Walter Scott Houston

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Walter Scott Houston
Walter Scott Houston Stellafane.png
Walter Scott Houston at the 1983 Stellafane convention
Born (1912-05-30)May 30, 1912
Tippecanoe, Wisconsin
Died December 23, 1993(1993-12-23) (aged 81)
Cancún, Mexico
Residence East Haddam, Connecticut
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Wisconsin
Occupation English teacher, editor
Employer American Education Publications

Walter Scott Houston (May 30, 1912–December 23, 1993) was an American popularizer of amateur astronomy. He wrote the "Deep-Sky Wonders" column in Sky and Telescope magazine from 1946 to 1993.


Houston was born in Tippecanoe, Wisconsin in 1912. He attended the University of Wisconsin where he earned a degree in English. After graduating, he taught at universities and public schools in Wisconsin, Ohio, Alabama, Kansas, Missouri and Connecticut. During World War II he was an instructor at the Advanced Navigation School for Army-Air Force pilots at Selman Field in Louisiana. In 1960 he moved to Connecticut where he became an editor for American Education Publications. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1974.[1]

Contributions to amateur astronomy[edit]

As a boy, Houston learned to build microscopes and telescopes and developed an interest in amateur astronomy. He soon observed all 103 nebulae and star clusters in the Messier catalog. While at the University of Wisconsin he began observing variable stars and in 1931 he joined the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). Eventually, he contributed more than 12,000 variable star observations to AAVSO.

While living in Kansas in the 1950s, Houston undertook radio monitoring of meteor activity. His group operated the first automated data collection system designed by amateurs for continuous, long-term collection of meteor event data.[2] The same method forms the basis for most forward scatter automated detection systems used today, although other methods are available.

In 1955, Houston recruited a few dozen people as satellite spotters for Operation Moonwatch. In 1958, his Moonwatch station in Manhattan, Kansas was the first to catch sight of Explorer I, the United States' first satellite.[1]

Houston was active in raising funds for the project, by giving talks about satellite watching and asking for contributions. He was so successful that the president of Kansas State University included Houston's team in his annual science research summary, and the Physics Department donated equipment to the group.[3]

Houston is best known for the "Deep-Sky Wonders" column which he wrote for Sky & Telescope which popularized the observing of deep sky objects.[4] His final column appeared in 1994, the year after his death. He also published a regional newsletter called The Great Plains Observer that was circulated to several thousand amateur astronomers.

Mars moon hoax[edit]

In 1959, Houston perpetrated a celebrated April Fool's hoax when he included an article in the April edition of the Great Plains Observer that made the following claim:

Just last week Dr. Arthur Hayall of the University of the Sierras reports that the moons of Mars are actually artificial satellites... They are truly space stations in the most elaborate sense of the word... even though the race that flung them so magnificently into orbit may be dead and gone, they still orbit as the greatest monument to intelligent accomplishment yet known to mankind.

Both Dr. Hayall and the University of the Sierras were fictitious.

The hoax soon gained worldwide attention when it was taken seriously by a Soviet scientist, Iosif Shklovsky, in an interview with Komsomol Pravda. Gerald Kuiper of the Yerkes Observatory was quoted as saying about Shklovsky, "He is much too brilliant to believe such nonsense." [5]


  1. ^ a b de Cicco, D. (May 1987), "Dean of the Deep-Sky Turns 75", Sky and Telescope, vol. 73, p. 566 
  2. ^ Houston, W. S. (July 1958), "Counting Meteors by Radio", Scientific American, pp. 108–111 
  3. ^ McCray, W. Patrick (2008). Keep Watching the Skies! The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-12854-2. 
  4. ^ Fred Schaaf, 40 nights to knowing the sky: a night-by-night skywatching primer, page 13
  5. ^ Jefferson City Post-Tribune. May 4, 1959.  Missing or empty |title= (help)

Books by Walter Scott Houston[edit]

  • Deep-Sky Wonders, a collection of his columns from Sky & Telescope.

Named after him[edit]