White Sands Missile Range Hall of Fame

Dr. Clyde Tombaugh
Chief of Optical Measurements
Served 1946 – 1955
Inducted 1980

Dr. Clyde W. Tombaugh, an astronomer, 1930 discoverer of the planet Pluto, educator, optical instrumentation designer, and humanitarian, was invited to the White Sands Proving Ground in 1946 to evaluate the potential of an experimental missile tracking telescope which had been adapted to a WW II M-45 machine gun mount. The tracking telescope system was built at the Ballistic Research Laboratory of the US Army Ordnance Corps, Aberdeen, MD to support the then new rocket testing program at the White Sands Annex.

Tombaugh accepted the invitation to improve the disappointing test performance of the tracking telescope system, and soon exerted beneficial influence on other forms of optical instrumentation. Under his guidance, successful results with the telescope revealed hitherto unknown details of the V-2 in flight behavior, separation and staging of the “Bumper” rocket at high altitude, and the influence of emulsion types, filters, atmospherics, thermal effects, and optical subtleties on the quality of film images and measurements.

During his nine years at White Sands Proving Ground, Clyde Tombaugh demonstrated a remarkable capability to bridge the gap between theory and reality in the practical application of photo-optical instrumentation to the problems of missile data collection, image measurement, analysis, and evaluation. In addition to personal contributions to development of tracking telescopes and long focal length cinetheodolites, he inspired and formed teams to operate the instruments under the difficult conditions in that early era of the Range. The successful track of V-2 #17 on 7 December 1946, after previous disappointments, demonstrated the scope of hitherto unobtainable in-flight information.

He utilized his knowledge of astronomical observation techniques, optical design, and photographic processes, to develop a fleet of specialized telescopes for obtaining scientific data on rocket flights. Eventual success with the original Telescope I (Bright Eyes) provided the basis for development of a family of more complex tracking telescopes. Dr. Tombaugh designed and personally fabricated long focal length mirror reflectors for use on the Askania. Other contributions included studies and research on optical filters, film emulsions – contrast/resolution, and film processing for speed and contrast.

He conducted training classes in astronomy, lens making, photography, and film processing for engineers and technicians. With the advent of rocket probes for space exploration, Dr. Tombaugh had visions of space travel. After observing the flight of missiles and rockets in space and counting objects in space, Dr. Tombaugh expressed concern about the possible natural hazards (minute rocks and debris) that could prevent space travel.

In June 1952, while employed at White Sands Proving Ground, Dr. Tombaugh proposed to Army Ordnance Research that a search for small natural satellites be started. The project was approved and search of the sky began at Flagstaff, Arizona and Ecuador, South America. He headed the team which conducted the first systematic search of space around the earth, particularly for the first 40,000 miles. Their finding of “nothing” gave the green light for the start of space travel.

Upon leaving White Sands Proving Ground in November 1955 he joined the staff of New Mexico State University. He continued his search for natural miniature satellites orbiting the earth and became a professor in the department of earth sciences. Dr. Clyde W. Tombaugh an astronomer, educator, optical instrument designer, humanitarian and White Sands Missile Range Pioneer made a significant contribution to the technical base of missile technology.

Dr. Tombaugh died on 17 January 1997.