Leo McGrath

Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.

During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.

We encourage researchers to utilize the full-text search on this page to navigate our oral histories or to use our catalog to locate oral history interviews by keyword.

Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.

ORAL HISTORIES
Image not available
Interviewed by
David DeVorkin
Location
Concord, Massachusetts
Usage Information and Disclaimer
Disclaimer text

This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.

This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.

Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.

Preferred citation

In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Leo McGrath by David DeVorkin on 2005 October 10, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/33927

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location. 

Abstract

Interview discusses Leo McGrath's early life and schooling in Concord, Massachusetts, entrance to Harvard on scholarship, courses in the sciences, and contact with Fred Whipple and Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin. Impression of moving from the Concord High School to Harvard. Leave from Harvard for military duty in the Army Security Agency. How his military experience may have prepared him for Smithsonian work. Marriage and return to Harvard. Planning for a career. Jobs, and then responds to opening from Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). Excitement after Suptnik. Process of joining the satellite tracking program. Choice of the station in Jupiter, Florida. Tracking Vanguard. Design issues with early telescopic systems, humidity issues. Early failure to capture satellite tracks. Observing methods, synchronizing the clock and the shutter. Training from Joe Tugas. Station teams and assignments. The problem of securing good predictions. Observing practices, hirings, differences in style. Differences with station manager and relieved of duty. Contact with Cambridge headquarters and dismissal of station manager. Move to Cambridge to work for Tillinghast. Takes over management of the photo reduction processing. Part time management work for Bob Davis on Celescope. Comments on complexity of the project and Davis's management style. Description of the Baker-Nunn camera house. Description of the reduction process in Cambridge. Discussion of workload and budgets. Mergers and budget cutbacks in the late 1960s. Recollections of visiting the site at Jupiter and on Whipple's achievements.

Transcript

DeVorkin:

I’m at the home of Leo McGrath on Hubbard Street in Concord, Mass., and the date is October 10th and the interviewer is David DeVorkin, the auspices NSF, American Institute of Physics and the Smithsonian Institution. May I call you Mr. McGrath?

McGrath:

Leo’s fine.

DeVorkin:

Well, Leo, I would like to start with a biographical sketch — where you were born, when you were born, your family background.

McGrath:

I was born in Medford, Massachusetts on August 13, 1932. My parents at the time were living in Revere. My father was a Concordian, and he built a house here in Concord which we moved into in 1932 shortly after I was born, so I spent most of my life here in Concord and went to Concord public schools. My father was a clerk on the Boston-Main Railroad and my mother was a homemaker.

DeVorkin:

What was your father’s full name?

McGrath:

Leo J. McGrath.

DeVorkin:

So you’re the junior.

McGrath:

I’m a junior, yes. I have three brothers, all younger. John, Paul and Mark. Mark still lives here in town, John lives in North Carolina and Paul lives over in Littleton. He’s a retired police officer. I went to Concord High School around the corner here and graduated in 1950. I was admitted to Harvard College with the Class of 1954. I majored in physical sciences, which was a very general science major. Included in that were a number of astronomy courses, and I had the pleasure of having lectures from Fred L. Whipple. And I took a course from Cecelia Payne Gaposchkin, and I left Harvard for three years of military time in February of 1953. I was floundering around not doing much. I had no direction.

DeVorkin:

You were a junior by then?

McGrath:

Yes. I had started my junior year, but my grades were terrible and one of the deans said that I really should take some time off and figure out where I was going. So I left Harvard February of 1953.

DeVorkin:

Before we get to your military experiences, let’s back up and find out how you got to Harvard and what your interests were in life. As you went to high school, did you develop specific interests in what you wanted to do in life?

McGrath:

I liked math and sciences. I knew that much. My father said, “You’re going to Harvard,” and that was the end of that. I was admitted to Holy Cross, Brown and Columbia, but he said, “You’re going to Harvard.”

DeVorkin:

Your grades must have been pretty good.

McGrath:

I did very well on the college boards and my junior and senior year grades were pretty good, yes.

DeVorkin:

Did you get a scholarship?

McGrath:

I got a full scholarship from the Harvard Club in Concord. It’s a full tuition scholarship, and I commuted from here.

DeVorkin:

So you stayed at home?

McGrath:

I lived at home which has advantages financially and disadvantages as far as interacting with classmates and that sort of thing.

DeVorkin:

So you were interested in math and science. Was there anything more pointed, like astronomy?

McGrath:

At the time, no. I had physics and chemistry and a lot of math in high school from pretty decent teachers, so I was well prepared for that part of it. Harvard was sort of a “that’s what you’re going to do.” My father just said, “You’re going to Harvard and that’s the end of it.” So I went to Harvard. It was a cultural shock going from Concord High School to Harvard College, I can tell you that. Ted Kennedy and I left the place around the same time.

DeVorkin:

Really?

McGrath:

Ted was asked to leave and come back. Football was another factor I think that got me in there. The high school had a very successful football program at that time, and I think there were Alumni; there was a quarterback of the team who went to Harvard also. So I think my football experience had a lot to do with my getting in there. That’s my personal belief.

DeVorkin:

Did you play football at Harvard?

McGrath:

I played at the JV [Junior Varsity] level, and I didn’t play when I came back. No.

DeVorkin:

Did you know Ted Kennedy?

McGrath:

I played freshman football with him, but I wouldn’t say I knew him. He probably wouldn’t know me from a hole in the wall.

DeVorkin:

What was the nature of your poor student grades let’s say? I mean did you engage in other activities?

McGrath:

I tried to play football, and it was just an overwhelming experience at Harvard, coming from a small high school where there were ninety-six kids in the class. I had a pretty sheltered background. So I went to Harvard, and you know they sit you down on the first day and they say, “Look at the guy next to you because he’s not going to graduate.” And [unintelligible word] was the guy next to him I guess, so I didn’t graduate with class but I did ultimately graduate. I went into the military, the Army Security Agency.

DeVorkin:

Did the dean or anyone at Harvard suggest what part of the military you go into or just that you take time off?

McGrath:

They just said, “You need to take time off.” So they sort of left it to me to decide what to do. It’s sort of part of the process I guess, to see what my reaction would be. But at that time the draft was in effect. It was during the Korean War. So you didn’t have too many options. As soon as you lost your college deferment you were eligible for infantry duty in Korea.

DeVorkin:

How did your family react to your leaving Harvard?

McGrath:

My father was not very pleased. You can imagine that. My mother never really said anything about it. So I joined the Army Security Agency for three years rather than get drafted and definitely sent to Korea for two years as an infantryman. So.

DeVorkin:

What did that involve, Army Security?

McGrath:

It was communications surveillance. It was sort of classified stuff. I was trained as a radio operator, so I could do Morse Code. And essentially I was sent to Germany. You know, the first half of the alphabet goes to Germany and the other half goes to Japan and Korea, so I was sent to Germany for a year] after I did some instructing at the Southeastern Signal School in Fort Gordon, Georgia. I spent about a year, 15 months there as an instructor. That was pretty enjoyable, because my physics and scientific background allowed me to do some teaching. So that was pretty interesting, but the time was up and I had to move on — they sent me to Europe.

DeVorkin:

Where were you stationed in Germany?

McGrath:

I was stationed just outside Munich at a place called Bad Aibling. And at that time of course the Cold War was really heating up. Essentially what we did was radio surveillance of Russian things on the other side of the Iron Curtain. They had these detachments, these listening posts that were stationed up and down the border, so I had experience living in a detached situation in a reconnaissance detachment where there’s a squad of guys operating surveillance equipment. And this I think may have caught Smithsonian’s eye because it was very similar to the stations later on. I didn’t think of it at the time, but it was very similar living. You were detached from the headquarters. I was in charge of one of those reconnaissance units at the end.

DeVorkin:

So you were in charge of the squad, so to speak?

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

What was your rank?

McGrath:

I made corporal. I wasn’t a specialist though. They said, “If you re-enlist we can make you a sergeant.” I said, “No thank you.” At that time I had talked to Harvard and I had been readmitted, so I decided to go back to Harvard.

DeVorkin:

Now let me ask you how your thinking went as you were — in the Service — about how you decided? What was it that made you feel you could go back and be successful?

McGrath:

Well, I felt that I owed an awful lot of people. That was one thing. It was an obligatory sort of thing. And my advisor, John Monroe, I sort of kept in touch with him.

DeVorkin:

He’s at Harvard?

McGrath:

He was at Harvard. In the ‘60s he went to work at a college down South somewhere and I’ve lost track of him. He was my advisor.

DeVorkin:

And what was the role of advisor? Were faculty people advisors?

McGrath:

I don’t think he taught any courses, but he was the person you went to discuss courses you were going to take and how you’re doing and that sort of thing. John Monroe. He was a pretty decent guy. Anyhow, I did three years in the Army. I became engaged while I was in the military so I got married when I got out, moved into an apartment in Cambridge down off Central Square, finished Harvard, had my first child. It was a busy time.

DeVorkin:

Yes. That must have been by about ‘57?

McGrath:

Yes. I finished in ‘57 and the graduation was in January of ‘58 I got my diploma. I went to University Hall and they said, “Here.”

DeVorkin:

Did you declare a major?

McGrath:

Physical Science.

DeVorkin:

So you stuck with that.

McGrath:

I stuck with that because I had a lot of credits toward graduation. I thought about changing that to economics.

DeVorkin:

What were you thinking about doing as you moved closer to graduation? You know you were going to get married — or you got married when you got out of the service.

McGrath:

Yeah. I was married when I resumed studies at Harvard.

DeVorkin:

Give me a little bit of information about your wife — how you met her, her full maiden name.

McGrath:

My wife’s maiden name was Elizabeth Lynah. She grew up in Lexington, which is right nearby here. I met her the summer after I graduated from high school. She was a cousin of a high school friend of mine. So we met and dated and things went very well. And she wound up teaching here in Concord while I was in Europe. She got a job here in Concord. I came back, she continued teaching here until our son was born. Then she stopped teaching. So Owen, my youngest — I think you have had contacts with Owen.

DeVorkin:

Yes.

McGrath:

And when Owen went to school, became school-aged, then she went back teaching full time and she taught here for nearly 30 years.

DeVorkin:

What grades?

McGrath:

Mostly first, second and third. She’d teach first for a few years and then she’d go to second and then third there was a little variety to it I guess. But she taught right down the street here at Alcott School.

DeVorkin:

How many children do you have?

McGrath:

I have two. Matthew and Owen.

DeVorkin:

So let’s put you in your senior year at Harvard, and you are of course on the way to graduation, you’re in the physical sciences. What were your goals in life?

McGrath:

I was always taught you always do the practical thing. Do you know what I’m saying? My father was one of these, “Do the practical thing,” you know? “Get a job doing something practical,” you know. “Don’t go into the Theatre.” He grew up in the Depression. Well, I grew up in the Depression too.

DeVorkin:

Sure.

McGrath:

It was a no-nonsense sort of thing. I was steered into doing very practical things, so the math and science thing was the most practical thing to do at the time. My first plan for a career was to continue on with my military experience with the National Security Agency — the ASA — the Army Security Agency was part of the National Security Agency, so I did apply there when I got out. But with a wife and one child at that point, I had to get a job right away, so I got a job at a finance company here in Somerville. That was an experience. I had never encountered anything like that before. They called you an assistant manager, but essentially you were a collector.

DeVorkin:

Oh yes. Of course.

McGrath:

And it was a good education.

DeVorkin:

Education in life.

McGrath:

Yes. And it was mostly Medford, East Somerville, and Charlestown. And it was kind of scary sometimes, because you’d have to go and collect the money in person.

DeVorkin:

Sure.

McGrath:

On a Friday night. And you may have $300 or $400 under the front seat of the old Plymouth, you know? So me, I’m frantically looking for work. And then there was an ad in the paper for an observer. So I checked that out, and they were looking for people to work.

DeVorkin:

Let me back up a little bit. You had taken the courses from Whipple and Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin early on.

McGrath:

Whipple was a guest lecturer.

DeVorkin:

Oh, in Cecelia’s courses?

McGrath:

Yes, yes. He would come in and lecture on certain things. The dirty snowball. I heard about the dirty snowball.

DeVorkin:

So this was a general course in astronomy?

McGrath:

I had several courses in astronomy — an introductory course and several advanced courses. I liked the astronomy. I enjoyed astronomy. Astronomy I was one of the courses that satisfied the requirements, so I took that and I kind of liked it. And then I was in an astronomy course in ‘57. It was ‘57 when Sputnik went up. That was pretty exciting.

DeVorkin:

Who were you in with? Or who was the teacher?

McGrath:

I’ve forgotten now. I think Dave Latham was a section man or something. I remember encountering him. But there we were. The astronomy courses were given up on the hill at 60 Garden Street, and we were right there when all this — you know, the beeping and all that. It was pretty interesting.

DeVorkin:

It must have been very exciting. Do you have any recollections, specific recollections, some stories of people or people gathering and talking about it?

McGrath:

Well, they talked about it in the classes. I do remember that.

DeVorkin:

Was there a sense of excitement or fear that the Russians were beating us?

McGrath:

No, it wasn’t so much the competition with the Russians. It’s just the amazement of what had been accomplished and the fact that this had happened — that somebody had put something into Earth orbit.

DeVorkin:

Did it give you a feeling of wanting to get involved someday?

McGrath:

It was nice to be taking astronomy and being able to understand what was discussed with people, other students and sort of authoritative people, because the IGY was underway right around that time. So there were people there who were very knowledgeable in this.

DeVorkin:

Did you participate at all in Moonwatch?

McGrath:

No. I went directly into the satellite tracking system. I needed a paying job at the time.

DeVorkin:

But as a student in an astronomy class at Harvard taking courses did you hear about Moonwatch?

McGrath:

I didn’t know about Moonwatch until I actually joined Smithsonian.

DeVorkin:

So you just weren’t clued into it.

McGrath:

No.

DeVorkin:

So then all of these contacts with astronomy were interesting to you, but it didn’t spark a personal career interest in you in any way?

McGrath:

It seemed once I heard about the tracking program I knew it was something I really wanted to do. It was — there was a network of the tracking stations around the world. I was interviewed by Karl Henize. You have probably heard the name.

DeVorkin:

Oh yes.

McGrath:

Yes. Great guy.

DeVorkin:

As you were talking about your father’s influence on setting your life’s goals there was something about this that fit?

McGrath:

Well, my background fit pretty well I thought. I mean the space age was beginning. What else would you want to do given my background and this whole exciting thing that was going on. It was an obvious thing to do once I found out about it.

DeVorkin:

You must have applied for the job?

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

And that was by answering an ad in the paper?

McGrath:

The Smithsonian had given the job to the State Department of Employment Security, who had a job-finding arm to go along with their unemployment insurance. So they did recruiting for people essentially, and they put out the ad. So I went and I talked to State first and they said, “Oh yes,” and I was qualified, so they put me in touch with the Smithsonian and the program, gave me a SF-171 and all that good stuff. I think Dave Self was sort of the administrative guy at the time.

DeVorkin:

This is very helpful because it fills in a lot of the personal picture of how does somebody get into the system from essentially a nonacademic direction, and this is what I am most interested in.

McGrath:

Self and Ned Bullis was another name. They said okay. They made a decision very quickly and I was sent off to New Mexico for I guess a week and a half, two weeks of training.

DeVorkin:

So your training with Karl Henize then was in New Mexico.

McGrath:

He was out there for a while. He worked out of Cambridge but he was all over the place. There was another trainee with me, but for the life of me I can’t remember his name.

DeVorkin:

I have name lists.

McGrath:

We joined together, and then he went off to another tracking station.

DeVorkin:

We actually found a comprehensive name list that started in 1964We could talk about them eventually. I was going to ask you how many of them you knew, and you might tell me something about them. Some of them of course we do know. What was the training like? Oh, by the way, let me ask how did your wife react to this kind of a career decision on your part?

McGrath:

Well, let me tell you. [Takes out his SF 171] This is a later one that has that one there. It shows that at the time for the finance company I was making $3380 per annum. And the Smithsonian job was $5985, so you do the math. She was pretty elated, let me tell you.

DeVorkin:

So, to think she could get rid of you and she got more money for it!

McGrath:

Yes. We were living on the GI Bill pretty much. So that was, “Wow. $5985. Wow.” Yes. It felt good. So I went to New Mexico and she moved back in with her parents in Lexington while I was in New Mexico. Chuck Tugas was the station manager out there. He was the perfect guy for that job. He was just extremely knowledgeable, easy to get along with, and I just learned an awful lot. I learned how to run the camera and the clock and film and find the positions with the star charts and learned the whole process of developing film.

DeVorkin:

What was his background?

McGrath:

I don’t know. I know he’s from New Hampshire, but I don’t know much about his background. He was extremely knowledgeable. He could look up and say, “Okay, we’re in this constellation now.”

DeVorkin:

So he knew the sky.

McGrath:

He knew the sky, yeah. He really knew the sky — which I figured out was the key to the whole process. If you knew the sky and knew where you were, you save yourself hours and hours on the light table afterwards trying to figure out where the heck the thing was.

DeVorkin:

Exactly. So the nature of the training was hands-on?

McGrath:

Every night. The weather was great. In New Mexico it’s clear every night.

DeVorkin:

Oh yeah.

McGrath:

I went out there in December of ‘58, yes. It was a couple of weeks in December ‘58 and I was back home here by Christmas, and I hadn’t completed my training and the question was where were we were going to be assigned. There were two choices. There were Shiraz, Iran and Jupiter, Florida. Yes. Camera 10, SC-10. At Jonathan Dickinson State Park, which is about 20 miles above West Palm Beach.

DeVorkin:

Did you have your choice?

McGrath:

I had a choice, and my wife and I talked it over. With a year and a half old baby we figured that Florida would be a wiser choice so we went to Florida.

DeVorkin:

And were you to run the station?

McGrath:

No, I was just an observer. There were people there already.

DeVorkin:

And who was on the staff when you got there?

McGrath:

Ted Aberle was the station chief. Wilbur McCone was there. Wilbur was an electronics guy, so his job was primarily to keep the clock running right. And there was Gil Murphy. Aberle was an ex-pilot, Air Force pilot, flew B-47s. He hooked-up with the Smithsonian. Murphy was a radio operator in the Navy before he hooked with them. And there were some others that came along later. Glenn Melke. I don’t know what his background was.

DeVorkin:

But these people were coming from all different walks of life — some technical, some with military experience. To your knowledge at least in your groups — were there any people who wanted to be astronomers let’s say?

McGrath:

No, You know, an astronomer was a Ph.D. route that I probably didn’t consider. So I flew in to West Palm Beach on New Year’s Day ‘58. It was the same day that Batista fled Cuba. Because he had just landed, and I remember thinking, “Wow, what a crowd just for me.” It was a DC-3 or a C-47 or whatever it is with Cuban markings on it and there were people just everywhere. Pretty exciting.

DeVorkin:

And it wasn’t because of you!

McGrath:

It was my first trip to Florida as well. The weather felt pretty good coming out here in January. So we got put up in a hotel over on Riviera Beach, Singer Island, which is the next town above West Palm Beach, and Murphy and Aberle were living in the motel so I had to stay with them. I started looking for an apartment, and we started almost right away. At that point no one at that station had ever photographed a satellite.

DeVorkin:

Not yet.

McGrath:

No. So it hadn’t really gotten going.

DeVorkin:

Why was that? I mean satellites had been flying.

McGrath:

Well, photographing them back then was not an easy task, but there was no one there who had any real experience at tracking. Aberle was new. They were all new.

DeVorkin:

So no one had very much experience, but you all had had the training in New Mexico? Is that how it worked?

McGrath:

I had been to New Mexico, and I don’t know whether Aberle had been there or not. New Mexico was the primary training place, so they had probably been there, but they had not been in Florida for very long and they had never photographed a satellite.

DeVorkin:

Sputnik of course was a surprise, and the Baker-Nunn systems weren’t really ready.

McGrath:

No.

DeVorkin:

There was also the problem of being able to create predictions in orbits so that each station would know where to point the instrument.

McGrath:

Yes. On the launch they would get nominal elements. You can describe the orbit of a satellite with nominal elements, and they had a computer back here in Cambridge, an IBM 704 I believe it was, that they used for grinding out predictions. So they started with nominal elements right after a launch, and then the Moonwatch teams started looking for it. They usually pick it up first, because they had a wider window to look at. And as soon as the observations from Moonwatch started coming in, then the Baker-Nunns would start picking it up.

DeVorkin:

But yours had not yet done that.

McGrath:

No. It was a couple of months before we finally got things going. I think Tugas came down to give us a hand.

DeVorkin:

Can you pinpoint why? I mean, were there satellites actually going over that you missed?

McGrath:

There were, yes. We were getting predictions, but we just never found any, never had any success. We’d go up there and go through the entire thing, but we never managed to see anything on the film.

DeVorkin:

On the film.

McGrath:

Right.

DeVorkin:

Were there evenings where you could actually see it in the sky?

McGrath:

No, none of them were visual.

DeVorkin:

They were not yet visual.

McGrath:

There was a finding scope on the side of the Baker-Nunn, and once in a while if the predictions were good you could see it, but you would have to get a 5-inch telescope on the side of the Baker-Nunn. It has a finding scope on the side of it. [Pointing to a photograph] See right there?

DeVorkin:

Oh yes. These are these modified M-17s.

McGrath:

Yes. So sometimes if the predictions were really good you would catch the thing going through, but most of the time you never saw the satellite. You just key the predictions in — the altitude and the azimuth and the track velocity. You could vary the speed with which the camera tracks. You key all those in and make sure you know where you were in the sky, take the picture, maybe take several passes on a piece of film and bring the film down and develop it, down to the camera house — [it] was up on the top of Hobe Mountain. It was about elevation 18 feet in the middle of Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

DeVorkin:

And it was a whole 18 feet, right?

McGrath:

Yeah. Florida is not a very high place.

DeVorkin:

Right!

McGrath:

Jonathan Dickinson Park was the site of Camp Murphy during World War II. And so the roads were all laid out and the Florida Department of Natural Resources had camping and things. The camera was sitting at the top of a hill, practically on top of a cistern that was used by the military during the war. And the office building was down below, so you had to take the film down there. They had a darkroom and we would develop the film and dry it.

DeVorkin:

When you could get the satellite actually in the field of the finder, you could not be photographing at that time?

McGrath:

The finder was completely separate from the camera.

DeVorkin:

They wouldn’t point in the same direction?

McGrath:

They would point in the same direction, but the camera was running while you were looking.

DeVorkin:

Right. So when you were looking and you saw it in the field, why didn’t that guarantee that the camera would pick it up?

McGrath:

Oh, the camera did. If you saw it, that was pretty good news.

DeVorkin:

Oh, I see.

McGrath:

The satellite was 1958 delta, the 6-inch Vanguard. That was really hard. I think Tugas was the first one to get that. You’re talking about a 6-inch sphere photographed at maybe 2,000 miles. And the conditions have to be right. Most of this occurred during morning and evening twilight, where the satellite would be up in, still in sunlight. It would be in darkness down below. So that in the middle of the night, particularly with these low-orbit satellites, there was very little to do. So you go out and you do your evening passes, develop the film and do whatever had to be done, and sometimes you could even take a nap and wait for the morning passes to come along. We’d stay out there all night between the two [of us]. Wilbur Cone and I worked together. Wilbur was the clock guy, which was very helpful because those old clocks were bonky things.

DeVorkin:

Did the humidity cause problems?

McGrath:

In Florida, yes.

DeVorkin:

How did you deal with that?

McGrath:

There were correction elements on the camera. The Schmidt system has a spherical mirror. And then they use correction elements to offset the fact that it’s a spherical mirror. And the corrector elements Steve Sydor always said were soluble in water. Oh great, you know.

DeVorkin:

Right.

McGrath:

You know how rainy it gets in Florida?

DeVorkin:

Yes.

McGrath:

And the solution to keeping them dry even from the humidity was they had an electric blanket wrapped around the top of the camera where those elements were, and that provided enough heat to keep the condensation off the correction element.

DeVorkin:

Did it work pretty well?

McGrath:

Yes, it did.

DeVorkin:

So that had already been thought out.

McGrath:

They figured that out. And they got rid of those ridiculous large light hoods pretty early on too. I don’t think anybody ever used those — you know, the long things?

DeVorkin:

Yes.

McGrath:

We never used those. Because you couldn’t shut the roof, for one thing.

DeVorkin:

So you had to put the thing on after you rolled the roof off?

McGrath:

No, we never used it. There was a short hood. The cameras looked like this. We ran it with a short hood, with a very short light hood.

DeVorkin:

That’s right.

McGrath:

And the elements were inside there. And I always had an electric blanket wrapped around it.

DeVorkin:

Right. And but I’ve seen the pictures with those big funnel-shaped —

McGrath:

I don’t know of anybody who ever used those.

DeVorkin:

Why were they built?

McGrath:

To eliminate stray light, I suppose. They used incredibly fast film on those things.

DeVorkin:

Yeah.

McGrath:

And it was an F/1 optical system to begin with. They were worried about stray light getting in there.

DeVorkin:

Was there any stray light?

McGrath:

No where we were, no. No. I never remember even seeing the one in Florida if they did have one.

DeVorkin:

So that was just something that if they had to set up a system where there was a light somewhere.

McGrath:

It looked good in the picture in Life magazine. Have you seen that one?

DeVorkin:

Oh yes, that’s a famous one.

McGrath:

It looked more impressive with that on there, I suppose.

DeVorkin:

If it was some time before you were able to actually capture a satellite, how did the team feel about it? How did you feel about it? Do you feel that you were failing in any way, that this was a challenge too great for the technology or that you hadn’t been adequately trained?

McGrath:

Well, I think it was frustrating. We weren’t doing something right, so we just kept plugging at it until we finally started getting results.

DeVorkin:

Was there any pressure from the headquarters?

McGrath:

No. It was self-imposed pressure I think. We’re down here to do a job. The weather was not good in Florida. Even though it was cloudy in West Palm Beach, we had to go up to the station because the sky would clear and cloud, and clear and cloud. So you had to be there and you had to set the camera up and be ready no matter what. There was a lot of frustration there. A lot of nights you’re go up there and you’d spend the night there but you wouldn’t get anything because you couldn’t even open the roof sometimes. The weather was very variable. Unlike New Mexico where it was dry and clear and had perfect seeing conditions.

DeVorkin:

Shiraz would have been the same. Did you ever regret not going there?

McGrath:

No, I didn’t. I got to like Florida. You know, we got settled in down there. We lived in West Palm Beach. We rented half of a duplex on Riviera Beach for a short period of time and then we rented a house in West Palm Beach on 59th Street, which is the last street coming north, and it was nice.

DeVorkin:

Your wife was happy with it?

McGrath:

She was happy. The only thing is I didn’t see much of her when I was working. We worked three or four nights in a row and then took time off. But I’d be coming in and going to bed just as she and Matthew would be getting up and getting on with their day.

DeVorkin:

The question of whether it being clear or not and then having to prepare for it as opposed to just either spending a regular evening doing what everybody else in the world did was very frustrating to me. And that was a very unpleasant thing for me actually.

McGrath:

Yes. That’s why I would tend to go anyway. See, at least you’re there so that if it does [clear up] you might get that observation that somebody needs for something.

DeVorkin:

Exactly.

McGrath:

So I always preferred to go.

DeVorkin:

Just go and if you weren’t observing you had other things to do?

McGrath:

Yes, you could be mixing chemicals or a lot of things — go up and read the clock anyway.

DeVorkin:

What does reading the clock mean?

McGrath:

The clock was synchronized with the camera. So that the camera would flash the time. Are you familiar with this?

DeVorkin:

Give me a sense of it.

McGrath:

There was a bridge. It was, I don’t know, hundred-and-some-millimeter film run across the focal plane. And the clamshell shutter would open. And then inside the clamshell shutter there was this chopping shutter so as the camera was tracking along it was chopping and it would chop the star images or the satellite images, depending on what mode you were in, into segments that the star trails would be interrupted I think five times. And the time was flashed on the film corresponding to the central chop so that the central chop on the film the time would be flashed on the end of the frame, or maybe the frame before. It was a mechanical dial and then there was a little oscilloscope to read the low-order — and it might have been milliseconds I think.

DeVorkin:

It was actually focused onto the film.

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Okay. I see. Yeah. I understand that. So that was all done automatically, but you had to make sure that clock was right.

McGrath:

Yes. They are tuned into the National Bureau of Standards and see how far the clock was in advance or behind the Bureau of Standards.

DeVorkin:

Were these slave clocks or did you change them?

McGrath:

They were slave clocks.

DeVorkin:

Okay. And so that what you recorded was the deviation from the master.

McGrath:

Right.

DeVorkin:

Do you know who the person or people were who actually set up this whole system? We know that Baker designed the camera optics. Nunn did the mounting.

McGrath:

Joe Nunn. Aubrey Stinnet was the big guy from The Smithsonian. Aubrey Stinnet came around. He was the authority. When he came to the station you paid attention to what he had to say, because he went to all the stations and supervised the camera. And the optics guy was Steve Sydor. He was a specialist in glass.

DeVorkin:

And these were Smithsonian employees?

McGrath:

Yes. Sydor later worked on the Celescope project, the ultraviolet telescope. You’ve heard of that?

DeVorkin:

Oh yes.

McGrath:

With Bob Davis.

DeVorkin:

Right. I’ll be interviewing Bob Davis next week.

McGrath:

Oh my gosh. Yes.

DeVorkin:

Someone you haven’t seen in a while?

McGrath:

No I worked for a time on Celescope later on.

DeVorkin:

Oh, you did?

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

We’ll certainly want to talk about that. Celescope is one of my focal points. The Baker-Nunn system and the Baker-Nunn tracking is another. And I’ve broken it down into a number of theme projects to learn about, and Celescope and Baker-Nunn are two of the bigger ones for me, so I’ll be very interested to talk with you.

McGrath:

Yes, I did administrative work later on for Bob Davis.

DeVorkin:

Ah. Okay. Well, let’s stick with the Baker-Nunn right now.

McGrath:

Okay.

DeVorkin:

How long were you in Florida?

McGrath:

Year and a half. I went down there in January of ‘58 and came back here in June of ‘59.

DeVorkin:

By then some pretty bright satellites were visible.

McGrath:

Echo. Echo was the first.

DeVorkin:

Really?

McGrath:

Yeah, it’s a 100-foot Mylar balloon. That you could see.

DeVorkin:

And you said that Tugas was the first to get observations?

McGrath:

I think he was usually the first to get most of them, because he had good seeing conditions and he had a lot of experience. But Vanguard was an accomplishment. I remember when we first got Vanguard, which was a pretty good night’s work I thought.

DeVorkin:

I wasn’t clear when you said this before. Did Tugas actually come to your station?

McGrath:

He did come to our station on one occasion, yes, because he was the trainer, and he would come around and visit. It was handy for him to come. He gave some training to us and there may have been other people there too.

DeVorkin:

Was there anything you weren’t doing that he showed you how to do better or was there any reason for why you hadn’t picked up some of the earlier satellites — or was it just too much of a challenge?

McGrath:

I don’t know. We may have missed a lot of images just because we didn’t know what to look for.

DeVorkin:

On the photograph?

McGrath:

On the film, yes. Because it wasn’t easy — These images were not obvious on the early satellites. In ‘58 the Explorer was not terribly obvious. Even on the film.

DeVorkin:

There’s not a big set of little streaks going in some different direction than all the stars?

McGrath:

Normally we would track with the satellite so that the satellite would be a point and the stars would be trailed.

DeVorkin:

So that was the intent from the beginning.

McGrath:

Yes. And of course that allowed more light buildup for the satellite trail because the satellite image burned into the film. But it made it a lot harder to find that little speck. You’d have to find it on more than one frame, and usually from frame-to-frame the tracking wasn’t perfect so it would move slightly. You had to develop a feel for it. A person coming in off the street would have great difficulty. We all did because we had no experience at it.

DeVorkin:

The stars were easy to see. They were streaks.

McGrath:

The stars were fine. And we had a set of star charts that were glass charts with black dots with the magnitudes, darker — same scale as the film. That was very helpful, but you had to know where you were. You know, if you saw something on the film that wasn’t on the star chart you had a pretty good idea maybe you had something there.

DeVorkin:

When is the first time you can remember seeing something that was definitely a satellite?

McGrath:

Well, Tugas was there. I remember getting some of them. And then getting a feel for how they do it. Well first of all just finding the star field was very difficult, because Aberle — and I had had some experience, so I knew about right ascension and declination and altitude and azimuth and all that stuff. And I knew star charts. I always took a copy of Norton’s Star Atlas. Are you familiar with it?

DeVorkin:

Sure.

McGrath:

We would take that to the camera house and figure out beforehand where we were and then just have that page and make a little mark on the page so we knew roughly where we were. There were some bright stars on there and if there was a big star in the field you could say Alpha Canis Major was there. You’d make notes so that when you went back down you could take Norton’s and go and pull the star charts and orient the thing. You had to get the orientation too.

DeVorkin:

Right. Was that a procedure that you worked out for yourself that worked for you, or was that something that was set?

McGrath:

Well, that was the way Tugas did it and I learned from him mostly. But being able to visualize where you were in the sky just cut tons of time. We would spend hours looking for these things and half the time never knew where we were, and then if we were trying to find the satellite was just something you had to learn.

DeVorkin:

I didn’t realize that it was such a challenge at that time.

McGrath:

In the beginning it was, because the early satellites were very faint. And the predictions weren’t all that good either, because all the tracking stations weren’t functioning fully.

DeVorkin:

There was no libretto, no written script. I’m pointing to these two big black 3-ring binders here. There was nothing like that.

McGrath:

No. It was all word of mouth.

DeVorkin:

It was all word of mouth hands-on training.

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Do you think the amount of training they gave you in the first instance was adequate?

McGrath:

Yes, I think it was. Once you get the training it’s a matter of doing it and developing the skill. And then you can’t go out and train with Tugas forever, and then but the first time you go almost on your own at night. None of us had ever done this before. It was a whole new business.

DeVorkin:

I guess they had to start this program all at once. How many stations were operating back then?

McGrath:

There were twelve. I don’t know how many were working at the time, but they were in various stages. New Mexico was number one I believe. I think the cameras were numbered in order of when they came into it.

DeVorkin:

So Florida was number ten?

McGrath:

Yes. And that station essentially was just starting out. So there were a lot of gaps in the predictions. For prediction purposes there were a lot of gaps. There was belt of them around within a few degrees of the equator, and then there was a north-south line of them. From Florida, Curacao, Arequipa, Peru and from Argentina. There was that north-south [line]. And they were mostly close to the equator, because most of the launches — at least the early thinking was they were within 20 or 30 degrees to the Equator. The orbits weren’t flying. The polar orbits came along later.

DeVorkin:

The New Mexico station then seems to be something of an anomaly. It’s not on a north-south or equatorial.

McGrath:

Yes, I don’t know why, but they probably put it there because of the seeing conditions and a lot of other reasons at Las Cruces, New Mexico.

DeVorkin:

Right. Exactly. So can you actually remember the first time you definitely found a satellite and how you felt about it?

McGrath:

The first time I found one on my own I felt pretty good.

DeVorkin:

So that would be Explorer.

McGrath:

The brighter ones you could leave the camera stationary and let the satellite track across.

DeVorkin:

Right.

McGrath:

That made it a lot easier, because the stars would all be points and then there would be this pretty telltale streak in the [field]. But the Vanguard you couldn’t do that. Photographing a 6-inch sphere over New York City, you know, that’s a pretty good feat when you think about it.

DeVorkin:

Agreed.

McGrath:

That was pretty amazing. I remember when I first got Vanguard that was a pretty good accomplishment. That meant you were catching up with Chuck Tugas. Chuck was a character. Have you ever heard WWB, National Bureau of Standards?

DeVorkin:

Sure.

McGrath:

Then when the tone returns Eastern Standard Time will — Chuck always used to say, “I used to work at WWB back in the old leather hammer days.”

DeVorkin:

The leather hammer days. That’s nice.

McGrath:

He made it light and interesting. He was a great guy. I don’t know what ever happened to him.

DeVorkin:

Did you ever have any assignments from the Smithsonian for tracking things other than satellites, or did you ever catch any meteor trails or things like that?

McGrath:

I don’t remember doing that. We did comets. We had to do some comets. I had a piece of film around here somewhere with a comet on it, but damned if I could find it. It’s probably up in the attic. So if I find it I’ll bring it to you. It was color too. They loaded color into the camera at one time.

DeVorkin:

So what was the nature of the operation of the station? Different people had different assignments?

McGrath:

Ted Aberle was the station chief. I was one of the observers. And I worked with Wilbur Cone. Wilbur was the clock, he was the electronics guy. And having him around was critical. Because the clock was pretty balky.

DeVorkin:

What about your expertise in radio communications or anything like that? Did that factor in?

McGrath:

Didn’t need much of that, except that when you did have a success there are only two outcomes to a tracking session. There is a success or a not found. It was never a failure; it was a not found.

DeVorkin:

Okay.

McGrath:

So if there was a success then you went ahead and you figured out the right ascension and declination and the time. Each station had a teletype, and you would send in the right ascension, declination and the time, SC10 or whatever, and it was sent back to Cambridge. Those observations in turn were then used to generate new predictions. So in the beginning the predictions were not very good because they didn’t have that many stations. But later on the predictions got to be pretty good, except on a launch. On a launch it took a while because you were dealing with nominal predictions, but as soon as the observations started coming in the predictions got pretty good.

DeVorkin:

Was there anything special about your station because you were close to Cape Canaveral, Cape Kennedy?

McGrath:

We could see the launches.

DeVorkin:

Was there any reason for it being right where it was? To your knowledge?

McGrath:

I’m sure there’s a lot of history involved in where those stations are located and why they were located there, but probably a lot of it had to do with Dr. Whipple’s personal magnetism and influence because he was pretty well known.

DeVorkin:

These were all set up of course by the time you were there.

McGrath:

The sites were, yes.

DeVorkin:

So you weren’t part of that.

McGrath:

No.

DeVorkin:

Did your responsibilities change over the year and a half?

McGrath:

I was acting station manager from time to time, but essentially no. I was an observer. I was promoted to observer, next to observer level, there were three or four levels. I was making the sum of sixty-seven hundred and some dollars when I left there.

DeVorkin:

That sounds good.

McGrath:

It did. I was good money in those days.

DeVorkin:

Did you have a specific tour of duty there or was it open ended or did you specifically decide to leave at some point?

McGrath:

Well, off the record, Aberle and I didn’t get along terribly well. I don’t know how to put it, but he didn’t like people going to the station by themselves at night. I didn’t think that the station was producing as much as it should, so I used to go up on my own at night and take Wilbur along if he wanted to come. On nights when Aberle would say, “Well, it’s socked in. I don’t think you have to go up there tonight.” So I’d go up and sometimes get some successful shots.

DeVorkin:

During the ‘59/'60 period there was a management review of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory overall by the Smithsonian, the central Smithsonian, and there were issues and questions about management and there was pressure on Whipple to institute a business manager, and people who could manage programs in a more formal way. And I’m wondering if you might reflect on what was happening at your station during this time that could have been a reflection of that.

McGrath:

My recollection is that the station manager was had a hand in hiring two of the other people too who were more interested in the goodtime aspects of living in Florida than taking care of business. That was the sense that I had. One issue that I remember came up was a housing allowance. They tried to argue that because they were in Florida during the tourist season they needed a housing allowance from Smithsonian. Meanwhile they had rented a house for $75 a month for the year. They said I had to go along with it. I said, “No, it’s not true. You can get rentals here. If you are working here full-time you can get full year rentals.” So we had a big falling out over that. They were hoping to get a big housing allowance out of Cambridge and convince Cambridge it was a hardship of some kind. That was the beginning of it, and then we had disagreements over paying attention to business and not sitting down in West Palm Beach and saying it, “Oh, it’s socked in. We won’t have to work tonight.” I took issue with that a few times.

DeVorkin:

That would be a decision the station manager would make. And you felt it was happening a little too frequently, or when there was still a question.

McGrath:

My feeling was that we weren’t down there to have a good time; we were down there to get a job done. That was how I looked at it, and I got the feeling that they were taking advantage of the situation. Finally the upshot was that he relieved me of duty. He stuck a note on the front door of my house one day, which my wife found. So I called Cambridge. I don’t know whether I talked to Dave Self or exactly who I talked to, but in any case they said, “Just don’t do anything. We’re coming down. We think we understand what’s going on. We’ll be down. Just don’t do anything.” So they came down and they just talked to everybody individually, and the upshot was Aberle left, and I was temporary station chief then. Then of course — see, they couldn’t leave me as station chief because that would breed insurrection everywhere. They said, “Well, come on back to Cambridge.” So they moved me back to Cambridge and I was made administrative assistant to Carl Tillinghast, who now reflecting on what you just said, was probably the management guy that was brought in.

DeVorkin:

Yes. That’s right.

McGrath:

He came from Mitre, I think. Really nice guy. One of the nicest people I ever worked with and he died of lung cancer, sadly enough.

DeVorkin:

So you became his administrative assistant.

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

What were your specific responsibilities?

McGrath:

Just doing budget stuff and did a lot of traveling back and forth to Washington. Any little jobs he needed to get done. It was sort of a holding thing I think, because Clancy Truesdell, who was in charge of photo reduction (you know the size reduction part of the thing decided to go back to Harvard and get his doctorate in education, so that left an opening). He was in charge of photo reduction, so Carl Tillinghast moved me. I was in charge of photo reduction for the rest of my time.

DeVorkin:

Did you need any special training for that?

McGrath:

I was purely management. Of course I knew the cameras, the films.

DeVorkin:

You did preliminary analysis just to see if you got something down at each station.

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

But when you got an image, you did send that image to SAO headquarters?

McGrath:

What you would do is you would get the right ascension and declination off the star chart. The star chart was the same scale as the film. So you took off the right ascension and declination and the time and that information would go back to Cambridge.

DeVorkin:

What about the film?

McGrath:

Then the film would go in a can and that would be mailed to Cambridge. You’d get a box of them together and ship them off to Cambridge.

DeVorkin:

Right. So you sent the entire reel back to Cambridge?

McGrath:

Each individual pass. You know ‘58 alpha or such-and-such a date and time. That’s all that would be on that piece. And then maybe five minutes later we had another satellite and that piece would be cut and processed independently so that one can have one pass at one satellite.

DeVorkin:

Okay. I see. Did you end up with a lot of film that you just didn’t send to Cambridge because it had nothing on it?

McGrath:

I think we sent the night files and everything to Cambridge.

DeVorkin:

Okay.

McGrath:

We’d just put “not found” on it and send it to Cambridge. And there was some paperwork I think that went in with it. Because you never know. Later on somebody might have found a way to go back and cull through the stuff we missed. But they all went to Cambridge. I don’t know whatever happened to them. Because I should know, because I worked in photo reduction later. I can’t remember whether they got thrown out or what. But anyway, they came to photo reduction and then that’s on the precision reduction, on the two-screw comparators. That’s where that all took place.

DeVorkin:

And you managed that program.

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

How many people were involved?

McGrath:

There were fifty at one time. Yes. The people who did all the measuring were Astrometric computers. Isn’t that a wonderful title?

DeVorkin:

Ah. Yes. A wonderful title. I never heard of the term. Astrometric computers. And they were people.

McGrath:

Yes they were. Kathy Haramundanis was involved in that.

DeVorkin:

Right. I hope to be talking with her.

McGrath:

Tell her I was asking for her. I haven’t seen her in years. She worked on the SAO catalog, the Star Catalog.

DeVorkin:

Now so you were managing the photo reduction. Did you have any feeling to get back to another station at any point?

McGrath:

I was back here, we had an apartment in West Concorde and then in ‘63 I bought this place. Clancy Truesdell who I replaced lived over here on Thoreau Street. A pretty incestuous thing. And his son was born at Emerson Hospital within a couple of days of my son. My wife and his wife Charlotte became very close friends, and I still hear from Charlotte and I still hear from Clancy. Clancy’s son Carl [spelling?] and my son get together a couple times a year. Carl lives in Florida and my son is at UCal Berkeley.

DeVorkin:

Where is Clancy Truesdell?

McGrath:

He was in California, and Owen says he’s moving back to this area. He’s an Ohio boy. He came to the program from Ohio.

DeVorkin:

So I might be able to track him down.

McGrath:

You probably could, yes. He went to Spain and set up a station in Spain.

DeVorkin:

Did you set up other stations?

McGrath:

No. I worked in Florida only.

DeVorkin:

And that was it?

McGrath:

Yes. Now Clancy I believe set up the station in Spain. Last I heard he was in California. Owen can find out, because Owen talks to his son all the time. Clancy would be a good one to talk to.

DeVorkin:

Yeah. I definitely would like to talk to him, because he hired as result of this whole performance review that took place at Smithsonian Y.

McGrath:

Oh, you’ve heard the name? Truesdell He was a pretty impressive guy. I like him.

DeVorkin:

What was his background?

McGrath:

I think he was going to be a schoolteacher at one time, in Ohio. He rented his house when he came to work for the Smithsonian with every intention of going back, and he had one daughter. He has a daughter Carol who came here. The whole family their names begin with C — Charlotte, his wife, Clarence, Carl and Carol.

DeVorkin:

One way to keep them straight.

McGrath:

His father had a candy company I guess, the P. S. Truesdell Candy Company. He said, “Don’t ever eat licorice.” He said, “If you knew what went into it you would never eat it.” But he had a lot of stories about Spain. He could probably give you a lot of good information.

DeVorkin:

That’s interesting. He did that before he became the manager?

McGrath:

When he came back from Spain he took over photo reduction. That had some management issues, and he was a pretty talented guy management-wise, so he set up good things for reduction so that they were finally turning [out results Carl was a great guy. He really was.

DeVorkin:

Do you know what his background was?

McGrath:

He was a manager from Mitre.

DeVorkin:

Yes, that would make sense. Okay. I’ll get that straight. So your episode then in the Baker-Nunns is what brought you to the Smithsonian, but you didn’t stay with the Baker-Nunn system. You came back.

McGrath:

I came back. I was brought back here because of the problems in Florida.

DeVorkin:

And at that point you didn’t do any remote station work?

McGrath:

No.

DeVorkin:

Then you moved into photo reduction. How long did you stay in photo reduction?

McGrath:

Until January 1970, I believe.

DeVorkin:

Okay.

McGrath:

January, 1970.

DeVorkin:

It’s quite remarkable that you have your SF171. Do you keep records? Do you have a lot of records?

McGrath:

I happened to have this one laying around upstairs. I always kept one up to date. It’s a good résumé of what you’ve done and the way you did it. The people that I’ve worked for along the way, Bob Citron took over finally in Florida just before I came up. He was assistant to Bob Martin.

DeVorkin:

When you were down in Florida did you take photographs?

McGrath:

I have a few slides around here somewhere.

DeVorkin:

It would be nice to have a photograph of the station.

McGrath:

A photograph of the station. Yes. There are some around here, and there is a box of stuff that I for the life of me can’t remember where I put it.

DeVorkin:

Sure. When you get the transcript back this will be an alert that we certainly would like to have some pictures like that. You were managing the photo reduction for nine years did your assignments change, did your duties change?

McGrath:

Well, I had the part-time work with Bob Davis.

DeVorkin:

When did that start?

McGrath:

‘63-’64. It was about a year. December ‘63 to November ‘64.

DeVorkin:

So that was just a year of work with him?

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

And what was the nature of your work with him?

McGrath:

It was twenty hours a week and it was administrative duties, dealing with subcontractors. I had to maintain the progress chart for the project, so progress reports, and that was a difficult project.

DeVorkin:

I would very much appreciate your comments on it, because I know that it was an extremely difficult project.

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

I have a report from the International Astronomical Union. They were put out when they had the big general assembly meetings. They had one in Berkeley in 1961 and there were pictures of some of the exhibits at that time, and one of them was a Celescope and Bob Davis holding a Uvicon tube. And I remember at the time when I first saw this “That guy looks like a kid. He looks really young.”

McGrath:

He was a brilliant guy. He really was. Dr. Whipple had, if you stop and think about it, an incredible amount of management skills to set that whole thing up and get it running. That was no small feat. But Davis never had these abilities, which I suppose is unfair to compare him with Whipple, but Whipple was quite a guy when you stop and think of what he actually accomplished.

DeVorkin:

A good manager is also somebody who knows how to put the right person in the right place that can get the job done, and I had the sense that he put too much on Davis’s shoulders. I’m wondering if you could confirm that or from your own experiences give me some sense of what the project was like in the time that you were half-time administrative for him.

McGrath:

I remember Bob was really almost a geekish kind of genius, and beyond that he wasn’t as easy to deal with as Whipple or some of the others. I know it’s hard to — He was just totally wrapped up on the technical aspects of the thing. There was a lot of confusion and missed deadlines and it was not a smooth-running project as I recall. And I don’t know whether it was Bob’s fault or whose fault it was or if there was any fault involved.

DeVorkin:

Was your specific duty to go in and make it work?

McGrath:

No. I didn’t have the technical sophistication to do that. See, the project with Smithsonian was mostly technically driven. At least in the beginning. The people who set the whole program were really the technical people who understood the technical. The technical requirements drove the whole process — at least in the tracking program, and probably in the Celescope too. But I’ve noticed that over time the bureaucrats came in and the whole organization changed. It was a curious thing to watch. The organization became an end in itself, whereas in the beginning the idea was to get the tracking stations up and running and to get science done, and then people came from the outside in who were professional bureaucrats essentially. This is my view of things. And the people who began the whole program, the Clancy Truesdells and those people, sort of went on to do other things, the original people, and then a whole different caliber or type of person came in and it became more of a bureaucracy and there were a lot more administrative positions. It was different.

DeVorkin:

Well, Tillinghast was the first of them, but you said he was fine.

McGrath:

Yes. He had come from a technical background at Mitre.

DeVorkin:

Managing technical innovation is really what Mitre was about.

McGrath:

Yes. So he came and he was a lot easier to deal with. I had no trouble. I always liked Carl. I have great respect for him.

DeVorkin:

What about his followers, the people who came after him?

McGrath:

Oh, then some people came in and there were layers of bureaucracy. Photo reduction was put in a group with another manager. There was another layer of administration. Freedman. Some guy named Freedman was put in there, and then Chuck Lundquist came along. Whipple was a tough act to follow in my opinion. He was really an outstanding person. Of course that’s probably why they moved the observatory to Cambridge. The story as I understand it is that they wanted Whipple, but the condition was they had to move the observatory — the mountain had to come to Mohammed sort of situation.

DeVorkin:

Oh yeah. That’s right.

McGrath:

Was that true to some extent?

DeVorkin:

That’s largely true. Yeah.

McGrath:

Yes. But he was a pretty impressive guy.

DeVorkin:

Going back though, in the time that you were doing the system work for Tillinghast you said you went to Washington.

McGrath:

I used to go to Washington a lot, yes. They’d send me down there with a budget to explain things to Dorothy Rosenberg.

DeVorkin:

Dorothy Rosenberg. Okay. That’s a different name. Did you work with Keddy [spelling?] at all?

McGrath:

Keddy was a big shot. No, never. He was a little bit further up the line. I worked with Dorothy. I always had to go see Dorothy Rosenberg. She’s probably dead by now.

DeVorkin:

I know that Whipple did not really enjoy working with Keddy, and I’m just wondering if that all trickled down.

McGrath:

Not to my knowledge, no.

DeVorkin:

So you were fine with working with Dorothy Rosenberg in your role?

McGrath:

Yes. She was more of a professional bureaucrat type, as I saw it. I can understand why Whipple would not want to deal with bureaucrats. He was a pretty impressive guy.

DeVorkin:

Now you only worked for about a year then part time under Bob Davis? Was that an interim position until they hired somebody else?

McGrath:

I don’t know what they finally did after that, but technically the whole idea of an ultraviolet telescope was right on the edge. That was new technology. Because those things are hard to focus and all that sort of thing.

DeVorkin:

Sure.

McGrath:

So it was brand new technology, the Uvicons.

DeVorkin:

Were you involved in the specific contracting for the Uvicons?

McGrath:

No.

DeVorkin:

What was the subcontracting that you monitored?

McGrath:

Oh, I had to deal with the vendors and deadlines and schedules and stuff like that, and some financial things as well.

DeVorkin:

Now Westinghouse was doing the Uvicon, as I understand it.

McGrath:

I believe it was, yes. I think Grumman had the satellite stuff.

DeVorkin:

Right. Grumman had that. Did you deal with Westinghouse and Grumman?

McGrath:

Not directly, no. Everything had to go through Davis. He parceled out little things, do this, take care of this, take care of that, but he pretty much tried to keep the whole thing to himself. He had his finger in everything.

DeVorkin:

I have heard that Whipple was the kind of guy who found who he thought was the right person and then just turned him loose and didn’t really get his fingers in it too much. Are you saying Davis is very different?

McGrath:

Davis was right in everything, yes. He was quite different.

DeVorkin:

Was that good or bad for the project do you think?

McGrath:

It’s hard to say. Probably not good because he tended to get himself bogged down with a lot of trivia and minutia that he probably should not have had to bother with.

DeVorkin:

Was there any way from your perspective that you could tell where the real problems were — the technical problems — in Celescope. What was the big issue that everybody was worried about? What had to be overcome?

McGrath:

It’s hard for me to evaluate something as technical as that, but my sense is that they had a lot of problems with the Uvicons and the tests, and the tests, and the tests, and a lot of things never worked and they never came up with specifications. And that was still going on when I left. I went back to photo reduction. We made a building move, so I had to go back and deal with that. They probably needed somebody with a real strong technical background and to go with the administrative background.

DeVorkin:

Who was working with Davis on the technical side?

McGrath:

Let me see. Steve Sydor was there for something. He was the glass guy. I remember sharing an office with him.

DeVorkin:

Let’s see. This was about 1963 or ‘64 you worked?

McGrath:

December ‘63 to November ‘64 in my notes.

DeVorkin:

Okay. This is a breakdown of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory by divisions and programs. And Celescope here is quite large. Quite a few people involved, and this is 1963. There was Fred Whipple, Bob Davis and a Dr. Grossi?

McGrath:

I don’t remember Grossi.

DeVorkin:

Mrs. Gail Wald?

McGrath:

Gail Wald rings a bell.

DeVorkin:

And Steven Strom. He’s an astronomer.

McGrath:

Yes, I remember the name Strom.

DeVorkin:

Gamma rays and cosmic radiation, that’s Dr. Fazio; Spectroscopy, Charles Whitney.

McGrath:

Chuck Whitney I know. It was a funny program. They weren’t all grouped in one [place]. Chuck Whitney had his own office. And Whitney did other things. I don’t think he was strictly assigned to Celescope.

DeVorkin:

So this is sort of like Matrix?

McGrath:

Whitney was — wasn’t he on the staff of Harvard College?

DeVorkin:

Yes. He was doing a number of different things.

McGrath:

So Davis was the only one I think who was fully devoted to this project.

DeVorkin:

So even though the staff looked huge, a lot of these people were just part time.

McGrath:

They were doing other things.

DeVorkin:

Like you.

McGrath:

Yes. Exactly. It was a strange situation.

DeVorkin:

Now were you aware why you were assigned this half-time period under Davis?

McGrath:

No. Tillinghast said, “We want you to do some administrative work for Bob Davis. He needs some help over there.”

DeVorkin:

You were already working full time, though, for the photo reduction.

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Was that so well under control that it wasn’t full time for you or did you have to put somebody else in?

McGrath:

There were people. Gene Campbell — his first was actually Ilo, I believe. He came back from Spain. He was with Clancy Truesdell in Spain. We had a lot of automatic reduction going on, computer programs to do all the reduction.

DeVorkin:

Sure.

McGrath:

He did that sort of thing and I had a pretty good administrative guy under me, Gordon Cronin.

DeVorkin:

Okay. Well how did you feel being taken part time to do this other work?

McGrath:

Well, you know it was something that had to be done, so I did it.

DeVorkin:

So it was purely administrative. Yeah. That was fine. We were in the IBM Building at that time on Cambridge Street.

DeVorkin:

Was there a problem since the Celescope group was sort of spread out and there were very few people who were actually full time?

McGrath:

Well, I had to go back and forth to the observatory because Bob Davis was up at the observatory.

DeVorkin:

Right. So did that make it harder to manage do you think?

McGrath:

Not really, no. On a good day you could walk up to Garden Street from Cambridge. We were right almost in Harvard Square. 1730 Cambridge Street. It was an easy walk up there.

DeVorkin:

To your recollection was there laboratory space devoted to Celescope at the observatory?

McGrath:

I don’t remember any. I remember there was a corridor in Bob Davis’ office and then a room with Steve Sydor. I don’t remember seeing any equipment or anything going on.

DeVorkin:

What was it like working for Bob Davis?

McGrath:

Usually when you work for somebody you connect with them at some level. I never got the feeling that I ever connected with him at all. I got the feeling that it wasn’t really his idea, my being there wasn’t his idea. That was the sense I had.

DeVorkin:

I see. But did he accept your work or did he always second guess you?

McGrath:

Oh no. He accepted. He never gave me any difficulty as far as work was concerned.

DeVorkin:

Who were some of the larger vendors? I take it you took some of the vendors off his hands.

McGrath:

Well, not really off his hands. I would just do progress reports and things, deal with the vendors to say, “Where do you stand on this and this and this” and that sort of thing, but I never really cut anything really off his hands. He always kept his hands on everything. I got the feeling he was very reluctant to give up any of his projects — particularly for the outsider who didn’t have a very clear understanding of the project and all the problems. That was my sense.

DeVorkin:

But was there a problem with vendors not delivering on time and not keeping enough contract monitoring keeping the vendors under control? Is that part of it?

McGrath:

The main problems were with the Uvicon and the fact that it was not working properly. That was my recollection. It didn’t do what it was supposed to do. And Bob Davis spent a lot of time traveling to the vendors. I never went to the vendors myself. He did all the traveling and interacting with the vendors, so my role was very minimal.

DeVorkin:

Just making sure that the vendors’ reports were in and that you reported back or that the project reported to the people it was supposed to, like NASA.

McGrath:

I had to do the PERT charts I had to get the PERT charts and things ready to go for NASA. That’s what it was.

DeVorkin:

Just as you had some contact with people at central Smithsonian, did you have any contact with NASA?

McGrath:

Incidental contact. I don’t remember who I dealt with though.

DeVorkin:

Not any office or anything like that?

McGrath:

No, I don’t remember any names.

DeVorkin:

Were there project status review meetings? Were there sorts of kinds of things during the time you were there at the time that you were involved in it?

McGrath:

I never remember a project meeting.

DeVorkin:

Did you know that this half-time assignment was going to be temporary?

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

How did you feel about that?

McGrath:

After getting into it I was grateful. I remember wondering, “Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing?” That was the sense I had.

DeVorkin:

Did you ask to be reassigned at any point?

McGrath:

No, I didn’t ask. I don’t know what the deal was, but Carl Tillinghast just said, “photo reduction full time.”

DeVorkin:

So there was nothing else compelling you. It’s just he made that decision.

McGrath:

No. It was kind of an uncomfortable place to be. It was a strange experience.

DeVorkin:

Was it uncomfortable, do you know, for the other people who were involved or just for you?

McGrath:

I know for me it was because I remember wondering, “Why am I here?”

DeVorkin:

And that’s partly because Bob Davis had to be involved in everything?

McGrath:

My sense was that I was there because somebody other than Bob Davis wanted me to be there. That was the feeling I got. And then there was this, “Well, what am I supposed to do? feeling” I got the feeling Bob Davis was just saying, “Yeah, well do this and do this,” because somebody was telling him it was something that he had to do, something unpleasant that he really didn’t want to do.

DeVorkin:

Oh, he didn’t want to do it anyway.

McGrath:

Right. I like Bob. Bob is an incredible man. Absolutely brilliant I think.

DeVorkin:

Where was his brilliance? Could you tell?

McGrath:

He knew every single detail of that project up here. He had everything.

DeVorkin:

And you pointed to your head (for the purpose of the tape). He had it all in his head.

McGrath:

Right down to the finest detail, every part of that. He knew that whole project, all the details.

DeVorkin:

Wow. Because it was a huge project.

McGrath:

It was. And he knew every aspect of it, every detail of it.

DeVorkin:

Did he ever confide in you at all in how he felt about how things were going?

McGrath:

No. He was a Ph.D. and I was an administrator. You see, at Smithsonian the Ph.D.s were the gods.

DeVorkin:

The gods?

McGrath:

Well, at least in the beginning. Guys that were full professors at Harvard College were the people you looked up to if you were an administrator. At least that was the way I looked at it. I mean, as a former student you look up to these guys. But it was a technical endeavor and they were the elite. There were some exceptions where the Ph.D.s did mingle.

DeVorkin:

They didn’t mingle. Who did?

McGrath:

There was guy named Don Lautman. He was a mathematician, and he was one who did. I mean he’d play touch football with us sometimes at lunchtime and things like that. He was very young, very likeable, talked sports. Some of them were — Mike Gaposchkin wasn’t at that value but — was in the orbit work. So there wasn’t that much interaction with, as you say, the Ph.D.s?

McGrath:

I didn’t interact, no. Especially Bob Davis wouldn’t interact with us very much. He was the stereotypical genius type, you know. Small talk was very awkward. It was hard to do it with him. He was polite and he never berated for anything. Hard to describe, but I had a lot of respect for him. I don’t have any complaints with him.

DeVorkin:

Anything about Celescope that might be in your mind that I haven’t raised or asked about?

McGrath:

I was there the day Kennedy was shot. I remember that. I was in Celescope that day.

DeVorkin:

What was the atmosphere like here?

McGrath:

I don’t know. Bob was around. He had his secretary – Helen Beatty? Does that sound right? I remember I was in her office and we talked about it.

DeVorkin:

It must have been terrible.

McGrath:

I always remember that.

DeVorkin:

Did everybody stop work?

McGrath:

Yes, it was a pretty somber thing. I was Celescope when that happened. I’ll always remember that and I’ll remember Helen Beatty and that we heard the news around the same time at the observatory.

DeVorkin:

So I take it Bob Davis never had program meetings with the staff where he would talk about the status of it, issues relating. You didn’t have any weekly meetings?

McGrath:

No. There were never any staff meetings.

DeVorkin:

Did you have any staff meetings at all at Smithsonian?

McGrath:

In photo reduction we’d have, yes. We’d have a staff meeting once in a while and get everybody together and you know if something came up and had to be dealt with and we’d thrash it all out so that everybody understood what was going on and everybody had their say.

DeVorkin:

Were there regular meetings or just as needed?

McGrath:

Mostly as needed. Getting fifty people together.

DeVorkin:

But that did not happen with Bob Davis — to your knowledge anyway?

McGrath:

To my knowledge, no, not while I was there. I was never involved in a meeting then, no.

DeVorkin:

Not even small meetings?

McGrath:

No. He wasn’t the kind of guy who [would say], “Let’s go to lunch.” It wasn’t that kind of a relationship.

DeVorkin:

Okay. Well as I say, I’ll be interviewing him this coming Saturday, and I’ve been looking forward to that quite a while.

McGrath:

Yeah. He probably wouldn’t even remember me.

DeVorkin:

Well, I’ll definitely ask, if that’s okay.

McGrath:

Yeah, go ahead. Sure.

DeVorkin:

Sure. One of the important things about the Baker-Nunn system worldwide was that there was always an outreach or education program for the local communities around the stations. This is mainly for the ones that were out beyond the borders of the United States. And I’m wondering if you had any local contact with the communities around the station in Florida.

McGrath:

There was none in Florida when I was there. I don’t know whether Citron developed things or not afterwards.

DeVorkin:

But in the time you were there, there were no open houses, get-to-know-the-place?

McGrath:

No.

DeVorkin:

It was not a community thing.

McGrath:

No, it wasn’t. Too busy trying to get things going but we didn’t have much to brag about at the time.

DeVorkin:

Yes. So, to your knowledge, it wasn’t a visible community issue? The community wasn’t aware that there was a Smithsonian facility in its midst?

McGrath:

No. We had a pickup truck with Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory around the side of it, Satellite Tracking Program, an old green Ford pickup. I remember that.

DeVorkin:

Anybody ever ask you about it when you go get gas?

McGrath:

Well, they’d see Smithsonian. Even if you are telling them you worked for Smithsonian in Cambridge they are surprised. They didn’t realize that part of the Smithsonian was in Cambridge.

DeVorkin:

Right. What about Florida? Can you remember any conversations with people explaining what you did?

McGrath:

No, not really.

DeVorkin:

Did you have a social life while you were there?

McGrath:

We were pretty much among ourselves, the observing group. My wife and I did have some friends where her husband was an engineer, at Pratt Whitney.

DeVorkin:

You never felt that there was any kind of secrecy to what you were doing?

McGrath:

No. Nothing was classified. No. But it was quite a program. I look back on it and I’m lucky to have been a part of it — a small part, but part of it. Particularly the Apollo. The Apollo I think was amazing.

DeVorkin:

Did Baker-Nunn track Apollo as well?

McGrath:

Yes. They did some tracking. But the thing about Apollo, I always thought, was it’s the most successful nondestructive thing that this country has ever done when you think about it.

DeVorkin:

Interesting way to put it.

McGrath:

Yeah. It was an amazing — what [Werner] von Braun did. You know, when Kennedy came out and said by the end of the decade bring ‘em back. We said, “Oh yeah, it’s a political thing,” but he did it. Von Braun did it really I think.

DeVorkin:

Did you feel a part of that?

McGrath:

Yes. We always listened to the radio — on all the time, listening to all the launches, and we got a lot of pictures back from NASA or somebody in NASA. Those were color prints. They were taken from the launch in the capsule. They probably sent them to everybody. We got our own little set. That was pretty impressive.

McGrath:

I left Florida in ‘60 and Smithsonian photo reduction in ‘70. But even in photo reduction there was a lot of interest in what was going on.

DeVorkin:

I could imagine by the late ‘60s you probably were pasting the images on the walls and doing all sorts of stuff.

McGrath:

Yes. They would give us these photographs, the Hasselblad cameras onboard. And the photographs were gorgeous.

DeVorkin:

Oh yes. What kinds of ornamentation do you remember putting in the Baker-Nunn facility?

McGrath:

The camera house was pretty bare. There was the clock and the roof was a manual roll — the roof came together in two halves. It was on rollers and it rolled out on the tracks. There was just a clock and the weather equipment and that was about it.

DeVorkin:

But that was in the room with the camera?

McGrath:

I was in the camera house, and I remember they had to raise the camera at one point. Just before I left they raised the camera about two and a half or three feet to get closer to the horizon. It was originally on the concrete slab and then they built a concrete pier and Aubrey Stinnet come down and supervised the whole thing. He was the camera guy. So they raised the camera and then they built a floor around it so that the camera was actually probably that high off the original plinth.

DeVorkin:

Just to get greater sky coverage.

McGrath:

Yes. It could get down closer to the horizon. Because the roof went out so far. So they raised the camera. That was quite a project.

DeVorkin:

Yeah, I bet it was.

McGrath:

Because Aubrey had to supervise jacking that thing up.

DeVorkin:

Did you assist?

McGrath:

Oh yes. We all worked on that. Let’s see, that was over and above the regular. Of course there wasn’t much observing going on when the camera was halfway up. Projects like that had to be dealt with during the day. Everybody pitched in.

DeVorkin:

So you were involved in maintenance of the camera?

McGrath:

To some extent, yes.

DeVorkin:

Who primarily did the maintenance?

McGrath:

Aubrey Stinnet would come down regularly and go over it.

DeVorkin:

So he ran around all the installations?

McGrath:

He did them all, yes. Citron used to come and clean the optics every once in a while.

DeVorkin:

Oh, so you really didn’t do that work itself.

McGrath:

No. Wilbur maintained the clock. If the clock crapped out then he took care of that. But the camera was pretty foolproof. There wasn’t much could go wrong with it.

DeVorkin:

Did you ever have the inkling to just mess around with the camera, take pictures of things? You said you took some comets, but were you told to take them or did you —?

McGrath:

You never messed around, no.

DeVorkin:

Any talk of it? I mean, was there frustration? Would you have liked to?

McGrath:

We were pretty busy actually, because in the beginning it was just morning and evening, but as the orbits got higher and higher you go all night. On a busy night you’d start in right after twilight and it would be daylight when you’d get home, because you’d have to do all the reductions and get all the information off to Cambridge, probably mix chemicals and you had to load film in the camera ready for the next shift. There were thousand-foot reels.

DeVorkin:

I think it would take 200 feet a time, something like that?

McGrath:

You could take as little as you wanted.

DeVorkin:

Oh, as little as you wanted.

McGrath:

Yes. A typical roll of film would be pretty short. It would probably be a dozen or fifteen frames, and a frame was about a foot.

DeVorkin:

Because of the bridge there.

McGrath:

Yes. You have to put a new roll of film up every once in a while, so me and Jeff splice and run it through until the splice come out the other end on the take-up side.

DeVorkin:

So there was no real public contact down there as a Smithsonian output post or anything like that?

McGrath:

No.

DeVorkin:

Did you ever have visits from any military people just looking at what you were doing?

McGrath:

I don’t remember for sure, but possibly Air Force, because the Air Force was getting into it. At a certain point. I think they got some cameras of their own, didn’t they?

DeVorkin:

Yes. Okay then. Let’s go back to Cambridge. Is there anything about the period in photo reduction? You were managing photo reduction, but you were basically doing the day-to-day management, the actual data that was coming out was going someplace else for analysis?

McGrath:

We did a lot of work for Imre Izak. He would want to look at a specific satellite for a specific period of time and he would say, “Well, how many images do you have?” and we had all that information because we kept track of what satellites we had and what time periods they were for. And he would say okay, do reductions on a certain satellite from this period to this period, that we’d go and measure them and reduce them. Because we could measure it down to a couple of seconds of arc with the Mann measuring engine.

DeVorkin:

Oh, these were Mann comparators. Did you have any direct contact with David Mann at the company?

McGrath:

Yes. They were right over here on Lexington Road going into Lexington when we started out with them. We had quite a few of their comparators. And then they were digitized with their electronic digitizers.

DeVorkin:

Were you involved in these kinds of upgrades, seeing that they happened, or did you ever have to campaign for more support? What was your role as manager?

McGrath:

Staff. Keeping the staffing, making sure the training was done properly. I had a guy who was directly responsible for the equipment. The digitizers were all that was contracted out, and he was on call [unintelligible phrase] and then the comparators themselves would have to be overhauled periodically.

DeVorkin:

Now you said you had meetings when needed of your fifty people. Did the size of the photo reduction staff stay pretty constant throughout the ‘60s?

McGrath:

It dwindled slowly. We got pretty good at getting stuff out timely. It’s a pretty cumbersome operation in the darkroom and then the whole thing was projected on a screen. And then the operator would take three readings with a foot pedal. Hit the foot pedal, go back and hit it again, hit it three times, and those were averaged. And then the computer programs that put out the precise right ascension and declinations with the satellite at very precise times. So we knew within a couple seconds of arc where that thing was to a millisecond or so. And then the scientific people would use that to measure all kinds of things like the magnetic field and continental drift and they really got into some interesting stuff.

DeVorkin:

Atmospheric drag, the whole nine yards. What was the work atmosphere for the place and of the people that you supervised? Was this sort of like, as we were saying before, a “real world experience”?

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Did you work around the clock or was it just one shift?

McGrath:

One shift. The day shift.

DeVorkin:

And did they have any association with astronomy or with space or know what they were doing beyond their job?

McGrath:

Mostly no. It was a tough job, real tough job to examine the film and mark up the frames you wanted to use and then take put them in the comparator. The room was dark where they’d do the measurements, and most of our staff were Harvard wives — wives of graduate students. So they were very well educated for the most part. They came from a lot of different countries too. It was a very interesting group, the photo reduction group. They came from all over the country and all over the world, South America, and they were very bright people. They learned very quickly. It was a very intense job, so that they would last for two or three years as long as their husbands were in graduate school or law school or wherever, and then they’d move on. But it was a good job for them. They were paid GS-7 for the most part. For that situation, for a temporary job that was pretty good. The observers started off as a GS-9 and wound up as a 13.

DeVorkin:

When you were the manager.

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

So there was a ready supply of well-trained people.

McGrath:

Because Harvard University had an office where you could go, where Harvard wives used to go to get jobs. So you pick up the phone and you’d call Harvard Wives and they’d send people over.

DeVorkin:

It was called Harvard Wives?

McGrath:

Harvard Wives, yes. And a lot of our people came from there. We had fill-ins from other places, but they were really good people. You didn’t have to worry about problems of any kind.

DeVorkin:

When you have to manage fifty people in a real world experience where they answer an ad in the newspaper you’ve got to evaluate each of them, but this is a preselected kind of group of people.

McGrath:

They were. And the question of “Why are you here?” was already answered. They were there to earn money while their husbands were going to school. They weren’t going to make a career in photo reduction. Everybody knew that. And they were pretty bright, because they were married to graduate students and they were well-educated themselves. It was an interesting group.

DeVorkin:

Any of them stand out as say someone you might remember who I might be able to get in contact with and talk about what the experience was?

McGrath:

I’ve lost track of all of them.

DeVorkin:

I’m sure there are employment records. Well, did you have any group leaders or people who were interim managers?

McGrath:

There were group supervisors who supervised the computers. Two of those.

DeVorkin:

Who were they?

McGrath:

I remember Kathy Manzer. She was from Canada.

DeVorkin:

Was she a Harvard wife?

McGrath:

Yes. Her husband’s Canadian she always said “a boot.” She grew up in someplace called Anymo [spelling?]. Jean McDonald. I remember her. Were there any male astrometric computers?

McGrath:

Yeah, we had males also. Like Ed Stone.

McGrath:

Joan Baez’s father worked at Smithsonian for a while. And who was the other guy that – the astronomer? Billions and billions. Carl Sagan. I had an office next to him. He was just as nice in person as he was on television.

DeVorkin:

So what was Carl Sagan like?

McGrath:

Just like you see him on television. He was young and very enthusiastic and there was nothing aloof about him at all. He was just a regular guy.

DeVorkin:

Did he talk to you about space and science and stuff?

McGrath:

No, we just were passing in the hall and, “Good morning, Leo. How you doing?” and stuff like that.

DeVorkin:

Where were your offices at that point?

McGrath:

That’s 60 Garden Street. That’s when I was the administrative assistant for Systems to Tillinghast.

DeVorkin:

Where was it in the building actually? I know it wasn’t quite as much a maze as it is today.

McGrath:

Second or third floor. Tillinghast and Whipple had a corner office, I remember that. Sagan was down the hall from them. It was either the second or third floor. Very small offices. It was not a sumptuous place. There was concrete block everywhere. And the computer and communications was on the first level I think, and Chief Peterson ran the communications center. That’s where all the teletype communications with the worldwide network took place.

DeVorkin:

Was Chief a nickname?

McGrath:

That’s all they ever called him. He was an old Navy guy. Chief Peterson.

DeVorkin:

Getting at the daily working atmosphere of the place, this was Harvard Smithsonian, and I’m wondering if you knew the difference between a Harvard person and a Smithsonian person.

McGrath:

That was never considered very much actually. Just the thing was “never take Donald Menzel’s parking space.” Menzel took a fit if anybody parked in his parking space at the top of the hill by the telescope. There used to be a telescope there at the top of the hill.

DeVorkin:

Right. Did you ever see him have a fit?

McGrath:

Yes Big ripples went through the place. Somebody parked in his spot one day and it never happened again.

DeVorkin:

Wow.

McGrath:

I think he took over from Whipple. He was director of the observatory for a while, wasn’t he?

DeVorkin:

Well, he was more senior than Whipple. He actually ran the whole place.

McGrath:

Yes. That was what it was.

DeVorkin:

Did you ever see Goldberg and Whipple interacting?

McGrath:

No.

DeVorkin:

Because they were in different buildings actually?

McGrath:

Yes, I didn’t get into Whipple’s office very much.

DeVorkin:

You didn’t.

McGrath:

I think before you could get in to Whipple you had to go through Leon Campbell, Jr.’s office. Leon was a very gentle, mild-mannered guy.

DeVorkin:

And he was very active in the AAVSO, the Amateur Astronomers and stuff like that.

McGrath:

Right. He did a lot getting Moonwatch going I believe.

DeVorkin:

Right. Exactly.

McGrath:

And John White. Did you know John White? John White did a lot of writing. He wrote a book on Stonehenge.

DeVorkin:

Gerald Hawkins maybe you’re thinking?

McGrath:

No, John White.

DeVorkin:

Did you ever run into James Baker?

McGrath:

No.

DeVorkin:

Okay. Did you ever have an interest in meeting the designer of the Baker-Nunn? Because he was there too.

McGrath:

I have the patent here somewhere. The whole camera exploded. I’ll have to find that. I have that around here somewhere.

DeVorkin:

That would be the most valuable thing to see, and in fact have a copy of.

McGrath:

Yes. I’ll dig that out. I’ve got one here somewhere.

DeVorkin:

Did you ever take a group photograph, all of the people in the team standing around the camera and have somebody take your picture?

McGrath:

No, we never did it. I don’t know why.

DeVorkin:

By the way, did you have any contact with Karl Henize after this initial contact?

McGrath:

Oh yes. I’d see him around. I’d see him a lot. Yeah. He’d visit the tracking stations a lot.

DeVorkin:

And what was his role? Just showing the flag or some management level activity or what?

McGrath:

Florida was always a good trip in the wintertime.

DeVorkin:

I see. Did he ever talk about wanting to fly in space himself?

McGrath:

No, he never did. But he was a regular guy too. I mean he’d go out to eat with you and stuff like that. You would never know that he was a pretty well-known astronomer at the time. And George Veis. He came from Greece. He used to come here. I think he taught somewhere in Athens and then he would come here. He had an awful lot to say about tracking things and he was a little, short guy. He was a character, an enjoyable person.

DeVorkin:

Were you involved in budgets, in asking for budgets each year?

McGrath:

I had to do the budget for photo reduction every year.

DeVorkin:

Right. And who did you report to during this time?

McGrath:

The budget always went directly to Tillinghast. The Tillinghast people.

DeVorkin:

Did you find that there was too much work to be done and you needed more people and more facilities or were you keeping up with the demand?

McGrath:

We had more demand than ability to produce the size reductions. It got pretty streamlined as time went on. A lot of it became more computerized, but it was slow work and there was more demand for our output. We always had a backlog of things to do.

DeVorkin:

And was that a problem?

McGrath:

Well no. I would get a request from Dr. Jacchia. We did a lot of stuff for Dr. Jacchia. And Imre Izak before he died. He died on a trip to Europe. I guess he had a heart attack. He smoked all the time. He was Hungarian, came out of the Hungarian Revolution. He came out for that.

DeVorkin:

So you would sit down with them or with whom to work out a budget?

McGrath:

Well, on the budget I would figure out what I needed. We’d have so many staff and I’d have wage increases and we’d need this and we’d need that, and the contracts for the maintenance of the equipment and everything, I’d come up with a figure on some of it [and send it up to Tillinghast’s office]. It’s too high or it’s too low, but I never had much trouble getting the money that we needed. Then he’d fold that into the overall budget.

DeVorkin:

Did you represent the photo reduction staff in other kinds of management meetings in any regular fashion?

McGrath:

There weren’t too many regular meetings. It was sort of independent. Later on when the layers of bureaucracy started they had more staff meetings and more bureaucratic things like that.

DeVorkin:

Could you put a year on that or a several year period when you felt things got more and more bureaucratic?

McGrath:

It was toward the end of the ‘60s. Mark Malec came aboard.

DeVorkin:

Yes.

McGrath:

He was a professional financial guy I guess. That was sort of the tendency. Because there’s nothing mysterious about a budget. You figure out what you’re going to do and you toss it out and you do it. But then it becomes a bureaucracy — an end in itself sort of thing after a while. The people who were there in the beginning when I first went there, all this administrative stuff just never came up. There was never any issue. It was just dealt with. It was a minor part of what went on. The main thing was to get photographs of satellites and turn out the day that we were supposed to turn out, but then toward the end it became almost political. It’s hard to describe it.

DeVorkin:

Was the demand for this information changing at all? Was there less demand later in the ‘60s?

McGrath:

No. The demand was always there. Scientists always wanting to do something, study something, so there was never any lack of work.

DeVorkin:

You left in 1970 you said?

McGrath:

Yes. They had a big cutback.

DeVorkin:

Oh, I see. Did it come all at once or did it just build up?

McGrath:

Well, Nixon cut the NASA budget. We felt the pinch and a lot of people left.

DeVorkin:

And you were one of them?

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Did you leave by choice? You had quite a bit of seniority.

McGrath:

Yes, well compared to some people I didn’t have. Many people had been there longer than I had. They did some merging and all of that.

DeVorkin:

Was this a government rif then?

McGrath:

Well, we weren’t government employees.

DeVorkin:

You were trust side?

McGrath:

Yes. The people that had federal status, they were the last ones out the door.

DeVorkin:

Well how much warning did you have and what were your plans for the future?

McGrath:

I didn’t get a whole lot of warning. I got six or eight months. Got a lot of severance, for quite a while on severance, and I could collect unemployment and severance at the same time. So the day I went out the door I got a $75 a week raise.

DeVorkin:

How did you feel about it, though? You had been working then for the Smithsonian for a good while. Did you feel betrayed?

McGrath:

They also had the tracking program. The Smithsonian seemed like kind of a stuffy place. That was the impression I had. You know the nation’s attic image?

DeVorkin:

So you had no compelling feelings about staying with Smithsonian.

McGrath:

Most of the exciting things had sort of been done by then. They were starting on Mt Hopkins but it was a good — it was time to go.

DeVorkin:

So when you got to looking around, what did you find?

McGrath:

I finally wound up as a computer systems analyst for the State of Massachusetts, and that’s where I spent most of the last twenty-five or so years. So all the computer stuff I had done, FORTRAN and that sort of thing for photo reduction, had learned to keypunch and stuff like that.

DeVorkin:

So you knew FORTRAN?

McGrath:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

And in 1970 when you left, what was going on? It was basically still mainframe, a lot of mainframe work?

McGrath:

Yes. The state was a mainframe job too.

DeVorkin:

Did you go back and take courses?

McGrath:

Yeah. I learned COBOL.

DeVorkin:

Sure. And did this turn out to be a good thing for you?

McGrath:

I enjoyed it. Computers are much more satisfying to deal with than people. They’re predictable, you know. You know what they’re going to do. Yeah. I enjoyed it very much. Worked for the government center in Boston. The train station is 10 minutes from here. I went to North Station and then walked up to the government zone. It worked out well. I got a pretty decent retirement out of it. The state has a very generous retirement program. Eighty percent. When I reached the maximum I was out and gone. But see back when the state retirement system was set up the state jobs didn’t pay very well, so there’s more comparability now with the private sector. It took a long struggle, but — so that that’s why the retirement was very generous. They carry my insurance and they still pay 80 percent of my insurance premiums. And we don’t pay any state tax, which has helped.

DeVorkin:

Well, as you look back then on your Smithsonian years and your contacts, what are your overall thoughts about that for your life?

McGrath:

I enjoyed the first five or six or eight years but it because routine toward the end. You read about Fred Whipple and the dirty snowball and you know I sat in his classroom and he explained that to me and I worked for him. And the space program was amazing. We were part of that whole thing. It was an incredible accomplishment, from the beginning to going to the Moon, and all the things they found out and learned from satellite observations.

DeVorkin:

And now your son, Owen.

McGrath:

He’s attended U. Cal Berkeley and he got his degree in Education. He has a doctorate in Education. He got his Ph.D. two years ago. He always asked me about all this, “What did you do? What did you do? What about that? The Baker-Nunns. Where are the Baker-Nunns now?” So he does a lot of research. He knows where all the Baker-Nunns are now. He can account for most of them. And there is some guy somewhere has a collection of them apparently. He wants me to visit this guy, upper Midwest somewhere. Carl Truesdell his friend, his buddy, his father was with the track program too, so you know, “Our fathers did this,” you know. Most of this happened before he was born in ‘61.

DeVorkin:

Owen was born in ‘61.

McGrath:

Yes. We had come back from Florida by then. But he was more interested in it than Matthew was. Matthew is a historian. He has worked with the Constitution Museum in Boston. Doesn’t pay anything, but he is as happy as can be. It’s the most enjoyable job he ever had. He belongs to the 1812 Marine Unit. They have the period costumes and that sort of thing. He loves it. He knows more about that ship. He was there for the reconstruction through all that, and he’s got pieces of the original around the house somewhere. Chunks of live oak.

DeVorkin:

Someday we hope to be able to reconstruct the Baker-Nunn we have. The one that was at Tucson that was originally moved from New Mexico.

McGrath:

Old number one. Does it still say SC-1 on it?

DeVorkin:

I’ll have to check.

McGrath:

Satellite camera 1.

DeVorkin:

How would you like to see that displayed? If you were to come to a museum to see a display on the Baker-Nunn, what would be the important things do you think that you would want the public to know?

McGrath:

You could almost do a little camera house, couldn’t you? With the roof open?

DeVorkin:

So you’d like to see it in the camera house.

McGrath:

That’s where I’m used to seeing it. Don’t put the big light hood on it either. Make it realistic.

DeVorkin:

We may have it, but I haven’t checked the inventory for the hood.

McGrath:

It’s the real number one?

DeVorkin:

I believe so. Do you know why it was moved from New Mexico to Mt. Hopkins?

McGrath:

No, I don’t, except that they built the telescope at Mt. Hopkins, didn’t they?

DeVorkin:

Right.

McGrath:

Oregon Pass is really out in the boonies. It was a long drive to get out there.

DeVorkin:

Beautiful though. Did you ever want to work there?

McGrath:

In New Mexico? Pretty bleak place I think. I was there in the wintertime. I remember being there in the summertime. But it gets cold at night out in that desert.

DeVorkin:

Yeah. Terrifically. One reason I want to collect a lot of photographs, as many as I can find of the interior of the facility, is so that we get an idea of how to reconstruct the way it looked. Although we have a few of the early pictures with Karl Henize in them and things like that, we don’t have that many of the actual chambers and that sort of thing. If you have materials?

McGrath:

I’ll see what I can dig out. I know I’ve got a box of it here somewhere, probably in the attic someplace. I went back to Florida five or six years ago up to Jonathan Dickenson Park and of course it’s a State Park. I asked around “I’m looking for the tracking camera site,” and they said, “What?” I described it. They talked among themselves for a while and said, “Yes, there’s a place down the road. We never knew what it was for, out up on the hill with a cistern.” I said, “That’s it.” So I drove down and went up there and there it was. It’s overgrown and the chain link fence had a big hole in it, so I let myself in. So then I went back down to talk to the head guy there and he said, “What is that place? What did you use if for?” He had no clue. And I explained the whole thing to ‘em, and they were amazed.

DeVorkin:

It’s still there?

McGrath:

The camera house was still there.

DeVorkin:

And the camera?

McGrath:

No, the camera was long gone. But the camera house was there, and the office building was still there, and it was all enclosed in a chain link fence. The chain link fence had been cut into. I had trouble finding it. I didn’t remember how to get there, but he told me go down here, and then it all came back to me.

DeVorkin:

Wow.

McGrath:

Yeah. It was amazing. And they were just spellbound when I explained to them what it was all about.

DeVorkin:

Oh, that’s marvelous.

McGrath:

Yes, because they were just kids when it all went on. Probably some were not even born. They were just thrilled that somebody finally explained what that thing on the hill was all about. They never knew.

DeVorkin:

So there were no signs that survived, anyway. But when you were there and it was active, was there a sign that said, “Tracking Station — Baker-Nunn, Keep Out,” or anything like that?

McGrath:

No. There may have been some “Keep Out” signs, but there was a gate that was locked. It was a locked gate and a very high chain link fence with barbed wire on the top and all the way around. It wasn’t a very active campground at the time. Most of the camping took place down on I guess the Loxahatchee River through there.

DeVorkin:

How much land was actually fenced off? Was it half an acre?

McGrath:

No more than that. Probably these two house lots together, probably half an acre or so.

DeVorkin:

So it wasn’t a huge compound or anything like that.

McGrath:

No, no. It was up on top of a hill and a large part of that big concrete cistern. which was a —

DeVorkin:

It was a water collection sort of a thing.

McGrath:

Yes. There was concrete on the top too. I don’t know. They must have pumped the water up there to get the water pressure. It was all concrete and it was all coated with tar, and there were a couple of openings in it, but I didn’t bother going down there for fear of snakes. And there was a tower on it too, for some reason. A wooden tower. Then the office building. They had cots in there so that you could sleep. In the beginning you could get a couple hours sleep, especially if you were rained out in the evening. But toward the end we were just working all night long, the satellites were so high up.

DeVorkin:

That must have been a lot better when you were working. Toward the end we had a lot more work than we could handle, so that by the time you did all of the reductions and developing and everything you’d be ready to go home and go to bed. We’d get home about 8, 9 o’clock in the morning sometimes. We worked three or four days and then we’d have three days off or something. That was difficult. You are constantly changing.

DeVorkin:

That is difficult. Anything else that you would like to have recorded at this point?

McGrath:

I’ll look around for stuff, because I have things like at one point we got, all the staff at Smithsonian got — I think they were Christmas cards from the Russians showing the back side of the Moon. Do you remember they got there first?

DeVorkin:

Sure.

McGrath:

Yes. Whipple had a bet on the landing on the Moon too with somebody.

DeVorkin:

Did he?

McGrath:

Yeah. A couple thousand bucks as I recall.

DeVorkin:

Really?

McGrath:

There’s a newspaper article on that someplace.

DeVorkin:

With a Russian or just with a colleague or friend?

McGrath:

Some colleague, maybe not American, but a colleague.

DeVorkin:

I’ll try to find out. I’m sure Babby [Whipple] knows about it.

McGrath:

And he won. He won.

DeVorkin:

Whipple won. Well of course. He was a winner, wasn’t he?

McGrath:

He was. He was an amazing person. He really was. We didn’t appreciate him at the time of course.

DeVorkin:

Really?

McGrath:

But as you look back on it, you know when you look back on what he accomplished, my God. Having worked for the state and having worked for him it was like night and day. This is a guy who got things done. You don’t appreciate ‘em until — Because he was really my first real work experience, and then I got work with the state, and holy cow.

DeVorkin:

When you mention the hall, how often would you see Whipple?

McGrath:

He’d always say hello. He’d say hello. He was a regular guy.

DeVorkin:

Would he ask you about anything personal?

McGrath:

No. Just, you know, time of day, how’s everything going and that sort of thing.

DeVorkin:

Did he ever do business in the hall?

McGrath:

No. Not with me he didn’t, no.

DeVorkin:

You never saw him in the hall conducting business?

McGrath:

No. I got into his office a couple of times for something, but he was an amazing person. He really was.

DeVorkin:

But you said that you didn’t quite realize it at the time.

McGrath:

Well see, I hadn’t had the work experience at the time. Now that I’ve had a lifetime of work experience, looking on it I say, “My God, this guy was really something.” See, if you don’t know anything else you’d think, “Oh yeah, well, okay.” But especially the state, you know — the ultimate bureaucracy were nothing gets done by design. And when you stop and think of what this guy did in a very short period of time of time, getting those tracking stations, twelve tracking stations, and ten of them outside of the United States, which means he must have had to know an awful lot of people. It’s an incredible feat. He got them all up and running, too. Amazing.

DeVorkin:

Did you continue or follow the fate of Celescope? You know it was launched in ‘68.

McGrath:

I knew it had been launched but I didn’t follow it, no.

DeVorkin:

You didn’t follow it any farther than that.

McGrath:

No. They were going to map the sky in ultraviolet.

DeVorkin:

That’s right. And I’ll be talking to Kathy Haramandanis about that, and I’ll be talking to Davis about that and then hopefully others who were closer to it.

McGrath:

Did Kathy get to the Celescope eventually? She had star catalog experience. That’s probably why they moved her onto that.

DeVorkin:

That’s right.

McGrath:

Yes. She was a bright kid.