Ohio Historical Society Marker Honors Xavier Astronomers

October 29, 2012

An Ohio Historical Society Marker was dedicated on October 4 at the headquarters of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society (CAS) on Zion Road in Cleves, Ohio. The marker commemorates Project Moonwatch and its members’ work during the dawn of the space age. The October 4, 2012 date was the 55th Anniversary of the Soviet launch of Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite.

The 1957 launch of Sputnik I ushered in new political, military, technological, educational and scientific developments. American engineers and scientists answered with Explorer I on Jan. 31, 1958. During the early years of this space age, amateur astronomers from the Cincinnati Astronomical Society tracked and confirmed earth-orbiting satellites.

Project Moonwatch was organized by the National Academy of Sciences. Over a seven year period from 1957-1964, the Cincinnati Moonwatch team was recognized by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory as a worldwide leader in contributions to launching and optical tracking of artificial earth satellites. The members spent thousands of hours in time, energy and capital tracking satellites.

Cincinnati Moonwatch members included then-CAS president Dr. Alex Presnell, and Xavier students Dennis Smith and Thomas Van Flandern. Then, as now, amateur astronomy was often inspiration for a career in the sciences.

“The achievements of the Cincinnati Moonwatch Team and Xavier students were to become very instrumental in the development of GPS (global positioning satellites),” says Smith. “Some of the very early satellites used to guide Polaris submarine launched missiles were picked up optically by the Moonwatch Team. The International Space Station is a reality today in some measure due to data furnished by Moonwatch teams worldwide. Artificial earth satellites would run early or late depending on what was happening in the upper atmospheres either expanding or contracting due to solar activities. Moonwatch teams helped determine this.”

Smith graduated from Xavier in 1964 with his business degree and is president of Paper Products Company in Cincinnati. Van Flandern, a 1962 XU physics alumnus who died in 2009, earned a PhD from Yale and served with the U.S. Naval Observatory for quite a few years. He authored many publications which challenged fundamental physics theories. Asteroid #52266 is named in his honor. Van Flandern had a close relationship with Xavier physics professors Drs. John Hart and William Marcaccio. Current department chair Marco Fatuzzo represented Xavier at the dedication.

The marker at the Cleves site, says, in part, “On these grounds from 1957 to 1964, the Cincinnati Moonwatch Team, principally under the leadership of Tom Van Flandern, spent thousands of man hours optically observing and recording data to verify the positions of satellites in space.”

Ohio Historical markers identify, commemorate and honor important people, places and events that have contributed to Ohio’s rich history. Administered by the Ohio Historical Society, there are currently 1,407 markers across the state.