July 14, 2015. An amazing scientific moment occurs, as a satellite from earth flies directly by the dwarf planet Pluto. Just like the man who originally discovered Pluto 85 years ago, the man who helped lead this mission to Pluto came from rural Kansas.
During the last two weeks, we have learned about the discoverer of Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, and his boyhood home of Burdett, Kansas. Today, in the third and final profile in this series, we will learn about the man who was the project manager for the modern-day exploration of Pluto.
Glen Fountain is the recently-retired project manager for NASA’s New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Glen grew up in western Reno County, Kansas. As a child, he was interested in science, and he found that his involvement in Boy Scouts broadened his horizons and encouraged his work ethic.
Along Kansas Highway 156 about fifty miles west of Great Bend is the rural community of Burdett. Next to the water tower is a roadside park with a historical marker devoted to a local boy who became the discoverer of the planet Pluto.
Last week we learned about Clyde Tombaugh, the local farm boy whose interest in astronomy would lead to his discovery of another planet. Don Cloutman is one of the citizens of Burdett who is seeking to continue to honor Tombaugh’s legacy.
Don grew up southwest of Burdett in another rural community, the town of Minneola, population 717 people. Now, that’s rural.
Don studied zoology at Fort Hays State where he met his wife who is from Burdett. After serving in the Army, he went to graduate school at Arkansas, became a fisheries biologist at Duke Power Company in North Carolina, and earned a Ph.D. at Mississippi State. Dr. Cloutman became a professor of biology at Bemidji State University before he and his wife retired to Burdett.
Feb. 18, 1930. A young man is studying outer space at an observatory in Arizona. He is comparing telescopic, photographic images of the distant night sky. Suddenly a terrific thrill comes over him as he realizes that the image he has just seen provides the scientific evidence of a historic discovery: He has discovered a planet. It was a remarkable accomplishment for a young farm boy from Kansas.
Clyde Tombaugh is the man who discovered Pluto. In his autobiography, Out of the Darkness, Tombaugh describes how it all began. He was born on a farm in Illinois. In 1922, his family moved to a wheat farm near Burdett, Kansas.
While studying geography in the sixth grade, Tombaugh thought: “What would the geography on other planets be like?” Clyde’s uncle Lee lived on a farm nearby. He was an amateur astronomer. Lee lent him a simple telescope and an astronomy book which Clyde found fascinating. Scientists like Galileo became his childhood heroes.
Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University writes Kansas Profile. The weekly posts highlight individuals or companies in rural Kansas who are making a difference to their community and state.
The Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development is a public / private partnership between Kansas State University and the Huck Boyd Foundation. The mission of the institute is to help rural people help themselves. Learn more at www.huckboydinstitute.org.