Sunday, March 07, 2010

 

This is the End, My Friend

And that’s OK. The story of Celestron has always been one of near-death experiences and periodic rebirth and renewal. They are still here and are still selling reasonably priced telescopes that make a lot of amateurs happy. Telescopes that hearken back to the company’s genesis in the golden 1960s. What more do ya want? But I’m getting ahead of myself, ain’t I? When we left off last time...

Celestron had just weathered the post-Halley telescope depression, if only by the skin of their teeth and with the help of company old timers like Tom Johnson and Alan Hale. The 1990s saw some advances and some cool products like the Ultima 2000, but, to be honest, Celestron was not competing well with Meade. They had not found a way to crack the LX200 nut. That may have had more to do with their owner, the Swiss company Diethelm, than with Celestron’s technological savvy. The Swiss had lost interest the telescope business after the Halley folderol and fiddle-dee-dee. The Gubmint had said “no way” to Celestron’s and Meade’s proposed merger, but Diethelm still wanted to divest themselves of Celestron as soon as they could find another buyer. Any buyer.

Find one they did, if not till 1998. Imagine the scene, younguns: it’s a quiet, if cloudy, evening. Unk Rod is sipping a glass of…err… “sarsaparilla” and watching the latest thrilling episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the phone rings. Normally, Miss D. and I let the answerin’ machine pick-up. On this night, though, somethin’ told me I’d better take the call. Turned out to be one of Unk’s friends in the astro-gear bidness:

“You heard yet?

“Heard?”

“Yeah, about Tasco buying Celestron.”

“WHAT THE FRACK?!”

Fired up the PC, logged onto the (late, lamented) sci.astro.amateur bulletin board, and saw a passel of messages saying the same thing. Celestron, our beloved Celestron, had been bought out by the notorious Tasco, longtime purveyor of department store trash-o-scopes. Had to be a joke, just HAD to be. Didn’t it? It did not, as I was soon to confirm.

Like my fellow Celestron fans, I tried to put the best face on the whole darned deal. Tasco? They really weren’t that bad, were they? They hadn’t been that bad before the comet, had they? Actually, they hadn't been. If you’d like to learn a bit more about a company many amateurs think they know a lot about, but really don’t, you might have a gander at my blog entry from some time back, “The Good Tasco.” I suppose it’s enough to say here that the company George Rosenfield started back in the fifties, and which became the major U.S. importer (never maker) of telescopes, brought in some wonderful instruments over its first twenty years or so of life. Big and wonderful names like Royal Optical and Goto and Vixen. Not all Tasco telescopes were good, but many were. Very.

Tasco continued to offer good telescopes into the 1980s, though some folks will tell you what they were bringing in by the 80s wasn’t as hot as what they’d sold in the 60s and 70s. Tasco quality didn’t begin to go to hell until—yep, you guessed it—Halley. By the 90s, they were peddling the cheapest Taiwanese and, then, Mainland Chinese junk they could get their paws on. The reason for that, in addition to the rising cost of Japanese gear by the end of the 1980s, probably had something to do with the 1996 retirement of Tasco’s founder. Anyhoo, there is little doubt that, by the time of the Celestron buy, Tasco was selling some of the most execrable Telescopes ever to bear that company’s—or, anybody’s—name.

Like many of us who’d bought Celestron SCTs and followed the company over the past thirty years, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. A feeling not helped by a question I got at the first star party I attended after the Tasco news got out: “Hey Unk! How’s yout T8 doin? You know, your TASCO 8!” We put up with a lot of slings and arrows from the Meade brigade. Yeah, yeah, I know, “sticks and stones,” but I could only imagine what Tasco would do to Celestron, and began thinking about jumping ship. I figgered it was time I considered going go-to, and had near-about decided the telescope to do that with would be a Blue Tube. I’d wait and see, sure, but I had little doubt the Miami based 60x600 bunch had evil in their hearts.

It appeared I was wrong about that, though; at first, anyhow. Over the first two years of the Tasco Regime, it seemed, at least to us outsiders, that all was rosy at Celestron. Certainly, it was not like what’s written on Company 7’s Celestron history page, that Celestron was “Tascoized.” In some ways, the company did better during the Tasco years than it had during the whole previous decade. The company seemed to be operating in standalone mode, and, most important, they began to release some cool products again. The first of which was the latest incarnation of the vaunted C5 SCT, the NexStar 5. I’d purty much given up on Celestron and go-to, given the U2K’s not exactly earthshaking debut. That changed when I was floored by a one-two punch starting with the NS5.

The NexStar 5 wasn’t a downsized Ultima 2000. It was new and different from the ground up. The Tangent DSC box-like hand control was gone, replaced by an HC more like the Autostar controller the brothers and sisters at Meade had come forth with in ’99. Not only was the NS HC more capable and user friendly than the U2K rig, it looked a lot better. Modern. Very modern. In fact, the whole package was striking, with the little CAT looking like she’d be right at home on the bridge of Captain John Luc Picard’s Enterprise. When Celestron followed up with a NexStar 8, it ‘peared to this old boy that, Tasco or no Tasco, everything was coming up roses for the little ol’ telescope company from Torrance.

And that’s the way it was for a while. Celestron seemed to go from strength to strength, with their spate of new product introductions culminating in a telescope that was, finally, well and truly the LX200 killer they’d sought for so long. Not only were the NexStar GPS scopes, which included an 8-inch, a 9.25-inch, and an 11-inch beautiful, they had GPS. The Global Positioning System, way high-tech for the time, coupled with the telescopes’ built-in electronic compasses and level sensors, meant these hound-dogs practically go-to aligned themselves. And they had carbon fiber tubes. And even more advanced hand controllers than the initial NexStars. Suddenly, the LX200 began to look very, very old. The amateur astronomy public just loved—and still loves—the NS GPS SCTs. Surely Celestron’s future was assured. What could happen?

What could happen was T-A-S-C-O. Just like Diethelm, they really couldn’t leave Celestron alone over the long run. Why? Hard to say. It didn’t have anything to do with Celestron’s performance as far as I can tell; as time went on, it became pretty obvious Celestron was the only part of the formerly profitable Tasco that was doing well. Whatever. Tasco decided they’d, essentially, operate Celestron from their headquarters in Florida, and, once again, Alan Hale was put on the bench (and the company’s official relationship with Tom Johnson was again ended). Still, Celestron persevered. Local authority in California was the talented Joe Lupica, and nothing much changed. Until…

By 2002, I’d just about got over my Tascophobia. I now owned a NexStar 11, and had about decided that whoever was doing whatever at Celestron knew exactly what the hell they were doing. Little did I know things were falling apart. Tasco’s new management had never been able to get a grip after the retirement of Rosenfield, and, after some ill-advised expansion schemes fell on their butts, had, by 2002, begun to hemorrhage cash badly. Yes, Celestron did well, but all the money they produced was being snatched up by the foundering parent corporation, leaving little for the Torrance operation. In 2002, Tasco, once a 110 million-dollar-a-year outfit was toast. Their house of cards collapsed, and they filed for bankruptcy.

At first, the situation looked dire for us Celestron-heads. It was not at all sure our fave telescope company would survive in any shape, form, or fashion. Oh, Meade had quickly come sniffing around, and entered discussions to purchase the Celestron name and assets. This didn’t look like it would be a good thing, though, if “good thing” was defined as the survival of Celestron. They might have maintained the Celestron name for some products, I reckon, but I had the suspicion that if Meade had its way, Celestron would be history. Not that that made Meade bad, you unnerstand; bidness is bidness, but I wanted to see two SCT makers press on. Apparently, the Government once again felt the same way, putting the kibosh on this latest “merger” plan.

Just when it looked like it would indeed be curtains for Tom Johnson’s telescope company, three dudes rode to the rescue in an end-of-reel cliffhanger. Alan Hale, Joe Lupica, and Rick Hedrick banded together to take Celestron independent again as an employee-owned concern. Whooo-eee! That was a close one! Surely everything would be violins and champagne now, as Celestron rode off into the Sunset to live happily ever after? That would have been nice.

The three years Celestron was once more an independent business appeared relatively placid. The product line, which now included the go-to GEM “CGE” packages in addition to the NexStars and NexStar GPSes, had been well-received. That was the surface, however. Underneath, all was not well, apparently. Not that us Joe and Jane amateurs knew pea-turkey about that. You could have knocked me over with a feather when word came in April 2005 that Celestron was being sold again.

This time it wasn’t to someone as “bad” as Tasco, but still. Most of us fanboys and girls had just assumed Celestron was back on the path it had trodden from 1960 to 1980, and would, like Meade, once again be “just Celestron.” To put it mildly, we was distressed by this latest development. The new owner was one Suzhou Optical Company, better known to amateur astronomers as “Synta.” If this had happened a decade previously, I’d a-thought they were at least as smarmy as them Tasco rats, but in the relatively short period of time Synta had been selling telescopes in the U.S. (mostly through Orion and sometimes under the “SkyWatcher” badge), it had become apparent this Mainland Chinese company was intent on improving itself to the point where they could compete with legends like Meade and Celestron.

Which don’t mean all of us were happy Synta had bought Celestron. Many of us positively hated the idea of yet another U.S. company being offshored. There was little doubt in my formerly military mind that Celestron’s production, all of it, would be moved to China as soon as practical. Yeah, a lot of us was mad, but there was something of a silver lining. It’s pretty clear in retrospect that the only choices were “Celestron - Synta” or “no Celestron at all.”

Why was that? You’d have to be an insider to know the whole story, but I’m guessing that, for one thing, the independent Celestron really didn’t have sufficient capital to compete successfully against Meade considering the extremely tight bottom lines inherent in the SCT biz. Meade winning a major lawsuit against Celestron didn’t help, either. Meade’s lawyers convinced a judge that they could patent the process of pointing a telescope north to do a go-to alignment. That meant Celestron would have to pay Meade a substantial royalty for each NexStar GPS it sold.

That was not the real problem, though. The real problem, one Meade suffered from as well, came down to profit margins, which were laughably small for the SCTs (and all the other scopes, even the 60mm department store jobs Celestron had been sellin’ for a while). Over the years, Meade and Celestron had established that they would sell amateurs 8-inch SCTs with every feature imaginable for less than three thousand dollars. Often, their top-of-the-line 8-inchers was closer to two thousand. Having to build those telescopes in California with California workers meant profit on individual scopes continued to shrink yearly. The choice would have been to raise prices—which for either company would have been equivalent to showing their belly to the competitor—or the production of telescopes would have to be moved out of the U.S. Which Synta began doing shortly after the ink was dry on the sale.

Sure, I was skeptical about Chinese Schmidt Cassegrains, but that skepticism was put to rest as soon I got my hands on the first one, the successor to the NexStar 8i, the NexStar SE. I’ll admit I was gobsmacked the instant I laid eyes on it. It retained the cool lines of the original NexStar and “i” models, but brought with it a tube that, in a retro flourish, was anodized in a brilliant orange. It wasn’t exactly the peculiar shade T.J. used back in the day, but it was, I thought, a sign that Celestron, the new Synta - Celestron, was acknowledging the company’s storied past and its importance for their future. More importantly, the optics on the new scope were at least as good as those of the U.S. versions.

Celestron - Synta moved quickly to stop the royalty cash flow to Meade. The NexStar GPS series was discontinued; replaced with the “CPC” GPS fork mount scopes, which abandoned the Meade-proprietary North and Level go-to alignment system. In quite a coup, the Celestron software mavens came up with a revolutionary idea, “SkyAlign.” SkyAlign eliminated the infringing process; instead of pointing itself north, leveling, and heading to an alignment star selected by the scope or user, SkyAlign has the user center three bright objects. Said user doesn’t have to know the names of the stars. They don’t even have to be stars—the Moon or a planet will work, too. The scope’s computer figures out which objects have been centered.

SkyAlign was eventually adopted for both the new CPC scopes and for Celestron’s other fork-mount models. I was initially skeptical as to whether this “don’t even have to know the stars” alignment could possibly work, and tested it using my NexStar 11 GPS (via NexRemote). Verdict? Alignment accuracy with my scope was at least as good as when I used the old North and Level software. Yeah, many of us still prefer the NS GPS, with its carbon fiber tube, but there is no doubt the CPC is a worthy successor.

Which leaves Celestron where today? They is trucking right along, having just released the new “Edge HD” SCT OTAs (is every cotton pickin’ thing “HD” this year, includin’ the sunglasses they hawk on WTBS late at night?). These SCTs improve upon Meade’s advanced - ACF rigs by addressing not only the SCT’s coma, but the design’s curved field. Ol’ Unk is excited by these pretty kittens, whose gleaming white tubes hearken back to days of yore. Leastways he thinks they look pretty. He’ll have to get his hot little hands and eyes on one before blessin’ ‘em.

That’s not all, either. Celestron - Synta has also come forth with a pair of GEMs, the CGEM, a reworking of Synta’s EQ-6, and, more interestingly, the CGE Pro, a heavyweight GEM with a big payload capacity. Alas, it looks like the venerable CGE, Celestron’s G11 analog, whose lineage stretches back to the Losmandy/Celestron combos of the early 90s, is a gone pecan. Too expensive to produce in California—or even in China—I reckon. I would not be surprised, howsomeever, to see Celestron come out with a three thousand dollar-range GEM that’s more modern, cheaper to produce, and done in China. Kickin’ the CGE to the curb leaves a significant hole in the Big C’s GEM lineup.

Yessir, “in China” is where Celestron is at, now—production-wise anyhow. Torrance carries on with development, distribution, and customer service. Production has, at this time, been purty much all moved offshore. The C14 may still be coming out of Califor-nye-ay, I ain’t sure, but if it is, I predict it won’t be for much longer. That’s OK, I reckon. I’d rather have imported Celestron SCTs than no Celestron SCTs at all. If nothing else—and this is the opinion of an outsider, remember—Celestron appears to be off life support, recession or no. Certainly they seem mucho bettero off than the once high-ridin’ Meade, who’s truly fallen on some hard times of late. But that is really a story for anudder day, muchachos.

So, yes, Celestron’s story has once again reached its end—its story as an independent U.S. of A. company, anyhow. But… The CAT Came Back the Very Next Day, and still they press on as they have for fifty dadgummed years, selling some great amateur telescopes. Sure, that could change at any time. We’ve seen that often enough. If the history of Celestron has taught anything, it’s that nothing is forever. But they are still kicking, and I salute ‘em for it. HAPPY BIRTHDAY CELESTRON.

Before departing the subject of Celestron, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the efforts of Bob Piekiel and others who’ve had the good sense to realize Celestron’s history is an important part of U.S. amateur astronomy’s story, and who have made efforts to preserve that history before it disappears down the corporate memory hole. As I said last time, if you are interested in Celestron’s early days, especially, you owe it to yourself to find a copy of Bob’s Celestron: The Early Years.

Teaser Department: Last time, I mentioned that a “new” li’l 90mm might be coming to Chaos Manor South. One did, though not for very long, looks like. The delightful Miss Dorothy arrived home from the University one afternoon recently totin’ a smaller-than-briefcase sized box that, on close examination by the curious Unk, was revealed to bear the logo “Celestron” on its side. That got my attention, you betcha.

Turned out one of D’s colleagues was selling off her elderly daddy’s old camera gear, and thought Rod might be interested in buying something that, she said, was A BIG CELESTRON. Opening the cute little plastic case revealed, yes, an Orange Tube C90 spotter. Yowza! As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve come to the realization in fairly recent years that the oft-picked-on 90 was actually a good little Maksutov Cassegrain. This example was cute enough to make even stingy ol’ me me wanna reach for my checkbook.

It wasn’t in perfect condition, but pretty good. The orange paintjob, thankfully, was mostly intact. Downchecks? The “twist the barrel” focuser was rough and sticky. The scope would need disassembly and relubing. Not a big job, no, but a job nevertheless. The finder and finder mounting stalk did not appear to be original equipment, the finderscope being glossy black rather than orange, and the mount being gloss black as well rather than the peculiar brownish “gray” Celestron used back then. The finder was rattling around in its mount, too; the rubber o-ring that usually stabilizes the finder in this design was missing.

Still, not bad. Checking the case revealed a brace of .965-inch eyepieces, a Meade .965 zoom ocular from those simpler times, a .965-inch plastic diagonal, and a T-ring/prime focus adapter. Also in there was a Minolta SRT-101 35mm camera body. This was a nice if not outstanding manual SLR that was purty well-regarded by astrophotographers back in the day when we was using something called “film.”

Would she fly? I mounted the little scope on our Bogen tripod (this was the C90 spotter version, remember), trotted her out to the front yard, and pointed her at the gibbous Moon. After running back inside for a minute to grab a Lenspen and clean off the uber filthy ocular, I got the C90’s balky focuser fine-tuned on the good, ol’ Moon. Sweet. Nice ‘n sharp. I even showed Luna to a couple of passersby on Selma street in sidewalk astronomy fashion before the cold got the best of me and I headed inside to do a bit of cogitating and back-of-the-envelope cyphering.

Since Dorothy’s colleague was selling this to help her Daddy, I certainly didn’t want to shortchange her. I figgered 150 bucks would be about right for the C90 spotter, which would need at least a little fixing and fussing, and a manual film SLR, which ain’t exactly a drug on the photo market in these digital days.

That’s when I ran into what I call the “Must Be” syndrome. I mentioned this very thing the other day on the Cloudy Nights Classics bulletin board when someone posted that they were concerned folks, non amateur folks, was getting ripped off because they don’t know how much older scopes is worth. I opined that the opposite is usually true, that non-amateurs tend to have INFLATED rather than DEFLATED ideas of the value of any telescope. A “lay” person comes into a scope of some kind. Often “just” a 60mm refractor. It’s big and gleaming and scientific-looking compared to the spyglasses most folks think of when they think “telescope.” When they go to sell it, the tune is, “I believe Granpappy paid THOUSANDS for this; it MUST BE worth that much now.”

So I wasn’t overly surprised when Dorothy returned with the word that her friend had recalled Daddy paid two hundred dollars at least for just the telescope. While I’d been willing to go 150, which I actually considered an overly fair price, 200 George Washingtons was a mite above my price comfort level considering the fact I really had no immediate and pressing use for the wee kitty. I tole Miss D. to carry the C90 back to her bud, and to tell her if she later decided she wanted to sell it for my original figger, the offer would still be open.

If the C90 does make it back this-a-way, y’all will be the first to know, and I’ll maybe even devote a blog to its restoration. In other words, as Rod’s ol’ Granny used to say, “We’ll see.”

Comments:
Hi Rod,
Great series! Since I'm "new" to this hobby, it was good info on how C has existed throughout the half century. We heard the good, the bad, and the ugly (not necessarily in that order).

The trick might be writing a series on Meade as well. I personally am not a Meade user. In fact usually I hear negative things about Meade in general, but heck they have put forth some "inovating" items to the amature astro business.

Thanks for the info.
 
I have an old C90 and love it. I know they aren't indestructible, but they feel that way.

The "Must Be" syndrome is pandemic. Looking around on craigslist makes me want to weep. Someone was offering an XT4.5 for $300, which they felt was an excellent deal because they'd paid $800 for it. *facepalm* How hard is it to do a little research? I don't know diddly squat about record players, but if I had an old one I wanted to sell, I could invest 10 minutes in surfing the web to see if it would be better priced at $5 or $500. Sheesh!
 
Hi Darren:

I'd certainly consider doin' Meade too...though I don't know as much about 'em as I do Celestron--despite havin' had the pleasure of meetin' their finder, John Diebel, and talkin' to him about his company a couple of times.

Unk
 
I bought my C90 in 1996 (rubber coated, special coatings version). Still have and love that little scope (see my C90 article at CN). Speaking of Sci.astro.Am, well was told that the “C90 was not a real scope”….can’t say how many times under the skies for a quick view, out herping, or on vacation I’ve used this little guy.
They were expensive, but with a Lar, good diagonal, and a set of Ultima’s - well its been worth every penny.
 
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