Monday, August 31, 2009

Retro-Blog; October 2008 Kitt Peak National Observatory

My company sent me to Tuscan, Arizona for a gig at Davis-Mothan Air Force base, and there were three things I wanted to get done while I was there besides my job.

1- Troop an event with the Dune Sea Garrison of the 501st.
2- Visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory
3- Eat as many enchiladas as I could.

I am happy to say I was successful on all fronts!

I made friends in Tuscan pretty fast. My first night there I put on my TIE Pilot costume and trooped a Game Stop with the Dune Sea Garrison, and they are the most open and inviting crew you could meet. It didn’t take long for them to peg me as a Southerner because everywhere we went I kept asking for sweet tea and no one out west serves sweet tea. I don’t know how many times I told them I was from Ohio they continued to refer to me in a grand western tradition as “This fine Southern gentleman!” Well at leas I made some one look good.

As I had them taking me from one Mexican resteraunt to the next they gave me the low down on Kitt Peak too. Besides being open and inviting they also were very tolerant.

When I was a kid on the farm I came across a picture of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. I was completely fascinated but the idea of a telescope. I wondered if they had a swimming pool there because studying the sun had to get hot and wondered if they wore bathing suits under their lab coats when they weren’t trying to get a tan. I would like to say that these were just pre-teen musings but hey carried over in to my adult hood also.

So here I am in Tuscan, time to kill and a plot to hatch and I take off across the dessert towards the mountain. It took about an hour to get there. Take water with you when you go. You will get thirsty and there are no vending machines on top of the mountain. Once you clear Tuscan and you can see all the way across the desert and see the observatories across the plain. Distance it the first deception in the high desert. The next is the speed limit. I didn’t see a single speed sign except when I was approaching the U.S. Border Patrol stop. I just set the rental on cruise control and jammed out to XM radios Hair Band Heaven.

Driving up the mountain is majestic. Tuscan itself is already a couple of thousand feet above sea level, but Kitt Peak is 6,880 ft above the ocean, and there are signs going up elling you at which 1,000 you are at. ON the way I came across a gentleman who somehow laid his Harley down and I stopped to help him out. Once we got his hog righted and he made sure it started we talked a little. I gave him some water because he had been there for over an hour waiting for someone to show up. Then he asked me, “So… are you one of the scientists up there?” I laughed so hard! I told him, “Sir, you give me too much credit for being that smart!”

Once at the mountain the first thing I noticed was the helipad in the middle of the parking lot. Not sure why this jumped out at me, its faded marking in the cracked asphalt but it did. I took it all in. I was the only vehicle in the visitor’s lot. I stood there for about 20 minutes and didn’t see a single person. I could have been on the moon.

Very nice visitors center. Clean, air conditioned and a very cordial staff. They asked me if I cared to wait for a guide and most of you know me, I do my best work on my own. So I commenced my exploration.

Obviously you are not going to get into any of the actual working areas of the telescopes, but there are extensive galleries protected by thick Plexiglas window for you to see thought. When I was there, actual experiments were being conducted and you were watching the professionals do their business. The Mayall 4 meter telescope was incredible! I could move in there. You really have see this for yourself!

I got to the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope and saw the solar scientists at work, and they weren’t wearing bathing suits. They were not even wearing lab coats. No swimming pool either! Just street clothes! My childhood delusion permanently despoiled… well not really. It’s a fun idea that has been in my head for so long I am not letting it go.

What amazed me is for a place with limited visitor traffic almost every available surface that one could access had some kind of historical or educational exhibit on display and it was all in great condition. You can learn a lot about astronomy just by reading the walls and you can come to know the local cultures by looking at their artifacts.

On the way down I stopped at the picnic area below the large telescopes, and in the middle of it was ARO 12 meter radio telescope. It’s the one in my profile pic. Because I had brought lunch with me because my noble guides in Tuscan told me so, I ate it. I was all alone there. I could have gone streaking and truth be old I had actually considered it.

I did run into a couple of astronomers there. They were great guys. I told them they had the best job in the world and when they asked me what I did for a living I told them and they told me I had one of the scariest. I love intellectual discourse!

There are cabins there that have signs far away from them that say “Day Sleepers. Keep all noise down.”

It was all incredible! I thought about taking a couple hours more to write this to give you all of the technical details about the equipment up there but it would jut be numbers. As I was sitting on the picnic tables thinking how small I am to the observatories, and how little, they were compared to the mountain, and how tiny they were to the desert, and how absolutely dwarfed it was to the skies… seriously… after that what difference dos a 50+ foot focal length mean… To quote the man, “For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky.”

There is no serious way I can give this wondrous place of heavenly pursuits it’s due without and IMAX or just taking you there. If Kitt Peak is not on your list of 1,000 places to visit before you die then it should be.

But to leave you with this…. On the way back to Tuscan I got stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol and they asked me “So… are you one of the scientists up there?” I laughed my ass off!

Seriously… I’m not that smart.

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