The world will watch as the New Horizons rocket flies by Pluto Tuesday. But the best view belongs to Clyde Tombaugh. And rightly so.
Tombaugh, the unassuming farm kid from Illinois who discovered the now-dwarf planet back in 1930, has been along for the 3.5 billion-mile ride in spirit and in person. Some of his ashes, a trace amount of his mortal self, are encased in a capsule onboard the spacecraft.
NASA launched New Horizons 9 1/2years ago. It is on target to reach its destination around 6:50 a.m. July 14 and fulfill its mission to capture never-before seen images of one of the universe's most mysterious objects.
Already the information coming in is monumental.
Whether or not the data helps to reinstate the tiny, icy body to full planet status or further prove its current membership in the Kuiper Belt Objects club is secondary to the universal light the mission is shining on scientific inquiry into the solar system that extends beyond the planets.
While astronomers analyze and calculate, space fans around the world, most particularly in Illinois, will simply relish the accomplishment – we've reached the outer limits of our solar system.
And just like the moment when Tombaugh discovered Pluto, moving forward, everything will be different, said Annie Vedder, associate director of experience development at the Adler Planetarium, where Tombaugh spoke in 1980 on the 50th anniversary of both his discovery and the opening of the Adler.
She recalls a story told by a scientist who worked in the office next to Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in Arizona.
The 24-year-old farmer's son who grew up southwest of Chicago, in Streator, Illinois, had only grit, determination and passion for astronomy on his resume when he landed a job at the Arizona observatory. He had so impressed Lowell astronomers with his drawings of Jupiter and Mars, gleaned from images captured with his handmade telescope, that they offered him a job monitoring telescopic photographic plates on the Planet X Project.
For nine hours a day, Vedder said, for months on end, Tombaugh tirelessly scanned the images — he later estimated he'd scanned 1.5 million stars on that gig — on a "blink comparator," a machine that could detect subtle changes in photos that were thought to be identical. The changes might indicate movement and thus the presence of a planet.
Vedder said Tombaugh's next-door neighbor recalled hearing click, click, click all day long for months on end.
Until 4 p.m. on Feb. 18, 1930 when silence broke the mundane pattern.
"Everything stopped," Vedder said.
And then everything changed.
Planet X, which would go on to be named Pluto, had been found. And the universe's story had entered a new chapter.
The eldest of six children, Clyde Tombaugh was born in 1906 at his maternal grandparents' farmhouse on the northwest side of Streator.
Second cousins Judith Bliss, who taught school and raised three sons in Streator, and Paul Tombaugh, a retired Elgin teacher who now lives in Woodstock, remember meeting him at what used to be regular family reunions. They've also become family historians of sorts, piecing together their famous relative's story, tending to his handmade 7-inch telescope and sometimes giving tours of their hometown.
Clyde's father owned a threshing company and Clyde spent most of his days helping him work the land.
His nights, however, were spent pursuing the infinite wonders of the universe.
Just as those fertile Central Illinois fields gave rise to a bounty of crops by day, their wondrous dark skies cultivated a sense of awe in Clyde, whose Uncle Leon had a telescope. It was a small, handmade 3-inch device, primitive in nature but enough to launch his nephew into a lifetime of scientific discovery, Paul said.
Clyde was so enthralled by astronomy that his peers got to calling him Comet Clyde and Telescope Tombaugh, Paul said.
"He was a well-rounded kid, a good student who got along with people," Paul said.
He was athletic, Paul said, specializing in pole vaulting, which seems fitting for a kid whose eyes were fixed skyward.
Clyde's family likely struggled financially, Paul said. They never owned their own home and moved frequently, he said. Clyde had only finished two years at Streator High School before the family moved to a wheat farm near Burdett, Kansas, where it met with even more hardship following a disastrous hailstorm. There was no money for college.
Nevertheless, Clyde pursued what at that time was a wealthy man's hobby, spending hard-earned money on materials to build his own window to the stars.
According to a biography on NASA's website, the mount Clyde used for this telescope was built from part of the crankshaft from a 1910 Buick and discarded parts from a cream separator.
Paul said at first Clyde was frustrated by the blurry images he was getting through the scope, so he invested another $2 on a more detailed set of instructions, which revealed that the device needed to be kept in a constant temperature. So Clyde and his father built an underground storm shelter that could double as a lab.
"Clyde did a lot of the digging," Paul said. "It was huge, 24-feet long by 8-feet wide by 8-feet deep. He needed the length to get a good test of the mirror."
It was that telescope that enabled Clyde to make detailed drawings of Mars and Jupiter, which he sent to Lowell seeking comments. Those comments included a job offer.
Clyde was 24 when he became the first and only American to discover a planet. He then went on to the University of Kansas, where he earned both bachelor's and master's degrees. Over the years, he discovered two comets and hundreds of variable stars and asteroids. He taught for the Navy and at the University of California at Los Angeles, before joining the faculty at New Mexico State University.
He built another 30 telescopes, Paul said, one a 16-inch device that he positioned in his backyard. It is now the centerpiece of a subdivision where dark sky advocates live in New Mexico, he said.
Paul cares for Clyde's original telescope, which was featured on a float in the Streator Fourth of July parade this year. Several members of the extended Tombaugh family served as grand marshals.
Among them, Ron and Sandy Tombaugh.
"Growing up, it wasn't that big a deal," Ron, 60, said. "Doesn't everybody have an astronomer in their family?"
He said, "Clyde used to visit and we'd always have dinner up at my grandma's which was right across the orchard from where we lived. We were just hard working farmers."
Ron had a math teacher, Sue Szabo, in junior high who had also taught Clyde.
"She was a real inspiration to Clyde and I sort of felt like I was one of her class projects because of that," he said.
The year 1999 was a big one, for Streator and the Tombaughs. That's when the town dedicated Main Street to Clyde. It was also the year a bunch of Tombaughs met at the Town & Country Motel for a big reunion.
Paul brought Clyde's telescope.
Holding back tears, Ron said, "I just remember this surreal feeling — here it was the 30th anniversary of the moon landing, and there we were looking at the moon through a telescope built by the only American to discover a planet. And he was our relative."
Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997.
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union re-classified Pluto as a dwarf planet, based on the discovery of Eris and several other similar objects that have been found along the Kuiper Belt.
It's hopeful that New Horizons, which was launched the same year, will return even more detailed insight into the universe beyond Neptune.
Judith said, "A lot of characteristics about Pluto are different from the other planets. I believe that Clyde would be OK with whatever it turns out to be. He would want Pluto to be a planet, of course, but he was more interested in the advancement of science and learning about the solar system.
"All of this has opened the door on even more study and I think Clyde would accept that because his whole life was about learning," she said.
In Streator, a town that is far from the interstate but also lays claim to Hopalong Cassidy and Burton Baskin of Baskin-Robbins fame, Tombaugh's feat is one of pride and inspiration. It is also something that is fiercely protected. There is a mural downtown dedicated to Clyde Tombaugh.
After Pluto was re-classified, Streator schoolchildren launched an international campaign to get it reinstated. The town has held regular celebrations of the feat, often featuring top-notch speakers. Among them, Alan Stern, leader of the New Horizons Pluto Project.
Town officials have dubbed 2015 "The Year of Pluto."
"We have a new slogan – 'We Believe'," said Ed Brozak, Streator councilman and member of the town's tourism committee.
"Pluto has been good for space study and it has been good for Streator," Brozak said.
While snacking on doughnuts inside one of Ron Tombaugh's farm buildings, talk turned to opening a Streator museum highlighting the accomplishment.
"People have an emotional, sentimental attachment to Pluto as a planet," the Adler's Vedder said. "They see it as an underdog."
For all its controversy, she added, "Pluto is still an awesome mysterious body out there and here we are getting close to it for the first time."
Art Maurer, director of the Trackman Planetarium at Joliet Junior College, said whenever he mentions Pluto during a sky show for youngsters, cheers erupt.
"Kids in particular love Pluto," he said.
Scientists do too. However it is classified, Maurer said, Pluto has opened the door to new discovery.
With evidence of methane gas, which is a sign that life once existed, and a temperature of -387 degrees Fahrenheit, Maurer said, Pluto is a mystery.
And scientists like mysteries.
Adding to the allure is Clyde's story. Like many of America's great accomplishments, there are roots in rural and small town America.
"I am proud that he was an amateur astronomer," Maurer said.
So is Brozak. "Clyde Tombaugh was just a regular kid. I saw a photograph of him outside his first school. He's got bare feet and is wearing overalls."
Beyond the hometown hero claim, Brozak said, is a larger message, one that often gets reiterated to high school students: "I mean, that a boy from that setting can learn so much in a small school in a small town and go right on to do something like this is just inspiring."
Pluto flyby events
Trackman Planetarium, Joliet Junior College, 1215 Houbolt Road Joliet; 815-729-9020; jjc.edu/planetarium
Director Art Maurer will present three free sky shows: 7 p.m. July 13; 5:30 p.m. (kid-friendly show) July 14 and 7 p.m. July 14.
Adler Planetarium, 1300 Lake Shore Dr., Chicago; 312-922-7827; adlerplanetarium.org
In addition to the exhibit, "Welcoming Pluto," the Adler will link with mission control at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and science museums and planetariums around the world for the flyby from 6 to 8 a.m. July 14. On July 16, the noon space news chat will be dedicated to talk of Pluto, and that evening's "Adler After Dark" event will be "Save Pluto." .
Guest speakers will discuss "The Pluto Files" at the Streator Public Library at 6:30 p.m. July 16.
Other stargazing events
Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Garden, 7402 W. Lake Katherine Drive, Palos Heights; lakekatherine.org
Join Joseph Mayer of the Chicago Astronomical Society for a free evening of stargazing: 8 to 9 p.m. July 25.
Little Red Schoolhouse, 9800 Willow Springs Road, Willow Springs; 708-839-6897; fpdcc.com/nature-centers/little-red-schoolhouse-nature-center/
Free Night Sky Program is guided by the Astronomical Society: 8 to 11 p.m. July 25.