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Clyde Tombaugh rarely threw anything away, and for that we can be thankful.

The famed NMSU astronomer’s 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 NMSU’s 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 amateur.

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 family’s 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 I’ll 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 scientist’s widow, “This archival material is about beginnings” – the beginning of Tombaugh’s 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 Clyde’s 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 Tombaugh’s NMSU office to the library’s archives before Tombaugh’s 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 Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Work the problems about star rising in the back of trigonometry book.”

Tombaugh’s 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 NMSU’s 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 NMSU’s Tortugas Mountain observatory remains one of the best planetary telescopes ever designed, Beebe said.

Karl Hill

Members of the Tombaugh family gather by one of the astronomer’s handmade telescopes following a reception March 13 at Branson Library. At center is Patsy Tombaugh, Clyde Tombaugh’s 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.