Menzel helps establish Sac Peak
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The world’s first artificial satellite had yet to orbit Earth when Dr. Donald Menzel declared man would travel to other planets.
“I am quite sure that existing technology, supplemented by the experience of putting out satellites into space, will make possible interplanetary travel within the next decade,” said Menzel in a story the Alamogordo Daily News published Aug. 14, 1956.
Menzel, then 55, had been director of the Harvard Observatory for three years. He would hold that position until 1966 when he became paine professor of practical astronomy. According to his biography in his 1970 book “Astronomy,” Menzel had “combined teaching with research at Harvard since 1932,” and, “as an authority on the sun,” had “observed 13 total eclipses between 1930 and 1970,” in places such as the U.S.S.R., Mexico and Canada. He would observe three more before his death.
Fifteen months after Menzel’s 1956 pronouncement, the Soviet Union launched Sputniks I and II, the latter orbiting the first living creature — the canine Laika. The United States followed in early 1958 with Explorer I, and then Vanguard.
Space entranced the public.
“Are you aware that you have a personal stake in all the big missile shots, moon probes, satellite launchings, (and) earth-bound space tests being made today?” a subscription advertisement for Space Age Magazine asked. Published on the back of the November 1959 “Worlds of IF Science Fiction,” the ad described how “the age of space is exploding all around us. Government and Industry are spending billions in research and exploration so that generations to come will find a new kind of life — in space! Yes, we have already crossed the threshold of the greatest age in the history of Man!”
“Biographical Memoir,” which the National Academy of Sciences published in 1991, described how Menzel was reading “Gulliver’s Travels” at age 5. By then, his father had taught him rudimentary Morse code. At the same age he was “attracted by the sight of brightly colored ores that had spilled from railway cars near Leadville,” his hometown in Colorado. He “peddled ore samples to tourists on the trains, once giving a choice sample to President William Howard Taft.” Ten years later his collection had grown to two tons.
Menzel built a radio transmitter at age 9, and a chemistry lab at age 11. “He and his pals performed many experiments … some prompted by ideas gained from the library chemistry books he read so voraciously, others inspired simply by the urge to mix chemicals and see what happened.”
In 1943, the government called Menzel “to active duty as a Commander in the U.S. Navy,” said the August 1949 Popular Science, in a review of Menzel’s just-published book, “Our Sun.”
“As a naval officer,” said “Biographical Memoir,” Menzel “showed how solar observations could be used to anticipate large changes in conditions of long-distance radio wave propagation.” At the time, PS said, World War II-era “censorship had prevented him from reporting many further advances in men’s knowledge of the sun.”
The review touted “gee-whizzy facts” – such as “a single sunspot, in April 1947, was so big it could have contained a hundred earths” – that readers would “enjoy pondering while basking in the sun’s rays this summer.”
For solar study, Menzel “was instrumental in establishing observatories at Climax, Colorado, on Sacramento Peak in (Otero County) New Mexico, and near Fort Davis, Texas,” the “Astronomy” bio documented. In 1947, Menzel convinced the Air Force to sponsor Sac Peak as an associate facility to the Climax observatory. Winter clouds often blanketed that 11,500-foot altitude, which stymied viewing. Sac Peak construction began in 1948, the ADN reported on June 1, 1950, around the time reports about the observatory were first made public.
The most visible structure at the site is the Vacuum Tower Telescope, completed in 1971. In 1988, the facility was renamed the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope for the astronomer emeritus … recognized as one of the foremost experimental solar physicists,” said Dunn’s 2005 obituary, according to adsabs.harvard.edu.
“Astronomy” described the tower as a “turret with mirrors that rotate and incline at a controlled rate (that) directs a beam of sunlight 132 feet to the foot of the tower, and then down to other mirrors capable of spectroscopic analysis.” However, early editions of “Astronomy” not only incorrectly credit Dunn with working “at the Sacramento Peak Observatory in Arizona,” but also show a photograph of the facility identifying it in Arizona.
Menzel died on Dec. 14, 1976. A life retrospective in the April 1977 Sky and Telescope talked about his many other talents.
“In his younger days,” the magazine said, “Menzel published regularly in science fiction magazines, using assumed names, for at that time respectable astronomers didn’t speculate in public about extraterrestrial life.” Ironically, he would become a well-known UFO debunker. In the June 9, 1952 Time Magazine, Menzel stated UFOs were “as real as rainbows,” but that “seeing flying saucers is not the same thing as believing that they are space ships manned by intelligent beings from another planet. This science-fiction approach is like ‘explaining’ lightning by calling it a weapon of Zeus: it merely supplants one mystery by another mystery.”
In a “favorite” photograph, Sky and Telescope said, Menzel posed with Albert Einstein. Menzel was also a musician – he “played the piano, zither (a stringed instrument featured on the theme to the ‘Third Man’ film and radio program) guitar, and electric organ.” He invented, too. One co-patent “used acoustic waves to obtain pictures of underground formations.”
A chronic doodler “at dull committee meetings,” Sky and Telescope said that “around 1960 (Menzel’s) doodles began to take the form of fantastic Martian creatures, which have delighted his friends. There are presently many proud owners of ‘original Menzels.’ ”
Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the New Mexico Museum of Space History. E-mail him at email@example.com.