Clyde Tombaugh rarely threw anything away, and for that we
can be thankful.
The famed NMSU astronomers papers are a rich legacy of scientific
history covering most of the 20th century, starting before his discovery
of the planet Pluto in 1930 and chronicling a career that spanned
seven decades of unceasing curiosity.
Researchers mining this wealth of materials, recently donated by
the Tombaugh family to NMSUs Rio Grande Historical Collections,
will find gems everywhere, from scientific records to personal correspondence.
Among the jewels are early drawings of Jupiter and Mars that Tombaugh
made while observing the planets with a telescope he built himself.
He was still a Kansas farm boy then, but with the self-confidence
to send some of his drawings to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff,
Ariz., where a search was under way for a suspected Planet X.
Also among the papers is a Jan. 2, 1929, letter from V.M.
Slipher, then director of the observatory, that includes what
must be one of the understatements of the 20th century. It
seems to us you should be able to make yourself really useful
to us, Slipher wrote, offering a job to the audacious
Barely more than a year later, Tombaugh had found the elusive
ninth planet. The news was announced to the world on March
13, 1930. Tombaugh was 24 years old.
How would you feel if you saw a new world giving you
the high sign beyond the rim of the solar system? the
suddenly famous farm boy wrote in an article carried by the
Associated Press, a copy of which is among the memorabilia.
Drawings of Jupiter and his belts made by Clyde
Tombaugh in 1928, using a telescope he built himself.
In this 1979 photo, Tombaugh poses in his back yard with
a reliable old friend the nine-inch telescope he built
as a young man, using parts available to him at his familys
Kansas farm. Drawings he made with this telescope in 1928 caught
the attention of astronomers at Lowell Observatory, where Tombaugh
discovered the planet Pluto in 1930.
Photo by Michael Kiernan
He closed the article this way: I guess Ill just
keep on taking pictures of stars. That is what I like to do.
I am studying Mars and the moon now. There is enough here
to keep me busy for a long time.
Indeed, Tombaugh stayed busy for another 66 years, and the
papers document a remarkable career. In the words of Patsy
Tombaugh, the scientists widow, This archival
material is about beginnings the beginning of
Tombaughs career as an astronomer, the beginning of
the space age with rocket testing at White Sands Missile Range,
the beginning of an astronomy research program at New Mexico
State that would gain international recognition.
Although the formal donation took place only recently, we
agreed to give the papers to the university years ago,
Mrs. Tombaugh said. We feel that this is the appropriate
place for Clydes papers. He had a very close association
with NMSU lasting over 40 years.
Herb Beebe, a retired NMSU astronomer who knew Tombaugh well
and is assisting NMSU Archivist Marah deMeule and Processing
Assistant Christine Bruhnke in organizing the materials, said
about 100 boxes of papers and odds and ends were moved from
Tombaughs NMSU office to the librarys archives
before Tombaughs death, at the age of 90, in January
1997. Much additional material remained at the Tombaugh home
for Mrs. Tombaugh to go through, however.
In addition to extensive materials of scientific interest, the papers
include correspondence and mementos of a biographical nature. A to-do
list that Tombaugh began at about age 16, for instance, included Read
Pilgrims Progress and Work the problems about star
rising in the back of trigonometry book.
Tombaughs discovery of Pluto came early in his career, but
his exploration never ceased. He and Patsy who met and married
as students at the University of Kansas, after he had already made
history moved in 1946 to southern New Mexico, where captured
German V-2 rockets were being tested at White Sands Missile Range.
Tombaugh developed the equipment and the methods for optically tracking
the rockets in flight.
In 1955, anxious to get back into astrophysical research, Tombaugh
joined NMSUs Physical Science Laboratory and began a thorough,
federally funded search for small near-Earth satellites that included
excursions to Ecuador, along the equator. The project had major
implications for the budding space program.
Tombaugh remained active as a lecturer and a scientist long after
he officially retired from NMSU, and his presence is still felt
in many ways. The permanent endowment that funds the Tombaugh Scholarship
in astronomy was raised in part by a 40-city lecture tour that Tombaugh
undertook in his 80s. The 24-inch telescope he designed for NMSUs
Tortugas Mountain observatory remains one of the best planetary
telescopes ever designed, Beebe said.
||Members of the Tombaugh
family gather by one of the astronomers handmade telescopes
following a reception March 13 at Branson Library. At center
is Patsy Tombaugh, Clyde Tombaughs widow. At left are
Alden Tombaugh, their son, and his wife Cherylee Tombaugh. At
right are daughter Annette Tombaugh-Sitze and her husband Wilbur
Sitze. Tombaugh built this 10-inch telescope in 1944 and mounted
it on a lawnmower chassis so it could be easily wheeled from
place to place.