Keep Watching the Skies: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age (review)
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Keep Watching the Skies: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age. By W. Patrick McCray. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii+308. $29.95.

W. Patrick McCray’s Keep Watching the Skies tells the story of Operation Moonwatch, an extensive network of amateur observers and space enthusiasts dedicated to spotting and tracking artificial satellites. This ambitious project was proposed and implemented by Fred Whipple, the Harvard astronomer and director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, as part of the American plan for the International Geophysical Year (1957–58). As McCray emphasizes, however, the true protagonists of this story should be the amateurs who volunteered to scan the skies through the dark, cold nights. Although accounts of “science popularization” often promise more than they deliver, McCray successfully conveys a sense of their motivation, passion, and achievement through his presentation of lively materials from their scrapbooks, observation logs, and collections as well as personal interviews.

Plainly, Operation Moonwatch was embedded in cold war politics and culture. The “imperative for vigilance and civic duty” manifest in the corps that kept watch for Soviet bombers was combined with the enthusiasm for space exploration and the culture of amateur science. Initially named the Visual Observer Corps by Whipple, Moonwatch operated within the “Cold War cultural tapestry,” which included not only science-fiction movies and space comics but also nuclear fallout shelters. In hindsight, such episodes of popular mobilization are often viewed as humorous, even absurd, and those who participated as naive and credulous. McCray stresses that Moonwatch should not be understood in condescending terms, however, for these enthusiastic amateurs were not just “passive data collectors.” They also made “critical contributions” to professional science. Indeed, when the first Sputnik was launched and after its batteries for radio signals died, Moonwatch ceased to be just a backup and functioned as the sole means of tracking the Soviet satellite. McCray sees the Moonwatchers as proof that “in a world of hyperspecialized scientific research, amateurs still have a role to perform” (p. 244).

The amateur-professional distinction was not fixed or permanent. Moonwatchers showed that the boundary could be crossed by means of enthusiasm and diligence, and some of them actually became professionals, choosing careers in science. But the point of McCray’s Moonwatch story is not necessarily that amateurs can contribute to science as well as professionals. Rather, it is that amateurs can make meaningful scientific achievements and continue to enjoy their activity without having to become professionals. Indeed, this was what lay at the heart of the eventual decline of [End Page 946] Moonwatch. As more satellites were launched by both superpowers, the once-novel objective gradually turned into a “routine.” Accordingly, there came an enhanced necessity among Moonwatchers for “quantifiable accuracy”—which McCray points out “belied the ‘amateur’ status of its participants” (p. 198). Because of a growing emphasis on scientific rigor, Moonwatch lost its appeal to curious amateurs.

If Operation Moonwatch was a cold war project, can it serve as a model for rekindling popular enthusiasm for science and technology in the age of a war on terrorism? The prospect is unclear. In a striking reversal of attitudes in the wake of September 11, amateur interest in activities like rocketry and satellite spotting is regarded by the federal government as potentially detrimental to national security. Where, then, should amateurs find encouragement? Maybe what is needed now is another “Sputnik Moment,” perhaps most likely in the realm of concern about global warming—another Operation Moonwatch rather than another Manhattan Project to foster democratic interest and participation in science. McCray thus finds it appropriate to substitute the term “citizen-scientist” for “amateur.” The appeal of the new term does not consist in its less pejorative meaning but rather in its emphasis on the need for men and women, both amateur and professional, who question the political and cultural contexts of scientific work. This book reminds us that the pursuit of science is a matter of state and society, in which we as citizens have rights and obligations to know and to participate.

Chihyung Jeon

Chihyung Jeon is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in...


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