June 5, 2020

Observing Like an Eight-Year Old

Our second telescope: a 60mm refractor.

(note the 8-track player in the background!)

It’s true: we destroyed our first telescope before its first night out.

Flashback to the summer 1977, and our ninth birthday. Returning home from church, I was greeted by a shiny new Newtonian reflecting telescope, lovingly assembled by my Mom in my bedroom.

Now, this was the ’70s. Little did I know that the second half of my life was to begin that summer, when George Lucas dropped Star Wars and altered nerd-dom forever post-Space: 1999 (true story: my four year old cousin Willie insisted on calling Darth Vader “Dark Invader”). I’d already shown a huge interest in astronomy by diagramming the entire known solar system in third grade, and dutifully adding rings ’round a tilted Uranus when they were discovered by the flying Kuiper Airborne Observatory in early ’77.

But my skills as an observer and telescope user were, to say the least, lacking. Sure, I’d looked at the Moon with a cardboard draw tube refractor we owned with a cracked objective, the kind that would be right at home in the hands of a pirate captain at sea. But this telescope before me in my bedroom was made to look at the night sky…

And I broke it.

I was fascinated at how the telescope spun on its plastic tripod, and as eight-year olds turning nine will do, I spun it ever faster, pushing the mount to the very limits of its dubious durability. Sad to say, the telescope was never meant to be a propeller, a hard birthday lesson I just had to learn as the tube promptly snapped off from its mount.

Now, it wasn’t a fancy telescope, then or now. It was a 20$ department store model, the kind with splashy pictures of Saturn and colorful nebulae on the box which exclaimed “x150!” magnification. The mount seemed like it was made of spaghetti, wobbling at the briefest touch. The finder was a plastic tube with pinholes at either end (that, too, didn’t survive the propeller experiment). The lenses were the old-style 0.965″ barrel ones made in Japan, and the primary mirror was about 40mm in diameter at the end of a long white tube.

Still, we tried. The night was clear, and the optics of the telescope survived the fall. With the finder glued back on and the telescope tube cradled on our lap we tried (mostly in vain) to aim it at a ruddy star flickering low on the southern horizon that we were sure was Mars. Today, a simple click of a mouse and a planetarium program tells us that it was in fact, Antares, and a search for any evening planets on the night of July 31st, 1977 would’ve been in vain.

Still, our first telescope and our love for astronomy lived on. My older brother Kenny actually resurrected the mount during High School shop class, using a sturdy metal ball hitch. During my freshman year of High School, I bought a 60mm Jason refractor (pictured above), which represented a huge leap in observing after the 40mm reflector incident.

And moreover, I learned my way around the sky. I learned the outlines of the constellations, and the seasonal motions of the firmament. I followed the Moon on its synodic course, and learned to follow the planets like old friends. I even found out that my dad’s 7x 50 hunting binoculars (which he always kept handy near the kitchen table to spot deer grazing in the field behind our house) were better for scanning the plane of the summer Milky Way than any telescope I could conceive of…

In a way, I was lucky to have the dark skies of northern Maine right on my very doorstep. Astronomy is a lifelong pursuit, and I learn something new everyday. Needless to say, I’m a little more cautious with unboxing a new telescope today as I approach my 50th birthday… but it’s fun to remember a time when everything in the sky was new, and even simple things were magic.

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