August 22, 2017

Astronomical Observing in the Military.

The military has enabled me to observe astronomical phenomena from some unique locales. My interest in astronomy has waxed and waned (pun intended) all of my life. I’ve basically been looking at the sky since I’ve been old enough to look at anything. When I joined the US Air Force at age eighteen, it gave me the opportunity to observe from some off beat locations, some because they’re tough to get to, and some because they’re simply off the beaten path. Other places may be just too dangerous for most tastes. When the military wasn’t sending me somewhere, I was backpacking on my own. Believe me, there are still pristine skies in remote parts of the world! I’ve heard many guys remark that they’ve “never seen a sky so full of stars” until they went somewhere like Afghanistan. Most air bases stateside are glaringly over lit; in a combat zone, this makes you a target. Operations with NVGs (night vision goggles) and glow sticks are the norm.

A mid shift Eclipse: I made my bones as an Aircraft Armament System Specialist, which was a fancy way of saying that I loaded bombs and did weapons system maintenance on combat aircraft. A generation ago, I would’ve been called an Armourer or a Weapons Mechanic. I joined the military to do something exciting and travel; when the opportunity came, I always put in for a new location as often as I could. I loved having a job that was a combat specialty and allowed me to work outside on the flight line; although I tested highest for administration, I had no desire for an office job! My first two assignments were in Japan. At my second base, Kadena, on the Island of Okinawa, I worked the mid- or graveyard shift. This frequently involved prepping the F-15s for the next day’s flights; if the work was done, we would frequently play cards and make sure the coffee was on for the day shift. Remember, this was the late 80′s, and most shops didn’t have computers to entertain†the idle†yet!† My boss didn’t mind if we crept off for a few winks, so long as we made ourselves invisible and carried a radio. One early Saturday morning, I crawled into the back of our truck, radio perched next to my head. The night was thick and humid, like every night on Okinawa. As I dosed off, I noted that the crescent moon “looked funny,” more Pac man-ish (again, it was the 80s!) than a classic fingernail shape. Was I more observant, I would have noticed that the “horns” were also pointing the wrong way! But I was young and chalked it up to classic graveyard shift fatigue. I dozed off for a few minutes, until a radio squawk jolted me awake. To my surprise, the moon was nearly gone! I knew then a total lunar eclipse was underway. I rushed inside to spread the word but was met with disbelief. When you’re an Airman 1st Class, you tend to be wrong about nearly everything; even when I retired as a Senior NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) my hit ratio only went up to about 50%. There was a sense that maybe I was trying to pull one over on my crew in some bizarre fashion; shenanigans can run high in the fraternal†military culture. I went back outside and watched the eclipse until sunrise. Had it been modern day, I would’ve had a band of smokers for company… its hard to imagine that there was a time that smoking was allowed nearly everywhere, including the office! I’ve seen commanders and flight chiefs with ashtrays on their desks, pilots triumphantly smoking a stogie next to an aircraft being refueled… all unthinkable today. Looking back, this Eclipse must’ve occurred on†February 9th, 1990 and been part of saros number 133. It amazes me that there was a time in my life that I would just “happen” to see an eclipse! ††

Trips down under: I’ve been south of the equator four times, but my first was with the military. I was with Special Operations out of Hurlbert Field, Florida, and we were deployed to Mombasa, Kenya, supporting operations in Somalia. I highly encourage a trip down under; there’s a whole other sky out there that we don’t see up north, and they’ve got all the good stuff! It’s also cool to see the good old familiar constellations such as Leo or Orion, but upside down! Back then, I brought a pair of 7×50 binocs for the occasion; I now travel with a pair of Image Stabilized (IS) 15x45s. These give me telescope-like optics when carrying a scope isn’t always practical. One of my prime rules of travel; “Pack light, pack right.” Seeing the jewels of the southern sky was the highlight of that trip; I’ve since repeated this feat from Australia, New Zealand, and Peru. The deployment was saddened, however, by the loss of the†gunship†Predator to an in flight accident, killing†eight of the fourteen man crew. An AC-130H was also lost to a SAM (Surface to Air Missile) over Khafji† in the first Persian Gulf War; sometimes, the job of the special operator can be a deadly business.

Roof top astronomy: My interest in astronomy again blossomed after getting stationed in Osan, South Korea. I quit smoking at the time, and realized that I needed something positive to fill the gap. I also realized that being a “player” never really suited me, and decided to replace my late night carousing with some late night astronomy. I don’t recommend urban Korea for an observing destination; Song-tan City were my apartment was located is practically a suburb of Seoul and is extremely light polluted. Only in the mountains could one hope to escape this. Still, I faithfully perched on my apartment roof top every clear night, getting to know the comings and goings of the Moon and planets once again. I recommend this approach to anyone. Astronomy rewards the patient. Even to this day, I stick my head outdoors at sunset for a sky check. Spending the first year or so of your interest in Astronomy noting what you see in the sky is the most rewarding method. In this fashion, you’ll be approaching it just like the ancients did. If nothing else, you may spy a fleeting meteor or Aurora! Any how, my roof top had a limiting magnitude of say, the Pleiades, but to me, it was my “observatory”. The only place more light polluted that I’ve had the displeasure of observing from was the strip in Las Vegas; there I could barely make out Orion’s belt! Surely, this must win the award for the most light polluted site in the world. I was probably the only one in Vegas that even bothered to note the sky show amid all the man made glitter overhead!

Astronomy from the top of the World: Living in Alaska was an interesting observing experience. I lived in North Pole, Alaska, just shy of the Arctic Circle. In the Great White north, astronomy is very much a seasonal sport; in the winter, it’s cold enough to freeze focusers solid, and in the summer, its daylight all the time! Spring and fall represent the two annual windows of astronomical opportunity; I even took leave in the fall, not for the usual Alaskan reason to moose hunt, but to some serious star gazing. In the summertime, I would challenge myself to see what the earliest date was that I could see the first stars pop out; this usually fell around mid July. And the nightly northern lights more than made up for the extreme cold of winter; they’re easily the coolest, eeriest thing I’ve seen. They were common enough to actually be a nuisance to deep sky observers! Two naked eye comets also visited the inner solar system during my time in Alaska; I vividly remember pointing out comet Hyakutake from the flight line during an exercise, and watching a circumpolar Hale-Bopp from my living room window. Viewing Venus the day of inferior conjunction has to be one of the weirdest challenges I’ve yet completed… before journeying to the Arctic, I wouldn’t have thought this was possible! But since Venus’ orbit is inclined†almost five degrees†to our own, it is indeed possible around the winter solstice from high latitudes, assuming the conjunction has a maximum angular separation, as it did on January 17th, 1998. This occurs again on†January 13th, 2014… anyone up for it?

Meteors in the Desert: As mentioned above, deployment to the desert frequently meant pristine skies right outside our tent flap door. When deployed to Kuwait in 1998 I saw one of the most spectacular displays of Leonid meteors. Yes, 1998. I know that most of the world got their peak from this shower in 1999, but 98′ will always be the year for me. We estimated at its peak that the shower was generating close to 1,000 meteors an hour, with numerous bright fireballs every few seconds. For my full account, click here.†I still wonder how many†reports have been made along that same latitude. About a year later, I ran into the same Major who watched the shower with me until sunrise; he said it was still the “highlight of the desert rotation!”

An Astronomical Mecca: But the cap off of my military career was yet to come. We put in for, and got, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Tucson, Arizona. Tucson is a hub of astronomy; it was nothing to say that David Levy was my neighbor, or that cutting edge astronomy was being carried out on no less than three surrounding mountain tops. It was there that I managed to construct a modest observatory it our back yard in Vail, Arizona. Christened the Very Small Optical Observatory or VSOO, it was a converted Sears 9′x10′ shed housing a 10″ Schmitt-Newtonian reflector, but to me, it was my own personal Palomar. I also had an unforgettable time volunteering at the Flandreau observatory as a telescope operator, and would take any open slot available. I also managed to cross off Meteor crater, the Lowell observatory near Flagstaff, and even the McDonald Observatory on my way to the NCO Academy at†Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Another highlight was the privilege to observe through the 61″ Kuiper telescope with the Tucson Amateur Astronomer’s Association.

Was it all worth it? Now that I’m retired, I realize that I’ve been extremely lucky. I know of several astronomy PhDs who have never left the country, or advanced amateurs that have washed out skies in their suburban backyards. The purpose of my military travels may not have been astronomy, but it was always easy to find room for a star chart and a pair of binocs in my duffel bag. In the least, its always comforting to know we all look at the same stars, moon and planets, and that the hinterlands of the world†still possess tracts that are wild and dark!


  1. Ramiz says:

    I stumbled onto this while navigating around the blog. Amazed me, reading some of the experiences of yours in the army and where you have been around! This sentence especially struck me “I know of several astronomy PhDs who have never left the country, or advanced amateurs that have washed out skies in their suburban backyards”

    Do you miss that life? People get too used to living in a certain way you know :)

  2. David Dickinson says:

    I do miss it sometimes, but the experience I had with the Air Force and our own travels has given us the skills and confidence to live just about any where. We generally get restless after a year or so… you never know where in the world we might turn up!


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