Sunday, March 18, 2012


Closer to Home

If you have been following my Herschel Quest, you know I am a galaxy fan. A galaxy hound. A galaxy nut. The Herschel list is, like the NGC, mostly galaxies. Can’t help but be—there are more of ‘em out there than anything else except stars. But just because I spend most of my time with distant island universes, that don’t mean I’ve always been fixated on ‘em. I went through a period when it was globular star clusters all the way. Same thing with planetary nebulae. Hell, I even had a short infatuation with open clusters. But back when I was a sprout my focus was Sol’s backyard.

When Unk was a little feller interested in space back in the 1960s, “space” meant the Moon and planets. There were those fascinating pictures of galaxies and nebulae in the pages of the book Mama got for me from the old Science Service, Universe, but that was just a footnote. Like almost everybody else, li’l Rod was obsessed with the idea of exploring the Solar System. The Moon first, then Mars. Maybe Venus, too.

As I’ve mentioned before, Atlantic Mills wasn’t any kind of mill. It was our neighborhood Wal-Mart before there was a Wal-Mart. A discount department store that undercut the other discount stores. Yeah, the stuff in there was cheap because it was cheaply made, but for us poor mice that was a good thing. Mama was able to adequately clothe me and my brother in times when she couldn’t afford Penny’s or W.T. Grant’s.

What I liked about “Atlantic,” as we called it, was that it had an awesome toy department. Not only was it large, its wonders were priced low enough that even penniless Unk could come away with something every once in a while. Seventy-seven cents would get you a box full of spacemen or army men from the old Multiple Toy Company. Usually, Multiple’s stuff was generic, but occasionally they’d license something cool. Oh, how pleased was li’l Rod to get a Fireball XL-5 set from ‘em complete with a figure of his uber-crush, Doctor Venus

One blistering Gulf Coast summer afternoon in July of 1963 I was inventorying the shelves at Atlantic Mills. I was flush, folks, flush. A birthday card from my Aunt Lulu had included—get this—a crisp five-dollar bill. That was wonderful, but also horrible. How would I allocate all that dough? Thankfully, there were not as many Marvel Comics to buy each month as there would be by the end of the decade: FF, X-Men, Avengers, Tales to Astonish, a couple of others. A single dollar would cover the titles I read and leave room for a candy bar, albeit one of the 5-cent jobs like a Zero, a Milkshake, or a Butternut. Might even squeeze-in an Icee. That still left four big dollars to spend on something (I was not big on saving).

Had to be careful. A moment’s indiscretion could lead to months of regret. Like the time I spent substantial cash on a dadgum Magic 8-ball, which held my interest for all of two minutes. “Ask again later,” SHEESH! There were some big Multiple playsets—mostly western and army—but nothing that caught my eye. No outerspace this time. How about a science kit?

This was the time when our parents and our leaders were in a tizzy over the Soviet space triumphs, which were still coming thick and fast in the wake of Sputnik. We kids, the adults concluded, were woefully ignorant of science, and that had to change. The toy makers noticed this latest manifestation of Cold War nerves, especially a long-gone outfit called Remco.

Little Unk doted on the science kits they and other makers began to sell. Little boxes, or, in the case of Remco, cardboard cans, full of stuff that would allow you to conduct some rather sophisticated experiments. You could make everything from rocket engines (well, balloon-powered rocket engines) to batteries and voltmeters (which worked amazingly well). I’d long had my eye on one of the more expensive kits, a cloud chamber from one of Remco’s competitors that came with real radioactive material. Luckily, perhaps, Santa never got around to bringing the often careless little Unk that one. I loved the batteries and electromagnets and motors, but I was always put out there was never anything about space. Till that Saturday afternoon in Atlantic Mills.

I was about to give up with a sad “Cain’t find nothing, Mama,” when I decided to check the science kits to see if there was anything new. Deed there was: a larger than normal can from Remco marked “Solar System Planetarium.” What the—Solar System? Planetarium?

I took a close look. I must have seen something similar in the past, I reckon, because what it was was immediately clear to ten-year-old me. It was a model of the Sun and Earth and Moon, an orrery. Maybe I’d seen one at school, where there was now a little extra money for such luxuries, or maybe on Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Wizard. I snatched it up: FOUR DOLLARS? I had EXACTLY four dollars! Couldn’t be just coincidence. This must be IT.

At home, parts laid-out, I determined what was what. There was a big yellow plastic Sun that actually lit up by means of a little flashlight bulb protruding from its equator. There was a globe of the Earth—a tiny metal globe imprinted in full color with the countries of the world like the globe pencil sharpeners I got in Woolworths and Kress—and a correctly sized Moon on a little wire that would allow it to orbit around the Earth. Earth itself was mounted on large plastic arm.

The idea was that you’d move the arm and the earth would orbit the Sun, rotate, and the Moon would go around the earth at the appropriate speed. Turn on the Sun, and you would see a day and night terminator on the Earth and phases on the Moon!

I was nearing completion of the kit—which thankfully was snap and screw together, none of that dratted model airplane glue—when I ran aground. The Earth-Moon system was powered by a little ball (beaded) chain like on a pair of dogtags. That went around a gear in the base, through the arm, to a gear beneath the Earth. The chain was not in the package. I looked high and low on the table, in the cardboard can, and on the floor. What should I do? Just use it like it was, turning the Moon/Earth by hand? I’d see what Daddy thought.

For some reason, I found the idea of returning something to a store weird and scary. Not the O.M. He was of the opinion that all merchants were potentially out to “clip” him/us, and wasn’t shy about demanding justice. Off we went to Atlantic. Seeing the line at Customer Service was a mile long, Daddy motioned for me to follow and headed to the toy department in the back of the store. To my shock, he went straight to the shelf of Remco Planetariums, opened one up, and fished a chain out. I expected we’d be arrested at any moment. Daddy said he’d mention his “exchange” at the Customer Service counter on the way out. Me, I just wanted to take it on the lam.

Back home, I got the chain installed and filled the base as instructed with sand (red clay, actually, from the ditch across the street in front of the house). Installed the battery for the Sun. Gave the arm an experimental push. By god, it actually worked. From bitter experience, I knew mechanical toys like this one rarely operated the way they were supposed to, and if they did they rarely worked for long. The Remco Solar System was different; it worked flawlessly from day one.

It just tickled me. All summer long I’d take my planetarium (which was all I ever called it) into the bathroom, the only room in our house with no windows, cut off the light, and enjoy the terminator crawling across my little earth as it rotated on its metal axis and the pretty Moon sailed around it waxing and waning. Heck, I could even see Luna’s shadow creating Solar eclipses on my little Earth. Till Mama’s angry pounding on the door finally ran me out with “You have exactly two seconds to get yourself out of there, mister!” I kept that wonderful toy for years and years, well into high school, at least as a decoration on my dresser.

There are a couple of mysteries surrounding my beautiful planetarium. One is that in the pictures I’ve found on the Internet there appears to be a little star chart/planisphere mounted on Earth’s axis. I don’t remember that. Was it missing from my kit like the chain? Maybe, but I don’t remember it in the instructions, either. Course, it has been, hard as it is for me to believe, dang near half a century since the first time I moved the earth just so, till the Moon’s phase was just like it was RIGHT NOW.

The bigger mystery? What happened to my beloved planetarium? It was a toy, but I doubt I’d have thrown it away in my teen years—it didn’t look like a toy, it looked freaking cool. Alas, it’s an inhabitant of the phantom zone a lot of my favorite boyhood things disappeared into between my senior year of high school and my senior year of college.

I’d love to buy another Remco Solar System Planetarium, but its relatively high price for the time and unusual nature have, I reckon, conspired to make it rare. I’ve seen exactly two (one of which was incomplete) examples on the cotton-picking eBay. The planetarium did its work while I had it, though. By the time I got my first telescope I’d learned a little about how the Solar System works, and was eager to visit the planets. Both those things are in large part due to me discovering Patrick Moore’s books, but the little orrery did its part, too. Did it ever.

With me it’s always been the Moon first when it comes to the Solar System. Maybe because my first major astronomical influence was Sir Patrick Moore, Mr. Moon himself. It was just such a trip to look at Luna with my Tasco, glance down at the Moon map in one of Sir Patrick’s books, and realize I could not only see but identify the craters and seas. They weren’t just pictures in a book anymore, but—omigosh—real places.

Not only did I look at the Moon’s countless features; I resolved to draw them. At least 100 of 'em as my hero, Mr. Moore, suggested you should do if you really wanted to learn the Moon. I got off to a slightly shaky start, as you can see from the (recently rediscovered) single surviving page from my first logbook. But I got better and soon kicked it up a notch to a goal of 300 drawings: every crater, sea, and mountain shown on the beautiful old lunar map in Norton’s Star Atlas. Not only did my artistic skills improve, Patrick, as you’d expect, was right. By the time I was done, I knew Selene like the back o’ me hand.

Sir Patrick always did his best to scare us out of observing the Sun. He had reason to do that back when every Japanese telescope, including my 3-inch Tasco, came with an unsafe eyepiece solar filter. Given the small apertures of our scopes, a quick peek was not too dangerous—I got one in before Daddy relieved me of my Sun filter for good. But even when used with a small scope an eyepiece filter would have cracked eventually, maybe disastrously. No matter what Sir Patrick and Daddy said, however, I still wanted to see the Sun close up. I’d read somewhere that the Solar System is “the Sun and leftovers,” and that fascinated me.

Solar projection was clearly not dangerous, as Daddy and even Patrick (grudgingly) agreed. My Edmund Camera Holder came with a Sun projection screen, and I just enjoyed the heck out of watching complex clusters of spots cross the Sun in the years around the Solar maximum of 1969. I was careful, using the shadow of the scope to aim at the Sun, and the only disaster I ever had was the time I left Mr. Sun in the field a little too long as I was projecting him on the carport ceiling in 3-foot glory.

The Canada balsam (glue) that held two elements of my 1-inch (25mm) Edmund eyepiece together was baked into something about as transparent as ground glass by the heat of the Sun. I easily separated the elements, cleaned them off, put them back together without any glue, and kept on trucking. I didn’t notice any difference in the eyepiece afterwards, and even if I had, I thought it would have been worth it to keep up with sunspots in such spectacular fashion. I still remember how awesome that huge Sun was.

The first time I saw Mercury was during its great conjunction with Venus in July of 1965, not long after I got my first scope. I was amazed I was able to see the littlest planet, since many of my books had said “Mercury is small and hard to see in the twilight.” Rubbish. When Mercury is at his best he stands out like a sore thumb, a brilliant yellow topaz in the sunrise or sunset. Not that there was or is much of anything to see other than miniature Moon phases, but I knew that going in and wasn’t disappointed.

What I should see of Venus was more ambiguous. The true nature of the planet was still unclear in the early 1960s, at least to us benighted laymen. Prehistoric swamp? Water world? Bright as Venus was, it was no wonder it was the first planet I visited. That brilliant thing shining in the west just had to be good.

What did I see? Phases. That was all. Where were those “vague cloud features” the books prattled on about? Ironically, the only detail I’ve ever seen visually on Venus has been what my books said was much harder, the Ashen Light, but that didn’t come till over twenty-five years after my first look at mysterious but disappointing Aphrodite. Even now, when she’s at her height, casting shadows on the landscape, I can’t help but think she ought to be better than she is.

I was always excited about Mars as a place, but it took a long time for me to get excited about Mars in the eyepiece. Couple my small instruments with too-low magnifications (I’d been convinced high power was somehow evil), and I was lucky to see a vague surface smudge and a polar cap at opposition. The planet eventually gave up his mysteries to me, but it was years before that happened. The only thing I really liked about Mars in those days was the way it impressed my non-amateur friends and even their parents: “You’ve really seen MARS with your telescope?!

I always saw detail on Jupiter, but maybe not as much as I thought I should see. Yeah, the equatorial bands were there, and I could occasionally catch something I thought might be the Great Red Spot, but the ecstatic descriptions of Jove’s "welter of detail" in Sky and Telescope hinted I was missing out. Nothing much changed till I got a six-inch scope, learned to use higher magnication—200x is where you start with Jupe—and learned that the more you look, the more you see. When I was a youngun, I thought it was enough to take a two minute glimpse at The King. Uh-uh, no-sir buddy. If you want to see them loops and whorls and festoons, you devote at least half an hour to him. And you do that a lot.

In 1966, the year I got my Palomar Junior, Saturn’s rings were edge-on and didn’t look like much. Didn’t matter. The Ringed One was so sharp and clear in new baby that I came back to him night after night. That said, I wasn’t blown off my feet by the planet till first light night with my home made six-inch Newt a couple of years hence. The rings were on their way to good and open by then, and the sight of them with the aid of a mirror I’d made myself (well, with a little help) just killed me.

I longed to see Uranus, mostly because it was the subject of one of my favo-right sci-fi movies, Journey to the Seventh Planet, but I was reluctant to try and track it down. Not because it was that hard to find, even for a mucho wet-behind-the-ears novice, but because I was pretty sure I’d be disappointed by the appearance of the far away gas-giant in my small scope. I was right. There wasn’t much to be seen of Uranus when Voyager zoomed by at close range years later, so you can imagine what the green giant was like in a 4.25-inch Edmund. The titan was a tiny dot not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.

I tracked down Neptune a few years after I deigned to hunt-up Uranus. If Uranus was not much bigger than that period, Neptune didn’t look any bigger at all. I wasn’t troubled, though. I knew how far away this sister world of Uranus was, and was as pleased as punch to be able to resolve him at all. I had just read Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, where our heroes turn Neptune into an interstellar starship (yep), and all I could think was “THIS IS SO COOL!”

I am not sure I ever saw Pluto back in The Day, though I looked for him once in a while. Miss Dorothy and I visited the little frozen Popsicle of a dwarf planet (or whatever you call it) one year at the Texas Star Party. In the past, clouds had intervened or my interest had waned before I could determine that the suspect dim dot had moved against the background of stars a day or two later. By the 90s, I had Megastar; you could crank that up to show scads of dim “reference” stars in an eyepiece field-sized area. With the aid of that super software it took only a few hours to be sure the pin-prick really was mysterious Pluto.

There was more to the Solar System for the young Rodster than just The Nine, the Moon, and Big Daddy Sun. Starting in 1965 with Ikeya-Seki I began to tick off comets. One night I spotted the bright asteroid Vesta and tracked her progress for a while. I found (artificial) satellite watching an extremely interesting sideline. Fact is, the Sun’s neighborhood has enough wonders to make it the study of a lifetime for a professional or an amateur.

I knew and know that, but Unk felt the call of The Great Out There from day one, and as soon as I had the tools I needed, I set sail for the starry depths. Not that I haven’t turned back to the Sun’s kingdom once in a while. Like a lot of y’all, I was nuts for Mars in 2003 and got caught up in the whole big planetary webcamming thing for a couple of years. I still keep my hand in a little bit, even in this day when I’m usually using a Mallincam Xtreme to bring back ferociously dim LEDA galaxies and their kin.

Some weeknights, despite being wrung out from work, I want to see something. And that something is almost always “just” the Moon or Jupe or Saturn or Mars. On slow afternoons when ol’ Sol is feeling frisky, I’ll slap a full aperture Solar filter on Eloise, my 80mm f/11 achromat, and have a look-see. I always have serious fun even if I’m not very serious about the Sun and his family anymore.

Yeah, my Solar System observing is even more casual even than it was when I was a tenderfoot. I don’t sketch the Moon and planets. I’ve given up on color filters. I let my subscription to The Strolling Astronomer lapse (I really oughta do something about that). I just look and enjoy and remember—mostly the planetary glory days of the sixties.

I don’t think I’ll ever be serious about the planets again, but you never do know. Last time I was out at the dark site with my bigdob (for me), Old Betsy, I had the hots for galaxies. But my scope was drawn to Jupiter as if by a magnet. He kept the Herschels waiting for at least a half hour, and it was a good half-hour, muchachos.

The Passing of a Giant:  Tom Johnson, the founder of Celestron and the father of the modern, mass-produced SCT left us the other day, on March 13th. Tom had a long and productive life, but I am still shocked. Some people should be around forever, and Tom was one of 'em. I won't say more right now--honestly, it is not hyperbole to say I am "choked up." I'll have more on Mr. Tom some Sunday soon, but till then, please read this.

Next Time: Me and Mr. Edmund…

Wow, did this bring back memories of my astro adventures as a teenager back in the early 1960s. I had many similar experiences. Thanks for the memories!
Rod, good blog W.T. Grant that name brings back memories They had a photographic dept at mine that displayed all of those classic Tascos ( except of course the 20 te!) I begged my mom to get me the 15 te that they had , I guess you can figure out the response.
You can be really suprised what can be see with smaller scope's and a educated eye honed by years of experience.
Mars at this opposition , not the greatest 13.7" dia., shows quite a bit of detail in my Vintage Brandon 94 , not as much as my C-8 but still respectable . I also have carted out my Astele 95 and Celestron C-90 Astro both do a respectable jobs. ( too damp for the Questar) Smaller scopes are great for work week observing on Alti-az mounts just the right thing after an exhausting day of fighting engineering project fires at work!
I think we are all in debt to Tom Johnson for forever changing the face of amateur astronomy. He will be greatly missed but not forgotten.

Gary ( aka Satman Cloudy Nights Classic Telescope forum)
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