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International Year of Astronomy Public Observatory Project at The National Air and Space Museum

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2009 is the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of a telescope to examine the Moon, Venus, Jupiter and the Milky Way.  He probably wasn’t the first to do so, and of course he didn’t invent the telescope.  But he was the first to tell the world about what he saw, in terms everyone could understand and appreciate.  That is why the International Year of Astronomy has as its central goal giving as many people as possible the chance to look through a telescope and to enjoy the practice of doing astronomy, just like Galileo did, and better even!

The idea of such a celebration was born at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union. Once every three years, astronomers from all over the world meet in General Assembly.The last time was August 2006, in Prague. While some astronomers unceremoniously demoted Pluto at this meeting, others vowed to reaffirm that astronomy is for everybody, and is everywhere and anywhere you can see the sky,day or night. Some even proclaimed that they’d make it their mission to help anyone who wished to have the opportunity to peer through a telescope at a star, the Sun, Moon or a planet.

I was at that meeting,and thought it was a terrific idea. No, not demoting Pluto, but the IYA. I remember asking myself, how can The National Air and Space Museum contribute to this wonderful goal? The Washington Mall is not the best place to view the night sky, or the day sky for that matter. But it is where the people are – people of every shape, size, gender, persuasion. It’s one thing to get people to go where telescopes are, but its quite another to bring telescopes to the people. John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk astronomers know that. So I took a tip from them and decided to build a public telescope on a Washington sidewalk, or as close as the Fine Arts Commission and the National Capitol Planning Commission would allow. Thus was born the Public Observatory Project at the National Air and Space Museum.

POP’s goal is to put a high-end fully professional telescope where the people are. These will be people who are not looking for a telescope to look through. No, these are the millions of people who come to Washington, to the Mall, to find themselves and their heritage. Encountering a telescope in the process, a big one in a visible white dome, one that can show you celestial sights of all sorts, will be a surprise for some, hopefully a delight to all. A modest value-added experience to what is a lifetime pilgrimage for many Americans.

This had been a dream of mine for years, before anyone spoke of the IYA. I fantasized turning any one of the many domes on the Mall into an observatory. The Capitol dome! Natural History’s rotunda! The National Gallery rotunda! Why, even the Washington Monument would make a great mounting for a gigantic aerial telescope tube or a super heliostat. Why not put a dome on the Hirshhorn, and stick a telescope inside? The Mall has its monuments. What it needs is a portal, a portal to the universe. Many years ago, George Ellery Hale had this dream. When he built the National Academy, he installed a small solar telescope in the rotunda. It’s still there. Maybe someone will clean it up and open it for the public someday But the Smithsonian can’t tell the National Academy what it should do. No, I had to work from strength.

01 - Cook Dome - ORO- 6-11-08 Last spring I was invited to inspect the Oak Ridge Observatory built by Harvard in the 1930s and sustained by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory since the 1980s. It’s many small and medium-sized telescopes had been modified countless times, and many of them contributed significantly to knowledge in astronomy. It was closed down in 2005, a victim of changing priorities in astronomy as the combined Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics pursued its world-class programs in Arizona, in Hawaii, at the South Pole, and in space. I inspected the site, in Harvard, Massachusetts, just west of Concord, with Sara Schechner, curator of scientific instruments at Harvard. We found many priceless gems: Henry Draper’s 11-inch three-element Clark photographic refractor telescope from 1880, the first to be used to photograph a nebula. It was painted a flat, almost pastel red, in memory of its last observing site in Jamaica before World War I. There were three “super-Schmidt” meteor cameras, there were Metcalf astrographs from Harvard’s many observing stations, and there was the famous 61-inch Wyeth reflector, the largest astronomical telescope east of the Mississippi. All of them were closed down, rusty and dusty, neglected in their dilapidated and leaky observing chambers. But there was one telescope, a lovely blue and white Boller & Chivens 16-inch telescope from 1967, sitting in a secure dome and 100 percent intact, still operating, but without portfolio. Kept running, clean and shiny, by the observatory technician, Joe Zajac, it stood there ready to be used. All one had to do was open the dome, throw a few switches, and kick out the animals.

But for me, the stars were finally in alignment.The spirit of the IYA, a museum and observatory staff that appreciated the value of an active astronomy outreach program, and the perfect telescope to do it with, all came together. I camped out at the National Science Foundation until, late in the fall, after a peer-review process and favorable reviews by the Fine Arts Commission, the National Capitol Planning Commission and the DC Historical Commission, we were given the green light.

This was not my first experience building an observatory. But it was unlike any I encountered in the past. The process is still unfolding, and it is a journey of discovery, some frustration (it is Washington, after all), but most of all, elation and joy. I teamed up with Frank Florentine, the Museum’s tenacious project manager who brought to completion, under budget, our highly successful Explore the Universe gallery in 2001. POP is in many ways for me an extension of ETU, and as with ETU, POP’s success will depend upon capturing the hearts and minds of the talented craftsmen and engineers at the Smithsonian. Many have joined in, including Joe Zajac and Alison Doane of Harvard, Rebecca Kokinda, Steve Sumner and Andy Fernandez of SI’s OFEO team. More are joining up as the work continues, including exhibition specialists, designers, educators, security staff, special events, development and administration officials.

So here are a few images and videos from the process thus far, with captions not approved by the Exhibits Department script editor, but straight from my heart. As the process continues, we’ll add images and commentary.


March 10 2009 – Harvard Massachusetts

Frank, Stephanie and I spent the day with Joe Zajac removing the primary and secondary mirror cells and packing them up. We also did a preliminary inventory and inspection of the site.

02 - Stephanie inspecting telescope 3-10-09

Stephanie inspecting the telescope’s front end, where the secondary mirror support system is visible. The mirror system is remotely focusable, but there are additional encoders to mark the position of the mirror which may be removed.

03 - Joe and Frank removing Mirror Cell 3-10-09

Joe (L) and Frank (R) position the lowering system to remove the heavy mirror cell.


March 12

Delayed one day by rain, the crane and crew arrive on the 12th and commence removing the telescope section by section.

04 - strapping tube 3-12-09

The tube was first to be removed. It weighed less than 100 lbs after the mirror cell and secondary support system were remove. There were some difficulties figuring out how to remove the tube from the polar axis housing since the tube sat on a adjustment block. That block was totally documented.

05 - removing tube 3-12-09

Smooth operation – up up and away!

06 Removing Polar Axis 3-12-09

Next step – removing the polar axis, a very heavy, complex form that included the declination axis and all drive, set and slew mechanisms, as well as electrical connections. All had to be removed and documented.

07 Joe inside pier loosening bolts

The trickiest part of the process was loosening and then removing the dozen bolts holding the polar axis to the base. When Joe (inside the pier), got down to the last bolt it was clear there was great strain on the bolt. The strapping was then adjusted until the strain was removed allowing the bolt to be extracted easily.

08 polar axis removed successfully

And the polar axis housing floated away with no rotation or swinging.

09 remaining sole plate

After the removal of the base, which was straightforward, we were left with evaluating what it would take to remove the last remaining piece, the sole plate. It had by design been placed into the concrete when the telescope was installed, and also had three elbow-shaped bolts embedded to a depth of at least a foot in the concrete. There was no chance of removal without damage to the plate.

10 ready to roll

So all the components were packed up and the truck was ready to roll by 2:30 p.m. A really smooth operation.


March 17th at the National Air and Space Museum

11 - arrival at NASM 3-17-09

All the components arrived and were moved into an empty gallery 113. Inspection began the following week. No damage or loss.


Week of March 20th

12 - NASM site 13 - site prep NASM 3-22-09

Site preparation actually begins on the Museum’s street level terrace, south of McDonald’s just east of the main building. Chain link fencing will allow all stages of construction to be visible to passersby on Independence Avenue, and in the restaurant.

Dr. David DeVorkin is a curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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15 thoughts on “International Year of Astronomy Public Observatory Project at The National Air and Space Museum

  1. Great article, David. I enjoyed your mention of all the domed buildings of DC that could host telescopes. If it were up to you, the tip of the Washington Memorial would be flattened to accomodate an observatory!

  2. I saw the construction site and assumed it was a fountain! How thrilling to find signage this morning that it is in fact a public observatory instead. What an awesome idea.

  3. David,
    You didn’t mention that Harvard had commemorated the Boller & Chivens/Observatory to Chester Cook of Lexington,MA.
    ‘Chet’ as we called him was observatory optician, participated in the secret war project under Harvard Stadium, taught piano in his home, and was Director of the Observatory Philharmonic Orchestra.
    He was a past president of the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston and frequently came down to our workshop to pass on the quality of telescope mirrors made by struggling beginners.
    Chet passed away in 1964 at a time when Oak Ridge was known as the Agassiz Research Station of HCO.
    He maintained an optical shop in his basement at 16 Belfry Terrace and had set up a polishing machine that polished away while he was teaching a piano student. He would have to interrupt the class and run downstairs to add some polishing compound when the lap began squealing.
    ATMoB, ATS

  4. I think this is a very good use for this large telescope; much better than having it rust away at Oak Ridge Observatory. Congratulations on your persistence with the institutional bureaucracy in D.C. in finally getting a public observatory in our nation’s capital (there is the Naval Obs, but it is far from the beaten path of downtown).

  5. Thanks Paul – quite right. We also recovered the Cook plaque and it will be placed on the west side of the pier of the telescope, welcoming visitors. In the process of determining the history of the telescope, we looked into how and why it was dedicated to Cook. When the smoke clears here (we are about to have first light) I’ll prepare a blog post telling the story. Meanwhile, I’d welcome information from ATMs.

  6. We’re almost there! Informal first light at the end of next week, then full public opening in two to three weeks.

  7. Oak Ridge is a wonderful site, not that far from Boston, and it would be great to restore it someday for public enjoyment. And the telescope was in great shape, thanks to Joe Zajac and other SAO staff. We are delighted to have the use of this lovely telescope – in the spirit of the IYA, we are putting a telescope where the people are!

  8. Sadly, the Observatory remains closed for maintenance relating to excessive water under the floor and the adverse effects it causes. We are pushing to clean it up and re-open as soon as possible. Please bear with us.

    On the positive side, the education staff have been setting up small portable telescopes on the terrace near the front entrance to the Museum every clear day. Over the last two days they’ve snagged a spectacular prominence that we’ve submitted to the museum’s blog — we hope it will appear in a timely manner.

    Late this afternoon they and volunteers also set up the telescopes for a Science Night at the Museum, observing the very thin crescent moon well before sunset. The kids were delighted.

    Lets hope the dome will open soon so that everyone can once again enjoy the fantastic Cookle Memorial Telescope from Harvard.


  9. The idea of a celestial sphere is not new. Our early ancestors believed that Earth was the centre of the universe, and that the stars and other celestial objects were points of light attached to a vast crystal sphere, with Earth at its centre, which rotated in such a way that the stars seemed to move from east to west during the course of a night. In our enlightened age we scoff at this idea, yet it remains a very useful model of the night sky.

  10. Pingback: At Washington, D.C. | a history of Boller and Chivens

  11. Pingback: What if They Let YOU Run the Hubble? | Free Astronomy Articles & Videos

  12. Hope to visit some year. Glad to see the scope is being used for so many wonderful ways to engage and to preserve a great scope.

  13. Our Boy Scout troop from the neighboring town of Boxborough visited this telescope in December 2002 for a nice introductory visit. I also had friends who worked at the now closed Oak Ridge/Agassiz Station. Glad to see this telescope found a good home.

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