It’s a hot afternoon in north Texas. oppressive humidity. Bright sunshine. Lots of bugs. After droning on for miles down a series of wide, lonely highways, we stop off for lunch at a local truck stop, our eyeglasses instantly fogging up as we climb out of our S.U.V. and drop down onto the dry dirt parking lot.
Inside, we grab a table and continue talking about the sublime pleasures of looking at the night sky through a handmade, 24-inch-diameter telescope. We’re likely the only ones in this particular restaurant talking about stars, galaxies, nebulas, and globular clusters. In fact, we’re drawing glances. But Barry Smith, pipe always in hand, is an irrepressible sort, and the idea of showing off his pride and joy—the telescope he and 11 other big-thinking Texans spent over a decade designing, building, and perfecting—keeps him rolling exuberantly along amid the stern-faced truckers chowing down chicken-fried steak. Besides, Smith is the kind of guy who in 30 seconds could persuade these fellows to join us later for an evening under the stars.
Right now he’s focused on getting his guests pumped up about tonight’s viewing. He brags about the telescope’s f/16 focal ratio, which determines the scale and quality of its images. (A focal ratio is a function of the mirror’s shape and the length of the path the light travels after entering the instrument. A ratio of f/16 means that path is 16 times the mirror’s diameter.) “There’s magic at f/16,” says Smith, jabbing his pipe stem toward us. “That’s what our mirror designer said when we were designing the scope, and he was right. The images through this thing are so bright and so large. M57? Oh my God—it fills the field of view!”
Smith, who sells business jets for a living, is the de facto leader of a group of well-heeled amateur astronomers—doctors, engineers, and computer scientists among them—who decided a little more than a decade ago to pool their resources and build themselves an observatory. After years of site-scouting, countless weekend trips from the Dallas-Fort Worth area for construction efforts, many hours in the metal shop, and an investment of over $125,000, the group created the Lone Star Observatory, one of the finest ever built by amateurs—and among the first of the amateur observatories to be completely computer-controlled.
We leave the truck stop and continue our journey, eventually crossing the state line into southern Oklahoma and entering the final leg, five miles of bumpy dirt road. Finally, we pull up to a 200- by 200-foot compound surrounded by a 10-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Inside are two buildings, one a small windowless rectangle and the other round and capped with a bright white dome.
Smith started seeking partners for the venture in the late 1980s among the customers of a small astronomy equipment shop he owned. “At the time I didn’t really have the money,” says Jack Hudler, a computer scientist, “but the project was so terribly interesting. He wanted to build an observatory, with a whole dome, in its own building—I love that kind of project. Then he pushed my button when he said he wanted to computerize it. That really hadn’t been done before by amateurs.”
The group began meeting to plan the project, and one thing quickly led to another. “We started out wanting to build a Volkswagen, and we ended up with a Mercedes,” Smith says. “Each of us put in $3,000, and as we got farther and farther into the planning, we realized there were more and more things that we wanted. We would vote on something, it would pass, and we’d all put in more money.” They agreed early on, for example, that they all wanted a separate clubhouse, with bunks, a kitchen and bath, and a living area in which they could come in to relax and cool off or warm up, since the observatory would have no climate control—telescopes need to be the same temperature as the outside environment, or air currents (warm air mixing with cool) will distort the images. They also wanted the scope to be a premium instrument with a rock-solid mount and a large-diameter mirror. The larger the mirror, the more light a telescope will collect and the brighter, more detailed the images in its eyepiece will be. Then, of course, there would be the computerization, the motorized dome, and a site far away from city lights to ensure dark skies.
While we wait for those dark skies to come, other members—Hudler, Jean Walker, Gary Mueller, and John Louden—straggle in. Some enter the clubhouse to go over star charts, read astronomy magazines, and catch up on one another’s lives; others go to the dome to test the computers and get out all the eyepieces. (The optics in an eyepiece determine the magnification of the object in view. For Mars, which occupies a tiny point in the sky, higher magnification is desirable; for a nebula that spreads out over a large area, astronomers choose an eyepiece with lower magnification in order to see the entire object.) With its small air conditioner working hard—it is clearly going to be needed throughout the night—the clubhouse is a cool, dim environment. Astrophotos and star maps hang on the walls, and the refrigerator in the galley kitchen is stocked with sodas and snacks.
Walker, a former political science professor who now describes herself as a “full-time volunteer,” says she joined the group to have access to a large and sophisticated telescope. “Seeing the Whirlpool Galaxy for the first time in the telescope took my breath away,” she says, clasping her hands together. “And I haven’t lost any of that first experience. It’s there every time.”
Smith adds that trips to the observatory can soothe frayed nerves. “On a bad day, you can drive up here and stay for just two hours,” he says. “There’s something about getting out here for a little while—what you’re worrying about just ain’t very damn important. You can calm down and just relax.”