Sunday, February 28, 2010


Celestron: The Middle Years

Hokay, where was we? Oh, yeah. The former Celestron Pacific, who were by this time calling themselves “Celestron International,” I believe, had just come through the Halley madness, which had pretty much wrecked their quality (and that of their competitor). They’d built too many scopes too quickly, and while they did introduce some interesting products during this time, it was pretty obvious the company needed to do some serious rebuilding.

The problem wasn’t so much the telescopes themselves. Celestron’s late 80s line was purty reasonable. They had kept the Super C8 Plus around, but were in the process of transitioning to more modern scopes designed to compete with Meade’s fancy LX3 and LX5. The Powerstar C8 (which went through several iterations) seems plain vanilla today, but at the time was something of a revolution: you didn’t need a drive corrector anymore (a special kind of DC/AC inverter, sprouts). The Powerstars could be powered by 12 volts. Or, if you didn’t want to lug a big external battery around, a handful of AA cells would do the job. Way, way cool we thought.

What was the problem? QA, which had become practically nonexistent, was part of it. Another part of it was Celestron’s owner, Diethelm. In the first years after the Celestron purchase, it seemed as if they might take a hands-off approach. That turned out to be far from the case. Following the death of the Diethelm chairman who’d driven the buy, the company seemed to grow ever more dissatisfied, and began foolish tinkering and micro-management. Not only did they dismiss Alan Hale, replacing him with a person with little or no knowledge about or feel for the business, they began a continuing policy of downsizing technical employees. Not only was Alan Hale gone, Diethelm had more or less severed relations with Tom Johnson. When the dust settled at the end of the 1980s, there was no one left to lead Celestron out of the wilderness.

The post Halley amateur astronomy recession was probably more of a problem for Celestron than it should have been. In other words, a lot of their troubles were of their own making. Those particular troubles stemmed from Diethelm’s lack of experience in the astronomy/telescope game combined with a basic misapprehension about the business. The Swiss brigade never glommed onto the fact that Celestron was a niche business, and that astronomy and (amateur quality) telescopes would never turn their investment into the next General Electric. The Diethelm folks convinced themselves Celestron could be making more money—a lot more—if only those dadgummed idjits in California would straighten up and fly right.

Cold, hard reality? Celestron’s new management had, by the end of the Halley affair, not only driven off the tremendously knowledgeable people who’d formed the core competence of the company’s management and workforce, they’d gone a long way toward pissing-off Celestron’s dealers and destroying the dealer network Alan Hale and his compadres had worked so hard to establish.

None of the above was the crushing blow, though. The crushing below was that management had absolutely no idea where they stood financially—not really. As far as they were concerned, things were great. At the end of Halley, the company had a huge backlog of orders, some thirty million buckeroos worth; enough to keep ‘em going for a long time. The ground truth, though? That was cloud-coo-coo-land stuff. Celestron’s management only thought they had thirty million dollars in their pockets.

In the initial days of the comet craze, there was no way Celestron could keep up with orders, even though they’d added about 100 production workers to the Line. That being the case, Alan Hale’s successor very foolishly instituted an idiotic system of rationing. “You, Mr. Dealer, want ten telescopes? We will give you one right now; we’ll supply the balance later.” Apparently Celestron’s management was too dim to realize that, rather than lose sales, the dealers would just order one-hundred scopes to get the ten they needed. Once the dealer had the ten, they’d cancel the rest. Which they did in droves when the bottom fell out of the scope market.

This was near about enough to drive the company under. Management assumed all these orders were a genuine reflection of market conditions, and began purchasing parts from their suppliers. Those folks didn’t care pea-turkey about how many future orders Celestron might or might not have; they simply wanted to be paid now. Combine that pressure with the lean amateur astronomy market, and you get the whole, grim picture. Luckily, for one of the few times in the 18 years Diethelm owned Celestron, they did something right. They rehired Alan Hale.

And not a moment too soon. Not only was Celestron’s newly acquired poor reputation for quality being bruited around in amateur newsletters, before all was said and done there was even some words about it in the big astronomy magazines. Once Hale had a chance to look around and get the drift of the way things was going, I’m guessing he was chilled to the bone at how far the company had sunk. The most critical and pressing difficulty? The key to making SCTs, Celestron’s “master blocks” (see last week’s entry), had been used and abused to the point where they were completely worn out. Worse, the people capable of making new master blocks had been laid-off. There was no choice but to shut down production temporarily.

Hale persuaded the corporate Honchos that the only person who could get the company back on its feet vis-à-vis the vital master blocks was the Man himself, the often out-spoken Tom Johnson. Tom was brought back in, fabricated new master blocks, trained new personnel in that delicate art, and in a surprisingly short period of time telescopes were rolling out the doors again. Which was maybe just the start of bringing the company back from the brink. Frankly, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Celestron began to regain the confidence of rank and file amateurs.

The blush had been off the Celestron rose for Diethelm for some years, and as the scope business continued to founder at the end of the 1980s, various parties considered what seemed to be the perfect solution. You had two small, struggling companies, Celestron and Meade. Why not combine ‘em? This had been considered before, but the stumbling block was always the Gubmint, who was firmly of the opinion that having only one U.S. company making SCTs was what you call “a monopoly.” The Meadetron solution denied to ‘em, both companies continued to stumble along. Well, Celestron did, anyway. Salvation, brothers and sisters, was at hand for the Meadesters.

I won’t beat around the bush with y’all; the saving of Meade came not in the form of LX6es or Premiers, two interesting telescopes, but in the shape of the legendary LX200 “Classic.” The curious thing is that Celestron had been there first, nearly five years before the LX200 revolution changed amateur astronomy forever. Yep, at the height of the Halley insanity Celestron released the first ever commercial computerized-go-to Schmidt Cassegrains.

I’m not sure who came up with the idea of a computerized scope at Celestron, but whoever that was, they are to be saluted. Yeah, I know not many folks remember the Compustars, and even fewer realize they were pretty good telescopes. At the very least, they were a signpost pointing in the direction the telescope industry would be going over the next two decades. If it accomplished nothing else, the Compustar project at least allowed one brilliant dude, Mike Simmons, to show what he could do with the (relatively) primitive computers of the day when they were hooked to C8s, C11s, and C14s.

If you want more in-depth on the Compustar, let me refer you to my Used CAT Buyer’s Guide and to this outstanding web page. The doggoned executive summary, though, is that Celestron contracted Mr. Simmons and his company, ATI, to help produce a line of robotic SCTs. He did just that, and they worked OK considerin’ this was mostly new ground bein’ broken. Those who remember the C-stars at all mostly remember ‘em as a relatively short-lived line of scopes. Not true. Celestron kept selling them for nearly a decade. They just didn’t sell many of ‘em.

Why not? The main impediment was price. The Compustar 8 listed for an unbelievable 6,500 1980s simoleons. I don’t reckon Celestron ever actually sold any for that much, and eventually they did away with the ridiculous “manufacturer’s list price” nonsense, but this was still an insanely expensive C8 for the time (or now)—try $3500.00. Need more aperture? Howsabout a nice Compustar 14? Bring your checkbook and prepare to write a bigun. The list price was a nutty $22,000, nearly in C22 territory. Sure, the actual selling price was “only” about ten grand, but who had that? Some were sold, mainly to colleges, but not many, not many, muchachos.

There’s no use reaching for the rose colored glasses, either. While the Compustars worked OK, they were not perfect. Given their computer “horsepower” or lack thereof, they, like the early digital setting circle computers, needed a close polar alignment for anything approaching go-to accuracy. And they were power hungry. And they could be cantankerous. You can find a full rundown on the scopes’ faux pas in the Used Guide.

Despite these things, those I’ve used, including a beautifully maintained Compustar 14 I saw in action at one Texas Star Party, can still impress with their build quality, and even, in the right hands, their utility. If only Celestron had been able to get the price down. And continue development. But they didn’t. They had had enough. Meade bought out ATI, and shortly Mr. Simmon’s pie-in-the-sky go-to ideas had given birth to a reasonably acceptably priced, reasonably easy to use, and reasonably accurate scope, the LX200. Before long, he and Meade had turned those “reasonables” into “verys.”

Which meant what for the Torrance Gang? I’ll be honest with y’all, when I remember the Celestron of the 1990s, I tend to recall the ugly advertisements they ran in the astronomy magazines in the first part of that decade. Usually these monochrome/color tinted messterpieces hawked everything except what they should have been hawking. Judging by these things, you’d a-got the idea all Celestron had to offer was red flashlights and cheap Plössls. But that would hardly be the whole story. No, Celestron did NOT come up with an LX200 killer until the decade was out, but they did market some excellent products, nevertheless.

Take the Ultima 8. In the early 1990s, your old Uncle Rod was, like Alan Hale and company, coming off a stretch of bad years. I’d just been divorced. From a woman who, while I won’t say she couldn’t have been any more alien to me if she’d come from Zeta Reticuli II (she no doubt felt the same about moi), was not the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. That person was the brightest star in this astronomer’s sky, the lovely Miss Dorothy. With my life back in order, it was time to replace the Super C8 Plus I’d had to sell.

I am mostly known as “a Celestron man,” but I’ve always liked Meade scopes, too. Hell, I absolutely adore my li’l ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine. When I went shopping, I kept an open mind, seriously considering the LX200. I had been mucho impressed by the 10-inch model a fellow club member had bought when they came out in ’92, but I was skittish. All them electronics…and the computer stuff…why did I need go-to, anyhow? I’d eventually change that tune, but not for nearly a decade. For the moment I just wanted a traditional SCT.

I looked at everything that could possibly fit that description from 2080s, to Powerstars, to LX100s (see the Used Guide if you ain’t heard of that one). I settled on a Celestron, their Ultima 8, screwed my courage and my checkbook to the sticking point, and pulled the trigger with the good folks at Astronomics.

I still sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t have chosen the LX200—which cost only a tad more than the U8; both were at about 2 grand once you laid-on all the fixings. When I really ponder that, though, I come to the conclusion that I made the right choice. I had been bitten by the astrophotography bug for the second time, and the Ultima, which is still known as the “astrophotographer’s scope,” allowed me to make more progress in imaging than I ever had before.

What made the Ultima so good for pitcher taking? A huge and heavy fork, a DC powered drive that would run for nights and nights on a 9-volt bat’ry, PEC (Celestron was there first), Byers gears, excellent optics, and a host of other upscale features, the exact nature of which varied a bit over the scope’s long run. Seeing that they had a pretty good hit with the Ultima 8, Celestron introduced a C11 and a C9.25 version. These were good scopes, too, but, since they used the same drivebase as the U8, they were never quite as stable as the initial Ultima.

And how about the 9.25 (or 9 ¼ if you prefer)? When that bunny rabbit hopped outa Celestron’s shops in 1996, it became the first new OTA the company had introduced since the C11. If all it hadda been was just a scope intermediate in size between the 8-inch and the 11-inch, there wouldn’t have been much fuss. It was more. In addition to the new aperture, Celestron had slightly altered their tried and true CAT formula, slowing down the 9.25’s primary speed to about f/2.3. That meant the tube had to be a little longer. But it also meant the secondary could be a little smaller.

The 9.25 soon gained a rather legendary reputation for goodness, which it retains to this day. When it first came out, the word began to spread that this telescope was something special. The nature of that “something special” ranged from the ridiculous (“She's gotta PARABOLIC MIRROR!”) to the sublime (Best doggoned planetary performance I’ve ever seen in an SCT.”). The telescope was not magic, and it did not stray from the standard Celestron SCT optical design in any way but the focal ratio of its primary, but it was and is one hell of a CAT.

In addition to offering the new nine-iron on the Ultima fork, Celestron also sold it in a configuration that reflected one of the company’s new tactics: “We can’t compete with the LX200 for gee-whiz; instead, we’ll focus on the high-end amateur market, the astrophotographers, with high-quality German mounts.” And they did just that, though not on their own. Celestron contracted with Scott Losmandy and his Hollywood General Machining to sell G11 and GM8 packages that featured 8, 9.25, 11, and 14-inch Celestron OTAs.

How did that work? Right well. Medium-rank astrophotographers and other “advanced” amateurs liked the Losmandy mounts as well back then as they do now, two decades down the line. The only downcheck was that Celestron replaced the GM8’s standard tripod with an el-cheapo of their own devising (or buying). Like all the extruded aluminum tripods telescopes was saddled with in the 1990s, it wasn’t that hot. Sufficient, though. Celestron could probably still be sellin’ Losmandy – Celestron packages to this day.

They ain’t, though. Before the 1990s was out, they’d severed their relationship with Losmandy. As far as I can tell, this was a mutual thing. Losmandy couldn’t supply mounts, apparently, in the numbers Celestron wanted, and Celestron, apparently, thought they could cut down on the overhead with a comparable GEM design of their own. The Celestron CI-700 is not usually considered quite as good as a G11, but it is close. It even features, I’m told, at least some Losmandy-made components.

But you know something? All that “high quality GEM” stuff was, as every telescope crazy boy and girl of the 1990s knew, just avoidin’ the elephant in the living room. That elephantine telescope was, of course, the LX200. Which was eating Celestron alive. Ever’body figgered they’d do something, that they’d have to. In 1995, CAT fanciers began to hear Celestron was on the move go-to wise. The new telescope, which would, we heard, be called the “Ultima 2000,” would be a CAT of a new type. Not only would it have go-to and Celestron’s new wide-field “Fastar” imaging system, it would have a drive system better than any SCT had ever had. It would, instead of gears, use a clutch based/no locks roller drive system that would reduce periodic error to near zero.

Man, how we waited with bated breath for this thing to hit the magazine ads. And waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, in 1996, the Ultima 2000 rolled out. When she did, she was both more and less than we’d expected. One extra I hadn’t heard rumors about was that the telescope used separate motors and encoders. Which meant you could go-to align the puppy, grab the tube, and push it to anywhere in the sky without losing your computer alignment. The less? While the telescope retained the no-RA/dec-locks design, the roller drive idea had been scrapped in favor of a standard Byers worm drive like that of the Ultima 8.

What was the scope like? I’m lucky in that my university purchased one, and I’ve had fairly extensive on-hands experience. It’s a nice scope. Light, but reasonably steady. The push-to feature is occasionally very cool. The optics are good. The go-to slewing is surprisingly fast. In some ways, it’s surprising the U2K was such a dud. It didn’t sell very well, and slowly faded away. Company 7 kept running Ultima 2000 11-inch “coming soon” blurbs for years, but never a U2K C11 did we see.

What killed the U2K? One of the things that appealed to LX200 purchasers was that, while not exactly an imaging powerhouse, it was quite useable for astrophotography. The Ultima 2000? Not so much. Though it cost about the same as the Meade, it was a lot harder to get going for imaging. The main reason being the clutches. You had to fiddle-fool with them and balance weights when you put a camera or any heavy payload on the scope. If you didn’t, go-to accuracy would suffer badly, and the scope would have a tendency to move of its own accord when the clutches slipped. That nice light mount tended to be just a wee bit light for serious picture taking, too.

Since the Ultima 2000’s raison d’être was that it would be a go-to champ, we were anxious to hear how it did in that regard. Its go-to accuracy was OK, but not much more than that. An LX200 could potentially put targets on the chips of the day’s small CCD cameras; the best the U2K could do was put your object in the field of a 26mm eyepiece. Maybe. Sending the scope on go-tos wasn’t that pleasant, either. The Ultima 2000’s hand controller looks more like a digital setting circle rig than anything else. And, like a Tangent DSC (Tangent made lotsa the U2K’s guts), a few small buttons served multiple purposes. Once you learn the Ultima 2000 HC, it’s nice. But until you do, or if you don’t use the scope for a while, you are left scratching your head about which minute pushbutton you are supposed to mash.

If the failure of the Ultima 2000—and it was that, at least as viable competition for the LX200—wasn’t depressing enough for Celestron fans, in 1998 we heard other big changes, and not good ones, were on the way. It seemed as how cotton-pickin’ Diethelm had well and truly had enough. They wanted to sell Celestron. That didn’t sound like a bad idea, certainly Celestron had been in better shape in the pre-Swiss days as far as me and my fellow Bubbas could tell. But then the other shoe dropped: the buyer was that notorious importer of department store horror-scopes, TASCO.

Damn. Hate to leave y’all with another Celestron-on-the-ropes cliffhanger, but we are once again at the far end of this week’s blog. I promise we’ll wrap of Fifty Years of Celestron in one more installment.

What’s going down at the Old Manse, at Chaos Manor South? Not one hell of a lot. It’s cold and the Moon is back. A new/old scope, a wee 90mm, came to visit this weekend, and if all goes as planned, it may become a permanent resident of the Massive Equipment Vault. If so, you will hear all about it next time.

Plugeroo department: Read Unk's review of SkyTools 3 in the April 2010 issue of Sky and Telescope!

Looks like a very sturdy telescope. Glad you've shared it.
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