A. Rey. A subscription to Sky & Telescope magazine furthered his interest, and he used summer job money to buy his first telescope. He fought battles with his mother, who raised him and his siblings alone, to let him go out before sunrise to observe the constellations.
By the time he got to Xavier, he was doing advanced calculations of astronomical phenomena such as occultations and orbits of comets. Shortly after introducing himself to the Cincinnati Astronomical Society and their Moonwatch team, they recognized his genius and handed leadership of the team to him. He and Smith became fast friends, logging many hours together tracking satellites at the society’s observatory. Smith enrolled at Xavier two years later and helped Van Flandern track satellites from an observatory Van Flandern and his physics professors installed on the roof of Logan Hall. From there he operated a substation for the Cincinnati Moonwatch program with the help of Xavier student volunteers.
By 1961, their work tracking satellites was beginning to get noticed by the astrophysicists at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the precursor to NASA. Their notoriety began when the SAO asked them to watch for the new satellites on that Friday night in June.
• • •
As the sun goes down and the sky goes dark at the observatory, Van Flandern and Smith get the telescopes ready. They fix the crosshairs on Polaris, the North Star, and from there they figure the azimuth and altitude.
Then using Van Flandern’s calculations from a computer program he designed using an early IBM computer donated by General Electric—where he had a summer job—they calculate the orbit and time that each object should pass overhead and adjust the scopes so the satellites will fly into their fields of view.
Shortly after 9:30 p.m., they’re looking through the 14-inch scope, waiting for the first satellite to appear. As Van Flandern predicted, they see an object enter the 1.25-degree view circle. He notes the time. Another comes through. Then another, then a pair and then three more. Within 15 minutes, five more objects have been picked up by the scope—way more than expected. By 10:10 p.m., they have spotted a total of 14 satellites. They’re stunned.
“It blew up,” he says.
“You’re crazy,” Smith tells him.
But Van Flandern calculates the time and the rocket’s location by its coordinates and runs into the farmhouse, the society’s headquarters, to send a telegram to the Smithsonian Observatory.
“Rocket blew up,” the telegram reads.
A half hour later, the phone rings in the farmhouse. Gustav Bakos, a leading astronomer at the Smithsonian Observatory, is on the line questioning Van Flandern about his report that the rocket had exploded near the end of its first revolution around the Earth. Van Flandern, it turns out, is correct.
Two days later, Bakos travels from Massachusetts to Xavier to meet Van Flandern. As he tours the rooftop observatory on campus, he asks Van Flandern how he made his calculations so quickly the night of the explosion. Bakos wants his formulas, but Van Flandern refuses to share them. Later, Smith asks him why.
“I need these formulas for later on in my career,” he says.
• • •
Van Flandern graduated in 1962, three months before President Kennedy’s “Moon” speech, and went on to earn a PhD in astronomy from Yale University. The tracking work he did at Xavier with the Moonwatch program helped prepare him for the advanced science he would do throughout his career, including as chief of celestial mechanics at the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Later he founded his own group, Meta Research, where he conducted astronomical research that sometimes bordered on the controversial and caused some to question his genius. Whatever their conclusions, what’s unquestionable is that he left a legacy of curiosity about space and astronomical science at Xavier that continues today. Ray Miller, former chair of the Department of Physics, graduated when Van Flandern was a sophomore, and by the time he returned to Xavier in 1966 to teach, Van Flandern and Smith were gone. The rooftop observatory they created was replaced by a permanent observatory in 1981. But Miller says the stories about Van Flandern and Moonwatch circulated for years, and the work he did laid the groundwork for Xavier’s exploration into astronomy.
After Van Flandern left, Smith kept the Moonwatch program going at both Xavier and the Zion Road location for two more years until he graduated in 1964. But it just wasn’t the same.
“He made me team leader when he left,” Smith said. “But we lost our heart and soul without him. He was the brains behind it all.”
They kept in touch on and off through the years. Smith followed his friend’s career even as he advanced in his own, running the family’s Paper Products Co. in Cincinnati. About five years ago, he rejoined the Cincinnati Astronomical Society after thinking about Moonwatch and what they contributed to the growing knowledge about space.
“We felt we were doing something important, even though I was just having a lot of fun at the time,” Smith says. “I don’t think until I was older and more reflective did I realize this was really important, what we did out here, and it made a major contribution to science.”
• • •
The Cincinnati Moonwatch team set several records for satellite tracking, including making the most observations of satellites for three consecutive months, according to a booklet the society published in 1985.
It says Van Flandern reached his goal of being the best Moonwatch team in the country because of his ability to round up so many volunteer spotters. And it lists Van Flandern’s reporting of the rocket explosion as the team’s greatest triumph, describing it as an “unprecedented prediction” that prompted the Smithsonian to visit.
In their best month they racked up 465 sightings, and in May 1961, the team made 288 observations—the most of any team in the country. On one night alone they saw 22 satellites make 40 transits. Cincinnati always competed against the Moonwatch program in Sacramento, trading the lead back and forth for most sightings.
“Sacramento was the one to beat,” Smith says. “They were better only because they had better weather. But Tom was fiercely competitive. He was always saying, ‘You gotta beat them, you gotta beat them.’ ”
The observations at the Zion Road location were the highlight of Smith’s and Van Flandern’s time at Xavier. It was especially exhilarating for the budding young astronomer.
“It was so exciting to catch a satellite in those days,” Van Flandern told the American Institute of Physics in 2005. “The idea that man had put something in space so captured the imagination of the public. It was almost inconceivable. It’s something no human being had ever done before. And everyone was interested in satellites. And when we would catch one it was a very exciting affair. Especially since they weren’t well predicted at all, and we would just have a vague general idea when we might hope to see one, and sometimes they would show up and sometimes not.”
Smith acted as Van Flandern’s deputy, helping set up the equipment and record each sighting. They would send telegrams to the Smithsonian reporting the name of the satellite, their Cincinnati station number, the time and the coordinates—altitude and azimus—for each sighting. Van Flandern would know how many satellites were expected in a night, and they would watch for them from dusk to dawn.
“Sometimes we had to look at two different satellites at the same time. And some satellites came three to four times a night,” Smith says. “We would set them up and run from scope to scope. We’d sleep in between sightings and goof off, too, throw blackberries at each other. Those were some of the best days of my life.”
• • •
Over the years, Smith often wondered if Van Flandern ever thought about the importance of what they accomplished with Moonwatch. He was so busy doing such high-level science that perhaps spotting satellites as young college students had lost its allure.
Smith never asked—and then lost the opportunity. Van Flandern died in 2009 at age 68 of cancer.
Smith wanted to commemorate the work of the Moonwatch program, though, and he told the society about his idea to erect an historical marker. He began working with the Ohio Historical Society, and on Oct. 4, 2012—the 55th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik—a marker was dedicated at the old site on Zion Road, where the old telescopes still sit in covered sheds in the open field. There’s now a fourth telescope on the site, and the old 8-inch scope is now protected by a small round dome. A real observatory.
The marker was erected. Words were spoken. Tears shed. Van Flandern’s son, Michael, and widow, Barbara, attended.
“We had the feeling that we were doing something productive for society as well as learning lives and careers for ourselves,” Van Flandern told the Insitute in 2005. “For that reason alone, Operation Moonwatch was a wonderful thing to happen.”