Above & Beyond: It’s All Sawdust and Mirrors

Above & Beyond: It’s All Sawdust and Mirrors

Still life with telescope, feline, and feet. Even the National Air and Space Museum uses a Dobsonian telescope to show visitors the sun. (Phil Scott)

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I began building in earnest that Saturday and worked straight through Sunday afternoon, gluing and nailing the plywood pieces together, none of which lined up because in my usual careless rush, I’d cut them out-of-square. They were thinner than the directions called for, but Murnaghan said I could build the thing out of cardboard if I wanted. It needed feet to stand on, so I went dumpster-diving for a piece of 1 x 2 wood. It called for holes larger than the two drill bits I had, so I used smaller bolts than the plans called for. When I ran out of new nails, I scrounged up bent ones from a junk drawer and straightened them. The only time I proceeded with great care and precision was mounting the optics in the tube.

Once again I called Murnaghan.

“Did you find the directions in the box?”

“The ones that say ‘Do not ever look at the sun with this telescope?’ ”

“That’s the one.” One page contained the calculations for determining the distance between the screw holes for the primary and secondary mirrors, which turned out to be 41.25 inches.

My largest drill bit didn’t make a big enough hole for the eyepiece, so I enlarged it with a box cutter. Directions called for a rotating base, which swiveled on a Formica square or an album, which meant sacrificing Leo Sayer’s Endless Flight. The last part: two round bearings necessary to adjust the tube vertically. I liberated the training wheels from a Spiderman bike someone had tossed in the garbage. Once I nailed those into place, I was done. There were pencil marks and calculations written on the plywood, flat black fingerprints on the yellow Quik-Tube, and all over the floor were undersize screws and nails, sawdust, and a spilled glass of iced coffee. But I was done.

I set it up and waited until dark. Using only the eyepiece, I tried to find something to look at other than the apartment complex across the street. I spotted three stars, but the image seemed blurry, about as stunning as the first views from Hubble before the initial repair mission to fix the optics. Disappointed, I plugged paper in both ends of the tube and put it away.

The next day I asked Murnaghan if I’d gotten it right, because it was a clear night and I saw only the three stars.

“Was the background gray?”


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