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If you like Clyde Tombaugh's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Sylvia Earle,
Daniel Goldin,
John Mather,
Sally Ride,
Alan Shepard and
Donna Shirley

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Clyde Tombaugh in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Cosmos

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Clyde Tombaugh
Clyde Tombaugh
Profile of Clyde Tombaugh Biography of Clyde Tombaugh Interview with Clyde Tombaugh Clyde Tombaugh Photo Gallery

Clyde Tombaugh Interview (page: 5 / 8)

Discoverer of Planet Pluto

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  Clyde Tombaugh

How would you explain what you do and what you care about to someone who doesn't know anything about your field? How would you impart to them how exciting it is to them?

Clyde Tombaugh: I like to raise the question, "Have you ever thought about what lies in the sky above you, that earth is not the only place in the universe?" There's a great universe out there. We're only a small part of it. I like to try to raise the curiosity: what is out there in space? A lot of unsolved mysteries. It's a never-ending challenge.

You've devoted many years to teaching as well.

Clyde Tombaugh: Yes. My first experience at teaching was during World War II. I was assigned to teaching navigation in Navy school for seven semesters. I put hundreds of young men though a tough navigation course. It was very overloaded because they didn't have enough teachers.

Astronomers were good candidates for teaching navigation because they understood the basics of navigation theory. A lot of astronomers were pressed into teaching navigation because of the terrible shortage of teachers. We were suddenly faced with the necessity of training a lot of young men in the art of navigation. That's how these things got set up all over the country. They had one at Flagstaff at the Arizona State College at that time.

Let's talk about White Sands now.

Clyde Tombaugh: During the war, I was teaching navigation in the Navy school, and when I wanted to go back to the Lowell Observatory to resume astronomical work, the observatory was short of funds and they let me go. That hurt my feelings, but in the meantime, I was invited to come to White Sands Missile Range to supervise the optical instrumentation. Some of the people thought with my experience with telescopes that I could do that kind of work. It turned out I was just the man for the job.

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
I came to White Sands in August 1946 and saw almost all the German V2 rockets fired along with our American rockets. I had about 80 men under my supervision; about half of them were military people and others were civil service. My rank in civil service was equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel and I had a big responsibility getting the ballistic data on these rockets.

It was up to me to decide where to put my instruments for the strategic positions to measure these high-speed rockets. It was a real challenge, but we did it. I used a lot of trigonometry out there and knowledge of optics. I designed super cameras and got marvelous results, which really put the White Sands Missile Range on the map. So I had a lot to do with the modern instrumentation of rockets.

Tell me about the satisfactions of changing careers for a while.

Clyde Tombaugh: At first I wasn't sure I'd like it, but the optical problems rather fascinated me. After the war, the Russians turned suddenly unfriendly and that bothered me. We were testing a new brand of rockets and missiles. We needed somebody who knew how to get instrumental data on them in flight and I thought this was where I could make a contribution.

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
I'm glad I did. We had some dangerously close calls, but it was very challenging, very exciting. I saw a lot of them explode on the launch or in the air. Very spectacular fireworks, I can tell you. These were powerful missiles. I tracked a lot of them myself with satellites and telescopes.

I got thoroughly acquainted with the Army, which I'd never known much about before. I worked with every rank in the Army from the commanding general to the buck private, and I had several military people under my supervision. I designed new instruments for particular jobs of the work which proved to be very successful. In fact, this one instrument which we called the IGOR, meaning Intercept Ground Optical Recording, was a super camera, and they worked so well that they were used at White Sands for the next 30 years before they retired them. Then they got some a little bit bigger of the same kind.

Was this when you became interested in optics?

Clyde Tombaugh: I was always interested in optics. All this came about from what I learned personally working on mirrors back in Kansas.

How old were you?

Clyde Tombaugh: I was 22 when I made my third telescope. The nine-inch was a very successful instrument. You need to have a place where the temperature's constant, like an underground cave, so you don't have thermal problems with the glass when you're working with it. In fact, we had built this cave ourselves years earlier. The farmers like to have a place like that for keeping milk and cream and butter and eggs and stuff. Cool in summer and warm in winter. Also, as a storm protection, because sometimes we had some bad storms and you didn't know if a tornado would come along and blow your house away. The best thing was to get down in that concrete cave. It had a very special purpose, but it was a marvelous optical workshop for me.

I would grind these mirrors. I had two disks of glass. One would be on a stand or a barrel and you rubbed that over with strokes and rotation and so on, so you'd grind the curve into it, you see. And then you'd go through the finer grades and then finally you use rouge and water to polish it. You polish the exact curve at the very last. It's very fine work, and then you have a test for watching and seeing these errors that's unbelievably simple. You can see errors down to within a few millionths of an inch. It's simple, but it's tricky.

You designed something from knowledge that you read in a book, which was equivalent to what scientists use.

Clyde Tombaugh: Yes. The first telescope was not so good because I didn't know that much about it, but I learned rapidly. You learn from mistakes.

Did you realize how much you had accomplished by developing that?

Clyde Tombaugh: No, I didn't think of it that way. I was just driven by the desire to see more things in the sky. That was the driving force. Everything else was secondary.

Was it a surprise to you to find out that you had developed an instrument that was as sophisticated as they come?

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: Well I realized it more later and then I felt a little bit more proud of myself that I had done better than I thought I was doing. But I never thought of it as being particularly difficult. I had to do a lot of thinking about it, but I've always been a thinker. I don't think there was any problem ever that I refused to try to grapple with.

Do you plan the steps and see them happening in your mind?

Clyde Tombaugh: Yes. You wonder about it and wonder how will I make an instrument that can handle this kind of a problem. And you think about it, do a lot more thinking. Sometimes you make mistakes and you go back and do it over. That's the way I got along in life. I don't ever remember being particularly jealous of anybody, because I figured if I can't do it myself, I don't deserve to get it.

Do you visualize the end result before you start?

Clyde Tombaugh: Yes. For example, this big telescope out here. I had a vision of the whole thing before I ever put in one single bolt. I calculated the movements of force and balance and so on. I'm somewhat of an engineer too, I guess. I sent my nine-inch mirror to Wichita, Kansas to a French telescope maker to silver my mirror because I didn't have those facilities. He tested my nine-inch mirror and thought it was very high quality, so he offered me a lukewarm invitation to come and help him make telescopes. I could have gone that way.

In the meantime, I was wondering what I would do if I didn't do that. I loved steam engines, so I really had a secret ambition to become an apprentice fireman and a railroad engineer, because I just loved machinery and travel, and I had a profound love of trains. I loved engines and machinery. To me, the noise of a threshing machine is better music than a lot of music I hear nowadays. I took a man's place in the threshing crew when I was only 14 years old. That was during World War I and they were short of manpower and so every boy in his early teens had to take a man's place on the farm with the fieldwork and threshing. That's where I learned to work hard.

I shed many a tear when the steam engines went out of style on the railroads. I'd like to seem them come back, but I realize the diesels are more efficient.

What about the career you never had on the railroad?

Clyde Tombaugh: When the offer from Flagstaff came, that all changed all that. I had found something more to my liking so I didn't have any regrets about it. It was just another way out.

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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:40 EDT