Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Way down telescope way

Like many folks of my generation, as a child I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Somehow I got it into my mind that astronauts and astronomers were similar professions, although one never seemed to actually get into space. Both had an eye on the sky, and I wanted to be one or both. Even before Star Wars turned me on to science fiction in a big way, I was fascinated with space and the solar system. Telescopes were cool. Alas, I was soon to find out that to have even a remote shot at becoming either an astronaut or astronomer, I'd have to eat, drink and sleep in a world of relentless number-crunching. To say that my mathematic skills are feeble at best would be an insult to all the feeble mathematicians in the world. So that particular dream was DOA long before I even knew it was feeling sickly.

My family wasn't of a scientific inclination--for my love of space, I was pretty much on my own at home. Fortunately, I had a next door neighbor, John Story, who was a space buff and a long-time member of the Houston Astronomical Association. He had a quality refractor--I have no recollection of the make or even aperture--that he'd set up on summer nights and show me all sorts of skyward wonders. John Loessin, the adult son of one of my elementary school teachers, had one of Celestron's early 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes that he'd use for visual observing as well as astrophotography. So I had some quality scopes around me. Naturally, I had to have my own.

I don't remember the details very clearly, but the general outlines of the story are familiar ones: In 1983, at the awkward age of 13 I mowed lawns all summer and amassed the princely sum of $300 plus change in my telescope fund. This was the most money I'd ever had in my life, suffice to say. Clueless about telescopes beyond the fact that there were different kinds, they cost a lot and they made far-away things look bigger, I set off to purchase one. Fortunately, Mr. Story pointed me in the direction of Texas Nautical Supply in Houston, which was--and remains--one of the premier astronomical resources in the state.

Somehow, I talked my dad into taking me. Or rather, he probably had business to conduct in Houston and consented to have me ride along. My first impression of Texas Nautical was that of a classic natural history museum, only instead of giant dinosaur skeletons on display, they had giant telescopes. In my memory, the display floor is choked with monstrous, drool-inducing 20- and 30-inch planet-killers, although in hindsight 10' and 12" scopes are the most likely sizes populating the upper end of their wares. Still, it was might impressive to me, an ignorant teen who'd hoped to head home with a 2.5" refractor.

A refractor was my scope of choice, simply because that was the "classic" scope in media, and what I was most familiar with thanks to Mr. Story. But $300 isn't a whole lot of money where telescopes are concerned, even back in 1983. Luckily, fate intervened. The salesman, knowing full well that I was suffering from a full-blown case of aperture fever, steered me towards the scope that would give me the most bang for my buck: A used 6" reflector.


The telescope in question was a Meade 645 model produced from 1977 though 1980 or so, a wide-field, f/5 model with a 30" optical tube. It had a tracking motor and manual control worm gear on a German equatorial mount set on a massive pier. I didn't learn most of those details until much, much later. Three things penetrated my mind that day: 1) the tracking motor didn't work, 2) it was within my budget and 3) that 6" tube looked like a cannon. Aperture fever, indeed. So I bought it, with my dad spotting me $20 or so to cover the tax (a concept of which I struggled to grasp for years afterward as well, which my children today stumble over as well). The scope was mine.

This was a telescope designed for viewing deep-sky objects. Unfortunately, I never really figured that out. I observed the heck out of the moon, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. I viewed Venus with disappointment, and searched in vain for Mercury. I looked at the Pledias fairly often, which is as close to DSO observing I ever got. I tried and failed to find the Andromeda galaxy and others. I saw the disappointing Halley's comet when it came through, low on the horizon. I got 2x and 3x Barlowes for my lenses, and even tried stacking Barlowe on Barlowe for ungodly magnification (didn't work, though). I got a T-ring and camera adapter, and hooked up my folks' Canon AE-1 to my scope. I ruined many, many rolls of film because I knew nothing about photography. Eventually I gave up because I couldn't afford to buy and process film that would invariably turn out over-exposed, under-exposed or blurred beyond recognition. I was woefully ignorant--I really, really wish I'd taken the time to learn what the setting circles on the mount did, because that would've made my DSO hunts a lot simpler--but what I lacked in understanding I made up for with enthusiasm. I had fun.

Eventually, I stopped hauling it out as much as I once did. My own ignorance was my biggest barrier, a hurdle that increased my frustration with observing. I wasn't seeing what I wanted to, but I never quite grasped the fault was with me. Eventually, I stopped getting it out at all, which is the fate of many telescopes. The last time I observed with it was when Comet Hale-Bopp swung through the skies in 1997. I packed up the scope and the Wife (we were still not that far removed from Newlywed status at that point) and drove out to Lake Belton in search of non-light-polluted skies. Afterwards, it pretty much sat undisturbed as a museum piece. Over the course of several moves, the scope got banged around and picked up a bunch of cosmetic blemishes. A few years ago, one of the acorn nuts securing the bolt attached to the secondary mirror spider snapped off. Benign neglect had taken its toll.

I'm not certain of the specifics, but sometime in the past year with my growing interest in photography and acquisition of a Canon XTi DSLR my interest in astronomy was rekindled. The impressive quality and flexibility of DSLRs in taking astrophotography is, no doubt, a major contributor to this interest. In any event, a switch flipped sometime in the past month and "Someday I'll get around to fixing up that old telescope" became "I'm fixing up that old telescope now." Work has commenced, sweat has been perspired and money has been burned through at an alarming rate. And you, gentle readers, will get to follow this restoration every step of the way.

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