By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — They were pioneers in space and we’ve been fortunate to have some of their generation’s most stellar representatives in our territory.
With the January deaths of Lowell Randall and Patricia Tombaugh, Clyde’s wife, I’ve been reminded of unique individuals who took some surprising paths to achieve international prominence in new and incredibly challenging fields.
Clyde Tombaugh discovered the planet Pluto and went to college … two years later. Lowell Randall became a world-renowned rocket engineer with just his Roswell High School diploma.
What both men had in common was a passionate interest in something — engineering and rocketry for Lowell and astronomy for Clyde — and a determination to learn more. And it was learning for the sheer joy of learning, I’d say, having had the opportunity to interview and get to know Clyde before his death in 1997. Reading about Lowell and taking to his daughter, Martha Randall Brown, of Las Cruces, and his friend and biographer, Joe Gold, convinced me that Lowell, too, had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
They both found ways to persevere and keep their dreams alive, even in the depths of the Great Depression, when college seemed out of the question for Kansas farm boy Clyde and Lowell was delivering newspapers and working at a Roswell furniture store to support his young wife and their first child.
But around 1930, as it turned out, both young men were in the right place at the right time … with the right stuff and the right mentors.
When Dr. Robert Goddard moved his rocket development and testing activities from Massachusetts to Roswell, Lowell was a frequent visitor, repeatedly sharing his aspirations for a rocketry research job. He won Goddard’s attention and respect by creating a prototype of a gyroscope that could sense an aircraft’s speed. Eventually, he built a career that took him to the top of the American space program, leading engineering teams that built intercontinental ballistic missiles and the multi-stage rocket which sent the first American astronauts into space.
Clyde made his own telescopes out of farm equipment and learned to grind his own lenses and mirrors. The drawings he made of his observations so impressed astronomers that he was offered a job at Lowell Observatory, where he made his famous discovery, the result of painstaking observations and comparisons that demonstrated Clyde’s patience and mental acuity. I talked to scientists who told me Clyde accomplished, on his own, in the 1920s and ’30s, feats that would challenge the capability of contemporary computers.
Dwarf planet or not, his Pluto discovery was a very big deal, as was his later career, which included discoveries of numerous star clusters and clusters of galaxies, hundreds of asteroids, two comets, one nova and much more. And he still managed to find time to raise a happy family, delight his friends with crow puns and inspire generations of kids to aim for the stars.
Both space pioneers would urge you to stay in school if you can, but they also established heartening examples of bold alternative paths, if economic woes threaten to postpone or thwart your higher education plans.
Can creative, hardworking kids still find a way to get to the top in tough economic times? I say yes, especially if you invent your own field, are bold and imaginative enough to explore interesting innovations and are willing to be a patient apprentice and hitch your wagon to a nova.
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at (575) 541-5450 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.