Friday, January 20, 2012
In Memoriam: Patsy Tombaugh, 1912-2012
One week before the sixth anniversary of New Horizons’ launch on January 19, Patricia (Patsy) Edson Tombaugh, widow of Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, at age 99.
To many “Pluto huggers”—a term coined by Mike Wrathell to describe supporters of Pluto’s planet status—this loss feels personal. Whether we had had the good fortune of meeting her, or whether she was an icon we admired for her longevity, tenacity, and many accomplishments, to so many of us, it feels like we have lost a family member.
Patsy Tombaugh was so much more than the wife of an astronomer. She was a teacher, a promoter of the arts, an active member of women’s advocacy groups, a co-founder of Las Cruces’ Unitarian Universalist Church, along with her husband, a promoter of education and of the Tombaugh Scholars Foundation at New Mexico State University, and since 2006, a staunch advocate for Pluto’s planet status.
And she had dreamed not only of celebrating her 100th birthday this coming November, but of seeing the 2015 New Horizons flyby of the planet her husband had discovered way back in 1930, before the two were married, when Patsy was still in high school.
She attended the New Horizons launch in 2006, an event that moved her to tears. She also took part in the dedication of her late husband’s telescope at Rancho Hidalgo in 2009. That same year, she was present when the New Mexico House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring March 13 Pluto Planet Day, in defiance of the IAU vote.
When that vote took place, Patsy initially remarked that she had “lost her job” promoting Pluto and keeping it in the public eye, assuring the little world didn’t get forgotten in the wake of so many new discoveries in the outer solar system—not to mention discoveries in other solar systems entirely.
But that reaction didn’t last. She was invited to take part in a 2009 Nova TV version of The Pluto Files organized by Neil de Grasse Tyson, who was so impressed with the kindness and friendship of the Tombaugh family when he visited them in New Mexico, that he actually began rethinking his position on Pluto. Reviewed on this blog three years ago, that Nova episode featured a Tyson who had gone from saying he “killed” Pluto to one who publicly recognized the existence of an ongoing debate, even placing a plaque in the Rose Center noting that Pluto’s status remains in dispute. Towards the end of the episode, Tyson invites Tombaugh daughter Annette to the Rose Center in New York City and proudly displays the plaque to her.
Unfortunately, Patsy was unable to attend the 2008 Great Planet Debate. The family was well represented, however, as Annette, her husband Wilbur Sitze, and their grandson Kyle were all there—and signed the petition I would send to the IAU General Assembly one year later.
Patsy was very much a woman ahead of her time. In an age when few women pursued post-secondary education, she worked her way through college, earning a degree in philosophy from the University of Kansas in 1939.
Along with her brother James Edson, an astronomy major, and Clyde, his friend whom she met in 1933, she actively participated in a group known as the Syzygy Club, a small group of six or seven young visionaries who discussed issues like space travel and rockets. Today, or even back in the 1960s, such groups and discussions are common and mostly well accepted, but in the 1930s, that was not the case. The group never spoke to outsiders about the Syzygy Club for fear of being thought crazy, Patsy noted in a 2005 essay, “My Life with Clyde Tombaugh.”
Her interest in astronomy was exciting to Clyde, as he knew few women who shared that interest. After the Tombaughs were married, she accompanied him to Flagstaff, Arizona, where he worked at the Lowell Observatory. In the early days, that meant “roughing it,” living without phones, refrigerators, or washing machines, and cooking with wood fires. While there, Patsy took the time to meet members of various Native American tribes and learn their ways—a practice that did not become popular in the general culture until the 1960s.
Like Jules Verne back in the 1860s, visionaries are all about imagining the future, thinking beyond the limitations of the present day. Patsy and her husband Clyde were such visionaries, which is why it is not surprising that she set her sights on seeing Pluto up close in 2015.
So many astronomy and space exploration fans, including those who disagree with classing Pluto as a planet, had been rooting for Patsy to live this dream. Still vibrant and active at 99, she became a symbol of longevity and tenacity, a link between the past and the future, an inspiration to others that life could be not just a long journey, but an exciting one, filled with wonder and trust in what could be.
Writer Alan Boyle reports that when he visited Patsy in 2009, she realized the Pluto discussion was not going away any time soon. “It looks like we’re going to have to keep on discussing this,” he quotes her as telling him.
No question about that! And no shortage of people eager to discuss it!
One cannot help but feel sadness at the realization that Patsy will not be with us to realize her dream of seeing the New Horizons Pluto flyby. Yet at the same time, we can also honor a life well lived, a life ten months short of a century.
A friend and commenter on Facebook, on hearing of her passing, said, “I really hoped she’d live to see Pluto…She can see it perfectly now though.”
In their tribute to New Horizons, the band Elias-Fey sings, noting the presence of some of Clyde’s ashes on the spacecraft, “Ole Clyde’s hitching a ride back to where he belongs. Far out of this world, to infinity and beyond. You gotta believe. Because that’s what keeps us moving on. An American dream to where no one’s ever gone.”
I choose to believe that my Facebook friend is right, that Patsy can see Pluto perfectly now. And I know too many people to count will be thinking of her when the flyby happens three years from now.
Farewell, and rest in peace, Mrs. Tombaugh.