Sunday, February 28, 2010
Celestron: The Middle Years
Hokay, where was we, muchachos? 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 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. The doggoned executive summary, though, is Celestron contracted Mr. Simmons and his company, ATI, to help produce a line of robotic SCTs. He did just that, and they worked OK considering 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.
I am mostly known as “a Celestron man,” but I’ve always liked Meade scopes, too. Heck, I absolutely adore my li’l ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine. When I went shopping for a new C8 in the mid 90s, 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 down-check 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.
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.
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.
Read Unk's review of SkyTools 3 in the April 2010 issue of Sky & Telescope!
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Down with Love
Sure am. The older I get, the more I think it's the one thing us sentient primates have going for us as we revolve endlessly around our puny G2V star. Love. It really does make the world go ‘round. Love is great, even, yes, the love of a young amateur astronomer for shiny new telescopes. Like the amazing Celestron Pacific Blue and White tube Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes.
“Blue ‘n Whites? What the hail are you a-talking about Unk? Celestrons, everybody knows, have mostly come with orange, black, and gray tubes. Oh…white…yeah, the brand-spankin’ new Celestron Edge HDs. They have white tubes, don’t they? Is that it?” Nope. Well, yeah, the new Celestrons have white tubes, but it ain’t them I’m talking about. What I am talking about is Celestron’s first line of SCTs, the C6, C8, C10, C12, C16, and the vaunted and legendary C22 that ruled the roost during the company’s first heyday in the 1960s.
These were the first Celestrons to make li’l Rod’s heart go pitty-pat, the Blue ‘n Whites, so called because their gleaming white tubes were set-off by luscious royal blue mirror cells and mounts. Actually, I didn’t know they were BLUE and white for quite a while. All I had to go on was the black and white pix in Sky ‘n ‘Scope. I certainly couldn’t afford one of my own to examine, seeing as how the C10, the most popular Blue and White, went for about two stinking grand in those days of yore.
What’s got me to reminiscing about the early times of everybody’s favorite CAT company? This is the Big C’s 50th year, and one of the things they have done in acknowledgement of that milestone is run a full page ad in the January 2010 Sky and Telescope featuring pictures from their storied past. I have had a lot of questions about one of those pictures: “What IS that great big SCT in the ad, Unk Rod? What is it, huh, what is it?”
So I figger it’s time to edumcate you sprouts about the history of one of the big players in the amateur astronomy game. I certainly won’t be able to do much more than summarize here, though; if you’re fascinated by Blue ‘n Whites or the Orange Brigade that followed them, I heartily recommend Bob Piekiel’s ebook Celestron: The Early Years (available through Astromart). Bob is DA MAN when it comes to Celestron history. I can at least hit the high points, this week and next, however.
OK, but what’s with the “Down with Love” stuff? If you’re as old as Unk, it’s possible your Mama made you squirm through some of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedies at the moving picture show just like Rod’s Mama did. Well, a few years back Director Peyton Reed made a spoof-cum-loving homage to those corny films of a simpler time with Down with Love, which starred Renee Zellwegger and Ewan McGregor. Not much of a movie, I ‘spose, but cute enough. Unk and Miss D went to see it mostly for nostalgia’s sake, and it turned out the filmakers had at least done that real well. A scene near the end prominently features a beautiful Blue and White Celestron C10.
Yes, Celestron has, hard as it is for me and my contemporaries to believe, accumulated half a century of history. That history began modestly with a young southern California electrical engineer, Tom Johnson. Tom, who owned a small company, Valor Electronics, which was producing power supplies and similar items for the burgeoning California high-tech/aerospace industry, decided he’d like to have a telescope so he and his kids could have a look at the night sky.
Mr. Johnson must’ve been pretty tickled with telescopes and astronomy, since he didn’t stick with the little 4-inch he bought for him and his younguns. Before long he was building his own telescopes, and, in an amazingly short period of time, he was showing off a home-brew 18-inch Cassegrain at star parties (yes, there were star parties, a few, even way back when). An 18-inch telescope was a huge—to put it mildly—amateur instrument for the time, and Tom’s big dog garnered a lot of attention, including an article in the March 1963 Sky and Telescope.
All the publicity and interest his ATM masterpiece generated got Tom to thinking. Might there be a market for semi-mass-produced large telescopes? Something for small colleges and the like, who wanted capable telescopes, but who couldn’t dream of calling somebody like Boller and Chivens and forking over a hundred grand. Certainly, he thought he could do better than the shaky, old fashioned Newtonians some of the amateur-oriented telescope makers were offering to schools. Maybe even better and more convenient than his cool Cassegrain.
Why not something like a Schmidt Cassegrain? A lotta folks think Tom Johnson invented the SCT. He didn’t. The melding of the telescopes of Schmidt and Cassegrain had happened some time earlier—advanced ATMs had been showing lovingly crafted chef d’oeuvre SCTs at places like Riverside and Stellafane for a while. After all, making Schmidt’s camera into a visual scope is a pretty doggone obvious thing to do. Do that and you get a highly portable telescope with a nice low-coma (relatively speaking) field. No, Tom didn’t invent the SCT—what he did was make it practical.
I shouldn’t have to tell you CAT fanatics—you vet’rans, anyhow—that the problem when it comes to making an SCT is that consarned corrector plate. Lotsa wet-behind-the ears novices assume it’s just a piece of flat glass that holds up the secondary. Not hardly. SCTs use fast (f/2, or thereabouts) easy to machine-make spherical primary mirrors. You can use a spherical mirror to look at the sky, but unless its focal ratio is up around f/10 plus, images are a mess. You get spherical aberration, the problem that devilled the pore Hubble Space Telescope when it was first launched. It’s somewhat like chromatic aberration in that all the rays of light delivered by the mirror don’t come to focus in the same plane, resulting in punk images.
Bernhard Schmidt’s revolutionary idea, which came to him not long after World I, was the corrector plate. It’s a thin, flat-appearing lens. It is a lens, though, which is high in the middle, lower out toward the edge, and high again at the edge. It’s what the bright boys call a “complex 4th order curve.” For ignorami such as Unk it’s enough to say that the corrector undoes the mirror’s spherical aberration. Or, if’n you wanna get slightly more technical about it, what it does is introduce a negative amount of spherical aberration, enough to cancel out the positive spherical aberration inherent in the primary. It works amazingly well, but, as hinted above, it has a problem: a corrector is hard as heck to make.
One way you can make a corrector is by hand-grinding, polishing, and figuring one. That is hideously difficult, so difficult that even that one-armed optics wizard, Bernhard Schmidt, figgered he’d need to come up with a trick. He did. His method, which is still used, is to place a corrector blank in a special fixture, a “vacuum pan.” The blank forms one wall of a vacuum chamber. After a vacuum is “pulled,” the exposed side of the blank is polished flat. When the vacuum is finally released, the blank almost magically assumes the correct shape for a corrector. It sounds easy, but in practice it's most assuredly not. You have to apply the correct vacuum and maintain it exactly, which is not easy to do. That is only the start of the complications. Doable, but more suited for custom one-offs than for the mass production Tom Johnson envisaged.
While waiting on the delivery of an expensive custom-made corrector plate he had ordered from a big optical house, Mr. Johnson put on his thinking cap and started messing around in Valor Electronics’ primeval optical shop. By the time the corrector arrived, he didn’t need it any more. He’d cracked the “code” for mass producing corrector plates.
Johnson’s method was not completely different from Schmidt's. He still pulled a vacuum against a blank. The “outer” side was polished flat, and when the vacuum was released he had a corrector. But there was one very important difference. Instead of using a vacuum pan, Johnson pulled the blank against a premade glass “mold,” a thing he called a “master block.” A master block was and is (Celestron uses the Johnson method to this day) a precision-made corrector form figured into the opposite of the shape desired for the finished lens. It’s easier, far easier, to get correctors right quickly using a master block than a vacuum pan.
Corrector-making still ain’t easy, even with the aid of a master block. Firstly, a master block has to be made and made exactly right. Then you run into problems like maintaining perfectly even contact between block and blank. Everything has to be kept nearly clean-room clean. Specks of dust trapped between the master block and corrector blank will result in contrast-reducing bumps in the finished corrector plate. For these reasons, amateurs or anybody else making one-off correctors still use the vacuum pan method. But in a factory setting, Tom Johnson’s master blocks worked well and simply, allowing him to spit out corrector plates with near abandon. That solved, the rest of the telescope was fairly easy to do, even if it took Celestron some cutting and trying to arrive at the design which has spelled “SCT” for the last 50 years.
The first “Celestron,” to take on form and substance, the Celestronic 20, don’t look much like the telescopes we’ve come to know and love. It was a big, hulking mutha with a long tube. It was an SCT, true, but it was prominently mentioned in its few ads that it could also be easily converted to Newtonian or to Schmidt Camera operation.
From what I can determine, the Celestronic never made it past the prototype stage. Oh, Valor ran some smallish ads, but apparently nobody dared order a big mama from this unknown little firm--not yet--so no production Celestronic 20s were ever built, and it was eventually disassembled and sold as parts. The Celestronic, which was really just a prototype anyway, was shortly replaced by the much more SCT-looking C22 (T.J. had found a stash of 22-inch rather than 20-inch blanks and decided to use ‘em). Oh, and the name on the ads that continued to appear in Sky and Telecope evolved from “Valor Electronics,” to “Celestron Pacific, a Division of Valor Electronics” to just “Celestron Pacific.”
And suddenly these white-tube/blue trim scopes began to sell. Largely because the C22, which cost an astonishing 35 grand (equivalent to 250,000 or MORE 2010 dollars depending on how you calculate such things), was soon joined by more affordable little sisters: a C16, a C12, a C10, a C8, a C6 and even a C4). None of them was exactly cheap, with the most popular of these Blue and White beauties, the C10, costing about the same as a new Volkswagen Beetle. Nevertheless, in addition to schools, a few amateurs, mostly those approaching the Johnny Carson class, could afford ‘em and bought ‘em. If nothing else, the Blue ‘n Whites caught the eyes of rank and file amateurs, ensuring we’d be ready for Celestron when Celestron was ready for us.
What will today’s amateur get for that money in terms of performance? Naturally, you can forget fancy electronics and high tech coatings, but these telescopes stand up well. The optics are almost always first-rate, and the scopes include features not seen in the Orange Tubes—or even the most modern Celestrons. One big plus is their lack of focus shift. Modern SCTs focus by moving the primary mirror back and forth via a single threaded rod. That works, but tends to push or pull the mirror slightly out of level with regard to the baffle tube it slides on. Despite the fairly tight tolerances of today’s Celestrons, that makes the images move back and forth in the field as you turn the focus control. The Blue and Whites also used moving mirror focusing, but rather than one threaded rod to move the primary, they used a set of three belt-connected spindles, eliminating focus shift.
That’s not the end of their niceties, either. In addition to collimation by adjusting the secondary mirror as in modern CATs, the Blue and Whites had primary mirror adjustments as well. And, while, no, they didn’t have much in the way of electronics, some of the scopes’ drive systems were decidedly more advanced than the “plug in, she runs, unplug she stops” of the Orange Tubes that followed them.
Optically, the Blue and Whites, are quite impressive. Find yerself a good condition C16, and by the time the night is over, you may forget you are using your granpappy’s telescope. Only slight downcheck here is that the focal ratios of most Blue and Whites come in at f/12 rather than f/10. That’s not a huge field-penalty, though, and may contribute somewhat to their unusually good performance. Some of the smallest scopes, by the way, could be ordered in differing ratios; the C6 could be had either in the “astronomy/telephoto” speed of f/10 or in the “guide scope” focal ratio of f/20.
So why in the heck have most of us never seen one of these wonderful telescopes in person? They didn’t last long. Celestron began to phase ‘em out in 1970, and by the end of that decade they was Gone Pecans. The reason being that the company had decided to change gears. It became obvious the SCT design potentially had wide appeal, and that if Celestron could offer telescopes that were at least realizable dreams for the average amateur astronomer, they could clean up. So were born the vaunted Orange Tubes, starting with the familiar C8 in 1970.
Before Celestron could sell SCTs to Mom and Pop Amateur for “reasonable” prices, they had to figure out how in tarnation to do that. The answer, not unexpectedly, was “simplify, simplify, simplify.” Starting with the lovely three-spindle focuser. That was gone, replaced with the single spindle model we still know and cuss. In truth, if everything is done properly, the system works pretty well, it must be admitted, and is capable of keeping that annoying movement during focusing to under 1-arc minute.
What else? How about the adjustable primary mirror? Johnson and company (which now included Alan Hale) had decided not only would having both an adjustable secondary and primary be confusing for the average amateur, it was really not needed. As long as the optical system, primary, secondary, and corrector, was properly assembled, the scopes could be perfectly collimated with just the secondary. Easier for owners—and cheaper for Celestron.
A few other things went at this time as well. The drive for the C8 was, as above, plug-to-go-unplug-to-stop, the mounts were leaned-up a bit, and some frills that were deemed unnecessary given the engineering advances Celestron had made over the previous decade were discarded—the spring-assisted mirror fixture in the primary cell, which was intended to improve focusing/mirror stability, for example.
Not that all of us—or many of us—could afford one, mind you. Once you paid for everything, you’d be forking over close to 1000 1970 buckeroos, which is equivalent to about 5,000 of our microscopic dineros. Unk, for example, paid less than two thousand for a very good condition Ford Mustang at about that time, and found it rather difficult to come up with that sum. Still, the cost of the Orange Tube was something most of us could at least imagine accumulatin’. The pluses the C8 brought to the table seemed well worth it as the 70s rolled on. I mean, can you imagine packing a 1960s-style 8-inch f/8 Newtonian into the back seat of a Chevy Vega? I thought not. We couldn’t either. Despite the slightly scary price-tag, the C8 began to sell like the proverbial hotcakes, and the company’s competitors began to drop like flies.
So well did the C8 do that Celestron was soon adding to the OT stable. First there was the C5, followed shortly by the C14 at t’other end of the aperture scale. A few years down the line, Celestron filled-in with the much-loved C11. All these telescopes were much like the C8, with only the C14 adding more features. Even the 14-incher, with its more complex drive system and a few other frills (like a tube that was designed to be removed from the forks for easier transport), is much more like an Orange Tube C8 than a C16.
Celestron discoed through the 1970s seeming to go from strength to strength. The competition? They fell like dominoes. Criterion tried its own SCT in a bid to compete, failed badly with the Dynamax, and was soon on its way to the knackers at Bausch and Lomb. Other renowned names like Unitron, Cave, and Starliner either fell by the wayside or reduced their output so much that they might as well have. The amateur’s best friend, Edmund Scientific, held on to its astronomy business, but maybe just by the skin of its teeth. As the 1970s closed, Celestron was on the top of the world, Ma.
Tom Johnson must be a believer in Unk’s fave saying, “The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better,” because the company adhered to that for a cotton-pickin’ decade. Oh, they added new products—Schmidt cameras and a cute li’l 90-mm MCT amongst other things—but the bread and butter, the SCTs, remained mostly unchanged until disco well and truly began to suck. Other than minor changes in paintjobs and castings, an Orange Tube was an Orange Tube for ten years.
Then, in 1980, the changes began to come thick and fast. Startin’ with Tom Johnson’s decision to sell the little old telescope company from Torrance. Tom had given his all for over twenty years, and who can deny he deserved a retirement? Certainly, if I’d a-wanted to sell a telescope company, this is the time I’d have chosen, with the notorious comet Halley loomin’ on the horizon. The buyer? A Swiss manufacturing/holding company called “Diethelm.” At first, this seemed perfectly fine, with the Swiss bunch assuming a hands-off attitude and letting the capable Alan Hale run Celestron. More—and not always favorable—changes were soon making themselves felt, however.
The first of which was the coming of the first real competitor Celestron had faced. Another California telescope company that, like Celestron, was the dream of a starry eyed engineer. For more on the story of the coming of John Diebel’s Meade, I’ll, if’n you don’t mind a little book plugging, refer you to my Choosing and Using a New CAT. For now, it’s enough for you to know that Diebel brought forth an SCT that was not only as good as a C8 (after a little tweaking); in some ways it was better. Celestron did react, though it took a while, leadin’ me to believe they’d been blindsided by Meade to some degree. When the dust settled, the Orange Tube C8 was gone. Celestron had a new and slightly more advanced scope, the Super C8, which soon evolved into the Super C8 Plus. Thus began the game of SCT one-upmanship that’s continued e’en to this day.
You’d a-thought Comet Halley woulda been great for Celestron, that it would have provided more than enough new telescope customers to make up for those Meade had siphoned off. And it did—for a while. What caused the Halley Debacle that troubled amateur astronomy and its premier telescope maker for at least another decade was Celestron’s overall strategy regarding the comet craze—or rather their lack of one.
What happened was Celestron decided to make hay while the Sun shone. Not a bad thing, maybe, if they’d kept their wits about them—and their quality up. They didn’t. Instead, Celestron began to kick SCTs out the door in ever-increasing numbers and to such an extent that they wore out not just their tools but their workforce. QA didn’t just suffer; by the height of the Halley madness, it went completely by the boards. That is why, younguns, you’ll hear us ol’ curmudgeons down to the club warn y’all off “Halleyscopes,” telescopes produced during the period when Celestron’s (and Meade’s) quality was at a low ebb, a period that went from about ’85 to ’90. Not that Celestron didn’t produce some good scopes and many average ones during that time, they did. But there were plenty of bow-wows.
Even more serious, Celestron made the wrong assumption. They assumed Comet Halley would create so many new amateur astronomers that they’d be able to continue selling at a breakneck pace. Uh-uh…nosir buddy. If you were around and in the astronomy game at the time, you are aware Comet Halley turned out to be a distinctly average comet for amateurs and a complete bust for the public. West had put on an incomparably better show a decade previous, and Hale-Bopp would do the same a decade later. Me? I was happy enough with what I had already known wouldn’t be a great appearance for Halley. The public?
Not So Much. Quite a few of the SCTs bought for Halley went right back to the dealers. Others went into closets and attics where they remain to this day. None of which is surprising, since I can’t think of a poorer-suited instrument for looking at a big, diffuse comet. Certainly, nobody was running out to buy new Celestrons (or Meades). In the wake of tons of Halley junk, ever’thing from comet coloring books to comet wine, the Bubbas and Bubettes on the street had had enough astronomy. Amateur astronomers? Even in those benighted times, the word got out—by word of mouth and by means of our little mimeographed club newsletters—don’t buy an SCT right now.
Which left Celestron where? Ah, muchachos, that is a story for next time...
Sunday, February 14, 2010
For the second week in a row, this is not what I intended to talk about. I had big plans. Maybe get The Herschel Project cranking again. Give the new version of the Stellarium software a good check ride. Possibly even try Deepsky Imaging with the Stellacam. None of that happened, muchachos, largely because of the weather. Far from encouraging me to chase Herschel IIs with C11 and deep sky video camera, the weather looked bad enough by 4pm last Saturday that I decided that, while I’d still run out to the dark site, the scope that would go with me would “just” be Charity Hope Valentine, my cute li’l ETX-125PE.
Which wouldn’t have been bad. Charity’s optics are first rate, and when conditions aren’t perfect she really don’t give up too much to a C8. She is perfectly capable of running under laptop control, too, so I figgered I’d try the new Stellarium with her. Alas, Charity didn’t even get outa the vee-hickle. Far from “clearing at Sundown” as the weather-goobers had predicted, the clouds just got thicker. When I arrived at our site in the wilds of Tanner-Williams, Alabama, I spent a lonely hour (none of my bubbas was dumb enough to make the trip) watching ever more clouds roll in from the east, and shivering in a knife-sharp wind. I woulda thought that wind would have been the herald of clearing, blowing the nasty gray things out. Nope. It was still cloudy when I arrived back home. It was still cloudy when I got up the next morning.
Since then, the weather has, if anything, got worse. In fact, you may not believe it, but it is SNOWING on good, old Chaos Manor South RIGHT NOW. I reckon that’s what the bright boys call “global warming,” huh? (Put your poison pens away. Even ignernt Unk Rod knows you cain’t judge climate change based on one winter.)
I did do a little messing around indoors with Deepsky Imaging. But I didn’t get very far with it. One of the major attractions of that image processing program (written by the author of the Deepsky planner program) is its ability to grab frames and sequences from Stellacams and Mallincams. I attempted to interface my Stellacam II to the program, but without success. It may be my el-cheapo (eBay) USB frame grabber, or it may just be the elderly video card in my elderly laptop. I’ll try to get things sorted Real Soon and report on this program, though, as it looks like a winner.
So what was there to do but rummage through Cloudy Nights and Astromart and the Yahoo Astrogroups. Which brought to the fore something that’s been on my mind and been bothering me for quite a while. Why do some amateurs spend more time obsessing about what their gear can’t do than what it can? Or what might be better for mo’ money out the door. Even when, to the tune of much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, a dream scope has finally been decided upon and obtained, the angst don’t stop: “Uncle Rod, I shined a 10,000 candlepower spotlight down the tube and I saw dust on the mirror. Whatever shall I do?”
In other words, y’all worry too cotton pickin’ much. And not just you novices, but those of you who oughta know better. Those of you who should know the truth of a maxim that’s as old as amateur astronomy: “Any telescope is better than none.” Sure, I know it’s hard to get comfortable with that. I had a real hard time with it when I was a youngster who owned a 3-inch Tasco Newtonian, but had to look at full page ads for beautiful Unitron refractors every month at Sky and Telescope time. And kept hearing you weren’t NUTTIN if you didn’t have at least a 6-inch telescope…
How much telescope can you get by with? How much do ya “need?” “Need” is a slippery thing. Obviously, if you want to follow in Unk’s footsteps and take-on the Herschel 2500, you need as much aperture, as big a lens or mirror, as you can get. All things being equal, my mantra is, Aperture Always Wins. But all things are not always equal. Your circumstances will dictate how much telescope is appropriate for you. If you live in a third floor walkup, a 20-inch Dobbie is obviously out unless you want to reserve all your observing for occasional trips to a darksite. If you are a penniless grad student, there’s not much point in worrying about 10-inch AP Maks replacing your Celestron C-130 anytime soon. It’s OK to want more, but consider separating “want” from “need,” and enjoying what you have.
So how much telescope is required for having fun in astronomy? You can have one heck of a lot of fun with the very tiniest scopes; especially if your skies are reasonably dark. People go for years with Short Tube 80s, doing remarkable work. Hell, folks discover novae with 50-mm binoculars. There is no denying, of course, that if you live in the typical urban/suburban light pollution, there’s a minimum aperture below which you probably shouldn’t go if you want to have access to lots of deep space targets (though you might be surprised how much I’ve seen from Chaos Manor South’s backyard with my ETX-60).
If you want to keep yourself satisfied for even a little while, you need a little horsepower. How much? Not necessarily 20-inches worth. How much will be bearable for you varies, since, again, not all things are equal. I’ve often said, for example, that if I didn’t have my (4.5-inch) Orion StarBlast and my Burgess 15x70 binoculars, I wouldn’t see much over the course of Possum Swamp summers. The heat, the humidity, the clouds mean I am rarely inclined to drag a big gun into the backyard.
My little RFT and my big binoculars mean I see a fair amount through even the worst stretches of skeeter-infested deep south summer. I’d have certainly missed a lot of nice little comets if it hadn’t been for my grab ‘n go pair. Certainly, a compact 8-inch of some design is better, but a 4-inch is still a powerhouse of a scope. I did the entire Messier with my Palomar Junior 4 ¼-inch from my light polluted yard when I was writing The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. Out in the dark, a small scope can blow the big guns away on certain objects. Seeing the entire Cygnus Loop with my StarBlast under good—but not perfect—skies is a memory I’ll cherish for the rest of my days.
Yeah, you know all that. A 4-inch can show a lot if you use it a lot, yadda-yadda-yadda. But you still want more. That’s the life of an amateur astronomy equipment junkie, and even after all these years I ain’t immune. I am looking longingly even now at Celestron’s CGE Pro 1400 HD and making oblique comments about it to Miss Dorothy (ala’ A Christmas Story’s Red Ryder bb gun). And that is fine. Just don’t get yourself to the point I was at a time or two as a sprout, where you can’t enjoy a 4-inch Palomar Junior because you’re wishing for and mooning over a 6-inch Dynascope. I’ve now been in this biz long enough to recognize the wisdom of Mr. Spock’s words: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”
You avoid ruining today’s telescope with tomorrow’s not just by using the current scope, but by pushing it to its limits. Most amateurs have not even begun to exploit the instruments they have before they jump to the Next Big Thing. A dedicated observer willing to work and experiment and wait for the best conditions can do amazing things with amazingly small telescopes, things even trusted resources like The Night Sky Observers’ Guide pronounce “impossible.” A rule I’ve at least tried to follow over the last couple of decades is to wring every ounce of performance out of the scope I have before worrying about what’s next. The Herschel 400 is impossible with a 4-inch? Let’s see…
The Fanciness Factor
Amateurs don’t just worry about the size of their scopes, they worry about their pedigrees. “All I’ve got is a 12-inch Orion Dob. If only I had a 12-inch OBSESSION I could really go to town.” There is no doubt more expensive telescopes tend to be easier to use for various reasons. If we are comparing two Dobsonians, for example, the expensive semi-custom jobs will usually display far better movements on both axes, will be possessed of cabinet quality wood work, and will be, in toto, more pleasurable to use.
But that don’t mean your Orion (or Skywatcher or Zhumell) is to be scoffed at. Cheap (Chinese) telescopes have come a long ways, and while their mechanics may not be as fine as those of the more expensive spread, the telescopes still work more than well enough for most of us to have one hell of a lot of fun with ‘em. Besides, after a while, you’ll get used to your Orion and, if you try an Obsession, may find it seems, perhaps, too easy in its motions. Don’t mind doing a little tinkering after the sale? Most telescopes and mounts are very simple affairs at heart and not overly difficult to improve. What do you hear if you keep an ear to the ground? That some of the most legendary and expensive scopes may also require some modification before they live up to their press.
Do be cautious about tinkering, though. Like I always say, “The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better.” Replacing a Nylon bearing pad with a Teflon one on a simple Dob is one thing. Tearing into your go-to fork or GEM because something you read on the cotton-pickin’ Internet says you might be able to improve it is another. One young man of my acquaintance, for example, took a brand new 12-inch LX200 GPS from being a perfectly respectably performing instrument to a wreck in just weeks.
The telescope worked just fine as delivered, yeah, but what he’d read on the online astro forums convinced him he might be able to improve periodic error just a bit, or improve go-to just a bit, or improve the mount’s steadiness just a bit. What he would up with was a boxful of junk parts. Unless you are experienced and skilled and have the tools and facility for doing such messing around, LEAVE YOUR SCOPE ALONE. If it is doing what it’s supposed to do, forget the stuff on the I-net and just enjoy the sky. NO telescope is absolutely perfect or ever will be. If your instrument is clearly malfunctioning, call the manufacturer or dealer. If it’s not, LEAVE YOUR SCOPE ALONE.
Yes, the Obsession Dobsonian mentioned above, with its beautiful premium mirror, might present slightly, and I do mean slightly, better images than a prole Orion, but that difference will be small. Frankly, it’ll be too small for most beginners to notice. 99% of the time, those who consider themselves “Advanced Amateurs” won’t be able to tell the difference, either. One other dirty little secret? As aperture goes up, the quality of a mirror’s figure becomes less important. When you get to 20-inches and above, seeing will rarely—if ever—allow that super primary’s (kaff-kaff) supposed 1/20th wave figure to make a difference.
I ain’t telling you to forego an Obsession (or a Starmaster or a Starstructure or an AP or a Tak or any other high-priced scope). One can be a fine instrument, and for those who can afford one, I say “Go for it.” I am just saying that if you cannot or choose not to afford a scope of such caliber, do not despair. What you can see in your humble Skywatcher 12-inch will be very similar—nay, pretty much identical—to what you will see in a 12-inch Obsession or any other similar 12-inch Newtonian. Don’t waste dark sky time pinin’ for the better. The better will come your way one day if you stick with us. For now, just get out and enjoy our wonderful avocation.
Optical Cleaning Compulsion
Amateur obsessions don’t end with obsessing about big Obsessions. One other thing I see a lot on the computer BBS bulletin boards (yeah, that’s what I still call ‘em) concerns optical cleanliness. This obsession is mostly confined to the novices. Those of us who have been in the game for more than a year or two are mostly aware that a speck of dust or three on the mirror (or objective or corrector plate) ain’t gonna do a damned thing to harm images. Think about it: for a change in brightness level to be detectable by the human eye/brain, that change must be on the order of 10%. A speck of dust, or a hundred specks of dust, ain’t gonna be able to do that. Same goes for contrast degradation. Your optical surface will pretty much look like a mass of scratches and sleeks before you notice a difference.
Beginners, unfortunately, don’t know the above—or can’t seem to believe it. They encounter some dust motes in the course of admiring their telescope indoors, PANIC, and begin asking the folks on Cloudy Nights about cleaning. Granted, the way most beginners examine their optics does make them look terrible, even frightening. They use The Flashlight Test. They view the optics under bright and usually oblique light. Which, seems right to ‘em: you always use a bright light when doing critical work, doncha? That might be true when you are looking for your Aunt Lulu’s lost contact lens, but not when examining optics.
You see, The Flashlight Test will make any optics, lenses or mirrors, no matter how clean and perfect, look absolutely horrible. No optical surface is perfectly smooth at the microscopic level. There is plenty of roughness there to scatter the uber-short wavelengths of visible light. That light is scattered across the surface, and dust and small imperfections stand out in stark relief. The result is that the novice freaks.
If all The Flashlight Test resulted in was novices wasting time cleaning their already clean mirrors, it would be funny. But it ain’t funny. Every time you clean an optical surface, even a fairly robust one like an SCT or Mak corrector or refractor objective, you run the risk of doing more harm than good. What profitith it an amateur to clean a dust speck off her mirror if’n she leaves a big scratch behind?
Mirrors can be cleaned with relative safety, but why run the risk when it’s not necessary? If in doubt as to whether optics are “dirty enough,” ask a local veteran amateur to run an eye over ‘em. The classic story about unneeded cleaning? One I got from Doc Clay (Sherrod). You’d have to hear him tell it to get the full frightening (if, I must admit, also a little funny) effect. It begins with a speck of dust on the primary of a brand spankin’ new Meade LX200 and winds up with the telescope in a bathtub full of water (!). My last word on the subject is that it would do a lot of new amateurs a lot of good to see how dirty professional scope optics are allowed to get before they are cleaned.
Secondary Obstruction Blues
This one comes from all and sundry. Even from the refractor troops who don’t got secondary obstructions (maybe it’s Displacement due to the Aperture Envy many of ‘em suffer). If you don’t own a refractor it’s (almost) assured your telescope will contain a secondary mirror suspended in front of the primary one. And there’s the rub. Obviously, that mirror will block some incoming light, reducing image brightness. It will also reduce contrast due to diffraction effects. That’s the jumping off point for many folks’ secondary obsessions which, unlike Aperture Envy, have to do with TOO BIG rather than TOO SMALL.
What’s the ground truth? There is some reality to these worries. A secondary mirror will reduce light throughput somewhat. But only somewhat. Take, for example, the case of an 8-inch SCT with a 3-inch secondary mirror. That’s a large secondary, on the upper end of what you see in scopes at least partially intended for visual use; it has to be for a number of reasons. The effect on light gathering? The 3-inch secondary means the optical system delivers 14% less light than an 8-inch refractor. Noticeable, but only just. And that is compared to an unobstructed 8-inch telescope, not a common or cheap item (in the form of either a refractor or an unobstructed reflector design). It just kills me that folks think they are improving their Newtonians by downsizing their secondaries to the point where they might just as well be using a smaller scope.
What do I often hear at clubs or on the ‘Net regardin’ secondary obstruction? The voice of DOOM. Some Authority proclaims, “A 6-inch telescope with a 2-inch secondary mirror has the light gathering power of a 4-inch refractor.” Not true. Area, which determines light gathering, is being confusticated with diameter. The diameter of a secondary mirror does come into play, but that’s when we’re talking contrast loss. The percentage of the obstruction by diameter is supposed to determine contrast characteristics of an obstructed system. I say “supposed to” because I rarely detect huge differences in contrast due to secondary size until the secondary becomes obscenely large (as in a Richey Chrétien). Truth is, when you put a secondary of any size in the light path, most of the damage is done.
It’s maybe not public knowledge, though I don’t try to hide it, but I own a couple of nice APO refractors. They ain’t exactly top-of-the-line, but they work very well for what I use ‘em for, and I love them. I just want to put the kibosh on the idea many beginners pick up and sometimes revisit when they ain’t beginners no more, that refractors are the magic bullet. Yes, they have advantages, but they are not the cure. Maybe you gain some contrast, but you lose a lot of aperture dollar-for-dollar. That may be acceptable for what you want to do, or it may not be. Before you jump, especially if you are a visual observer, set your C8 up next to that 4-inch TakaPhysics APO at the next star party, point ‘em both at M13, and have a look at similar magnifications. Maybe you should be enjoying what you have.
Periodic Error Terror
Telescope drive gears ain’t perfect. None of ‘em. Every set will have small defects that make them jig and jog over time, mostly in a regular and periodic fashion in the case of high quality gears. When I was a young feller, I figured all you needed to do long exposure astrophotography was a drive. Turn it on, open the camera’s shutter, and walk away. Any wonder my first pictures looked like I deliberately set out to do star trails? I learned a little more, tightened up my polar alignment, and tried again. A detectable (barely) but minimal improvement. Finally, I ran across a discussion of periodic error in a Sky and Telescope. Oh. You had to “guide.” That’s what them “driver correctors” was for. Dangit.
A lot of folks obsess about PE. How much error is too much? Twenty years ago, when I was just getting back into astrophotography after a considerable hiatus, “30-arc seconds” was considered quite respectable. Today, if you tell a prospective buyer a mount’s PE comes in at around that figger, the reaction is “Oh, it’s JUNK, huh?” 30-arc seconds, however, which most midline Chinese imports, like the CGEM and Atlas, come in at is easily good enough to produce excellent guided pictures, just as it was when I was shooting 35mm Fujicolor. Hell, now, with autoguiding and PEC, Periodic Error Correction, PE worries should be a thing of the past. They ain’t.
So why do folks get hung up on this? Because the periodic error of a mount is a quantifiable thing. It’s comforting to believe you can buy your way into good images if you just give Uncle Roland (or the Bisques or Takahashi) enough bucks for a mount with a low PE spec. Sad thing is, the first images from that wonder mount are usually not much better than those of a dadgummed Atlas. Even with a top-of-the line GEM, things like polar alignment and balance still matter. That is, astrophotography still ain’t easy. You cannot buy your way to good pictures. Getting to the holy grail of some folks, unguided imaging, generally requires not just a mount in the 10 grand-and-up category, but a permanent installation, and lots of cutting and trying.
Again, as with our other obsessions, I am not telling you not to go for the best mount you can get. In astrophotography, good gear does make getting good pictures easier. I’m just saying that not being able to afford an AP1200 doesn’t mean you can’t get good images. Even if you do eventually move up to a Hulk-o-matic German mount, the experience you gained with your Atlas or G11 will stand you in good stead. Gear is important in imaging, but experience is still what counts most.
Well, tarnation. We have just about run out of space and time (sorry, Professor Einstein). And I was worried about not having much to say. Summing up? You and me will likely always wish for More Better Gooder when it comes to telescopes. Cool astro stuff is a big part of the enjoyment many of us have in amateur astronomy. Which ain’t a bad thing. Not till it turns into obsession, anyhow. Till it makes you unable to enjoy the Universe with what you have. If you find that happenin’ to you, the cure is simple.
Turn off the pea-picking computer, get what you have out under the best skies you have, and push it. As hard as you can. I don’t mean 5-minutes on M42 and then back inside to watch yet another episode of Jersey Shore, either. When you are done, consider the wonders you have witnessed. No, that still won’t entirely silence the little voice that whispers, “But Uncle Rod, with an HD 1400 you could…” But it keeps me happy enough with the humble telescopes I have that I can leave tomorrow’s telescope to tomorrow.
Finally, y’all, HAPPY FAT TUESDAY! Don’t do nothin’ I wouldn’t do! Excelsior…
Sunday, February 07, 2010
This is not what I had planned for this week, y’all. As they say, “events done overtook me.”
Can we stop here a minute so I can get my soapbox out again? The last time I did that, with a little piece called “To Light One Candle,” I took some brickbats to the head. But think I got even more complements on that piece, which concerned the state of scientific literacy in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and those sticky sidebars, Evolution and Creationism. So here I go again.
A political animal I ain’t. Not since the 1960s and my (slightly foolish) youth, at least. I mostly keep my party affiliation (if any) to myself. I invariably excuse myself from star party bull sessions when the subject turns to “Democrats versus Republicans.” I keep abreast of the political news, but I don’t follow it obsessively. I find that keeps my hairline intact and my blood pressure down. Life’s too short to spend it arguing politics in these days when “argument” consists of “I talk, YOU listen.”
I ain’t gonna sit here and tell you our current President was my first choice for the office, but I don’t look on politics as a zero-sum game, either. And I ain’t gonna grab up my tinfoil hat and run around like a chicken with its head off squealing that our President is an illegal alien (prob’ly from Zeta Reticuli II). I hope Obama does his level best for our country and is very successful in getting us on our feet again, and if my support contributes to that goal in some small way, Obama damned sure has it.
There comes a time, though, where even apolitical li’l ol’ me decides it’s time to raise his voice. When a President screws up, and screws up so royally, that I begin to fear it will affect not just my children and their children, may not just harm America, but will have an impact on the long-term survival of the human race. What the hail am I talking about? President Obama’s recent budget/policy decision concerning the fate of NASA’s manned space program. What he decided is, essentially, that we do not need and will not have a manned space program.
NASA and Unk (and a whole bunch more Baby-boomers) got going at about the same time. I was a four year old sprout when the Russkies orbited Sputnik and what a time that was. I clearly recall the night The Old Man (a.k.a. “The Chief Op”) invited the neighbors over to listen to Sputnik’s beeps on one of his big HF radio receivers. I don’t remember anybody stepping outside to take a look at the sky, so I assume it must have been cloudy in Possum Swamp that evening—not exactly an unusual occurrence.
What I do remember is the long faces on my dad’s pals. After the women adjourned to the kitchen to help Mama, Daddy passed out Spearman Ales, and he and the guys sat around in his (radio) Shack talking in hushed whispers. What they said, I don’t know. Probably I didn’t hear or I didn’t understand, but today I expect the discussion went along these lines: “Frank, it won’t be long before those Commie sonsabitches put an H-bomb on them Sputniks. What we gonna do? I bet they got a camera on it already. Probably watchin’ us right now!”
So what? Just that space was something Real Important back then, not just to me, but to almost everybody. Little Rod and most of the rest of the folks on this pebble in the sky were glued to the tube and the edge of our seats all through Mercury, Gemini, past the Apollo I fire, and on to the Moon landing. July 20, 1969 had to be experienced to be understood. We—by which I mean most of the world—were one people when Armstrong and Aldrin walked. Oh, there were naysayers even then; there always are: “Too expensive. What good is it? Let’s fix all the problems on Earth first.” Nobody paid much attention to them, though, not then. The benefits of the space program, ranging from spin-offs (which, interestingly, do not include Tang and Teflon), the jobs, and the fact that we were sticking a toe in the great cosmic ocean we’d have to learn to swim if the Human Race were to survive into Deep Time seemed obvious.
“What happened?” Why did the most of us stop watching the skies (I’ve still got my Marx Cape Canaveral Playset)? A one-two punch. Unfortunately, the Apollo program’s triumph coincided with the “undesirable outcome”—not quite defeat, but close to it—in Vietnam. The country had a hangover that Apollo couldn’t cure. Oh, economics were part of it. A small part. The abruptly cancelled Apollos 18 – 20 had essentially already been paid for. Then as now, continuing NASA expenditures weren’t a huge burden on the budget, with anything NASA could even dream of paling beside LBJ’s Great Society programs, which were now firmly entrenched.
What really did it? What started the decline was that the landing on the Moon took place during the tenure of a President who wasn’t much interested in space, and who was soon too distracted by personal issues to give a flip about the Moon. Congress was mostly out of the space business, too, except for those legislators whose districts held lots of NASA jobs. One of our parties had changed course fairly sharply to the left, and some of its members were convinced their liberal constituents didn’t care pea-turkey about space (not necessarily true, but that was the assumption and often still is).
Worse, there’s no doubt Mom and Pop America weren’t as captivated by man-in-space as they’d once been. As I’ve said before, most of us weren’t interested in space or science per se, anyhow. It was the sporting aspect of it that grabbed us. The race to the Moon with us versus the dadgummed commies. That was now decided, so what was there to care about?
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a thing folks at NASA could have been done to restart the Space Race. The Russian Moon program dissolved as their economy began (or continued) to implode and they spent their last rubles, not on Moon rockets, but on SS-18 Satans. They weren’t just out of the Race, they were out of the non-defense-related space bidness altogether except in a comparatively minor way. They decided what little money they had to spend would best be spent with orbiting space stations; especially those with potential military usefulness.
It was at this time, when the U.S. manned space program was on the edge of a knife and could have fallen either way, that the government (with some help from NASA themselves) well and truly screwed the pooch. As directed by the politicians of the 1970s, the Agency shelved plans for the Mars program that would presumably have followed Apollo, began to lay-off or retire their German rocket scientists (supposedly, Nixon had long yearned for that), and began casting about for something cheaper, easier, and less controversial that would keep them all employed over the short run. Their conclusion? Like the Russians, they thought space stations sounded good.
Skylab, which was done relatively cheaply using a leftover Saturn booster and one of the remaining Apollo Command/Service Module pairs, was a good start. Unfortunately, the promising Skylab was allowed to unceremoniously re-enter the atmosphere way before its time. NASA decided they didn’t have the money to save it; every penny was needed for The Next Big Thing. There’s no denying Skylab wasn’t much of a hit with the public, anyhow (about as well-liked as Comet Kahoutek whose visit coincided with one of the Skylab missions). Skylab vs. Almaz ain’t exactly Apollo versus Soyuz.
Alas, NASA had learned the art of compromise too well. A series of Administrations got their eyes on NASA’s budget, and wanted to know if the Shuttle couldn’t be done cheaper. And cheaper. And cheaper. NASA, in the interest of staying in business, kept whittling down farsighted NASA Administrator Tom Paine's ambitious Shuttles and we wound up with the model we had to learn to love and live with for thirty years. One able to reach low earth orbit (LEO) and nothing else.
Not that the Shuttle was a complete disaster as a spacecraft. The HST servicing missions were real and true triumphs and showed that a few smart humans can accomplish more than any robot. Yes, we lost two Shuttles, but, while that’s tragic, the spacecraft’s record is still a good one considering the number of flights and its years in service. The Space Shuttle, like any space-going craft we or anybody else have built or likely will build for a long time, had more in common with an experimental aircraft than a Boeing 747. Yes, it was horrible to lose two Shuttle crews, but it was also horrible to lose the test pilots who, for example, rode their F-104s down. There is no doubt every one of these hero pilots and astronauts knew the calculus of the possibilities for disaster and believed the answer was “Worth It.”
When Columbia lifted off for the first time, I felt a resurgence of the old American thirst for space. But that didn’t last. There were no Russkies to race, but what was more problematical was that there was nowhere to go. The Shuttle went round and round, performing and re-performing weightless experiments on mice and bugs. Soon, even NASA’s staunchest supporters began to wonder where the hell this was getting us. The Shuttle went nowhere, literally and figuratively. Worries after Challenger’s loss severely restricted work with satellites, commercial or otherwise. The killer, though, was that NASA had no larger dreams, and even if it had had any, it was not clear how the Shuttle could contribute. Few at the Agency dared whisper “Mars” or even “Moon” anymore. If there was a goal, it was just keeping themselves and their contractors on the receiving end of paychecks.
Because of an understandable desire to keep gainfully employed and to accomplish something, no matter how minor, NASA’s chiefs didn’t have the balls to stand up to the politicians and insist on ambitious long term goals, just as they hadn’t had the spines to decline to cheapen the Shuttle to near uselessness. If people up and down the food chain at NASA had told the politicians, “Sorry, no can do” when the Shuttle was fatally compromised, things might have been different in the coming decades. Not that the NASA honchos didn’t eventually realize there was a malaise abroad in Houston and that they needed somethin’ other than the Shuttle. With the help of the politicians, they came up with a near-term goal, the International Space Station. The ISS wasn’t a bad concept at first. Even with the cold war beginning to wind down, engendering cooperation between us and the Soviets was a good thing.
In the end, of course, the ISS wasn’t a good thing at all. Before long, there were no Soviets and no hot strategic pot boiling to cool down. After a while, it became apparent that the committee-designed ISS wasn’t much of a space station, either, and wasn’t capable of doing most of the things we’d heretofore associated with space stations. In its final form, it wasn’t any good for astronomy, it wasn’t even as capable of Earth observation tasks as some of the Soviet military stations had been. And there was no provision for using it as an orbital construction shack to build deeper-ranging manned spacecraft (if anyone had dared suggest such a thing). There was a joke going around in the aerospace community that offers a glimpse of the real and sad truth: “Q: What’s the Shuttle for? A: To get to the ISS. Q: Well, what’s the ISS for? A: To give the Shuttle someplace to go.”
George Bush the Younger is not an overly popular ex President. By the end of his second term his vaunted “political capital” had been well and truly squandered. I’ll leave the verdict on Dubya to those to whom it rightfully belongs, the historians of the next century. But I don’t believe there’s ever been a Chief Executive who didn’t make a single good decision—well, maybe William Henry Harrison. Dubya? One day, out of the blue in a speech at NASA headquarters in January of ought-four, he went beyond the standard NASA speech (“vision…blah-blah-blah…great achievements…blah-blah-blah…future accomplishments…blah-blah-blah) and said things I’d figgered I’d never live to hear a U.S. President say again: not only were we going back to the Moon, we were going on to Mars, and he expected NASA to find a way to do it:
Inspired by all that has come before, and guided by clear objectives, today we set a new course for America's space program. We will give NASA a new focus and vision for future exploration. We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own.
Reactions? Joe and Jane America seemed to give their assent—maybe even tinged with some of that long-lost enthusiasm—for a return to the Moon. The most common comment I heard? Not "Why?" but “I always wondered why we never went back.” The critics, of course trotted out their usual and ever more tired objections: “Don’t see why, too expensive, robots can do it better.” Along with a new one: “Just rehashing Apollo.”
The first objections are both easy and hard to counter. There are people who, for a variety of reasons, from the economic to the political to the religious, do not think Men and Women should voyage into space at all, much less to the Moon. They can’t be convinced otherwise. Luckily they are a very small minority.
Then there are the folks who parrot the “robots can do it better/cheaper/safer” party line. In some cases they are right, but not always or even often. I don’t mean to minimize the incredible accomplishments of the current Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, or the people who made and make their missions such a success. But, really, there isn’t much doubt that one PhD geologist with boots on the ground could have accomplished tremendously more in far less time. Sending men and women into the Great Out There goes beyond the gathering of knowledge, though, to the realm of inspiration, and laying the groundwork for what must come in the future if we are to survive.
“How about safety? It’s dangerous to travel in space!” Yes, it is. It will be for a long time. It was also dangerous to descend from the trees and walk the savannah. It was dangerous to sail the world’s vast oceans in tiny wooden boats. It was dangerous to cross the Atlantic alone in a single-engine aircraft. Some people will always prefer to stay home in safety. Others believe We Were Born to Go, and gladly and even eagerly accept the inevitable risks.
We’ve heard these complaints before, but something new has been added this time, “We’re just rehashing Apollo.” That is just plain silly. The only “rehashing” is that we are going back to Luna after an absence of 38 years and that the Orion capsule looks a lot like an Apollo Command Module. Looks deceive. It is considerably larger and much more sophisticated. Yes, its cone shape makes it look like the CM, but given my days in the USAF ICBM program, I can tell you that a cone is still the best shape for a reentry vehicle.
There things lay as Bush left and Obama took over. What did I think would happen to Constellation under the new regime? I couldn’t begin to guess. Post-LBJ, it’s true the Democratic party has not always been overly space-friendly (neither have the Republicans). Initially, the New Guy sounded OK; during the campaign, Obama told us he wanted to expand NASA, and wanted us to dream of doing extraordinary things in space again. There was a hiccup when the new President seemed to say he was considering diverting a part of NASA’s budget to education (though the money spent on the Department of Education absolutely dwarfs NASA’s budget). Mr. Obama quickly reassured us, however, that he was “raised on Star Trek,” and was very space aware and friendly. Hell, he and Michelle hosted a star party on the lawn of the White House and looked through a C8 (!). I was still hopeful.
Then the nerves of us space nuts began to get a little frayed. Obama decided he’d have an “independent” Panel look at NASA and Constellation. The findings? This Panel determined that it would take more money than NASA was being given to develop all the new hardware and run missions to the Moon. Which was no surprise; it was obvious the Bushies had not given NASA the budget for such relatively ambitious plans. The good part was that, according to the Panel, the extra money needed was fairly modest in gubmint terms. About three billion more a year. Yeah, that ain’t exactly pin money, but our government didn’t flinch at spending over a billion to help folks buy digital converter boxes so they could continue to watch reruns of Family Feud. Gull dern it, they doled out three billion in their silly (I thought it was) Cash for Clunkers Program, alone.
Shortly, I—and other spacies—began to get even more nervous. The word of the street was that all Obama and Company were thinking was “OVER BUDGET.” That NASA had screwed up. They couldn’t do the job for the money they’d asked for and been given. NASA is somewhat to blame. They’ve too long been content to jump on whatever bucks they can get out of the politicos (“WE CAN DO IT FOR THAT MUCH!”) while hoping to wheedle more later. Of course, you also have to question the sense of people in the Administration (assuming we believe the money is the real problem for them) who don’t understand that when you are building a brand new anything—airplane or automobile much less spacecraft—there are Unknowns and Unexpecteds that mean you will spend more than you thought. Every single, blinkin’ time.
That we were correct to be afraid of what Obama might do was made clear last month when budget rumors began to trickle-out with a vengeance. The first of these was that Obama would not make any kind of special announcement regarding the NASA budget. It would be included in his speech concerning his overall proposal. That told me the Administration either didn’t care much about space or was worried about the reaction their proposed space budget would cause or, more likely, both.
We didn’t have to wonder long. Shortly, the NASA budget was on the street. First as a leak, and then in black and white. Constellation was dead. No Moon. Period. Maybe Mars someday, but with the emphasis on “someday,” certainly not as a plan or goal. Maybe we’d do Mars, or maybe a Near Earth Asteroid, or maybe one of the Martian Moons, but that would be with hardware yet to be designed or even conceived. It was made very clear that these things were just possibilities and not set in even the softest stone. How about the LEO leg of the Constellation tripod? Nope that was gone too. Ares I was cancelled. Even if it hadn’t been, there wouldn’t be any Orion to heft into LEO. That was, with the Moon/Mars Constellation components, dead.
That was the take; what was the give? The Administration proposed that the life of the ISS be extended to 2020. For the immediate future, U.S. astronauts would ride Soyuz. There would be a modest increase in NASA’s budget of a little less than 1 billion for the forthcoming year. That would be used on development of new technology (exactly what wasn’t said), and, especially, satellites to monitor earth resources and global warming. I suppose the politicians figgered that telling the American public we would have to rely on the Russians for transport to the ISS might not go over too well, so the Administration announced that a new Earth-to-LEO spacecraft would be developed by “private industry.” Which private industry and when was left to our imaginations.
The reasons given for this volte-face? The Constellation program wasn’t just over budget according to Administration flaks. It was flawed. We were left to our own devices in deciding how an underfunded program could be “over budget,” and why a brand new booster, which had just been successfully tested in a semi-full-up manner, was so flawed. Yes…the Ares I has some problems. So did Titan and Atlas and Saturn at this point in their development cycles. There is no reason to think Ares I, Orion, Altair, and Ares V wouldn’t have survived whatever growing pains they’d inevitably suffer.
The reaction? Pretty predictable. The manned space naysayers were happy. The space nuts like yours truly were devastated. Some Republicans who don’t care much about space used this as a cudgel to beat the new President for “ignorance and shortsightedness.” Some Democrats who don’t care pea turkey about space used this to give Obama laurels for his “vision and practicality.” Certainly it hasn’t all gone down along party lines or manned space-anti manned space lines, either. Some insiders, including astronauts--notably Buzz Aldrin--and some space advocacy groups, seem happy with the Obama decision (the last man on the Moon, Gene Cernan, has just come out strongly against the Obama Plan).
Me, I think the yea-sayer in the pro-space community are whistling in the dark. Some of us have grown so weary of NASA’s indecision and lack of goals we are ready to embrace anything that looks like a clean break with the recent past. I would be too if I thought the President’s new policy were that. It ain’t, folks. Examine it closely and it falls apart like a house of cards made of wet toilet paper.
Let’s see. We are going to ditch Ares I and go to an LEO transportation system built by private industry. I reckon it was a surprise to Rocketdyne, Alliant, and Boeing, who were/are building Ares I, that they are not “private industry.” What Obama is doing is stopping a program that is beginning to show progress and promise and going back to square one. What will we buy? Who knows? Whether it is SpaceX’s Falcon/Dragon, or a man-rated Delta or Atlas accompanied by some yet undesigned capsule, or what, it won’t be ready any time soon.
SpaceX, for example, implies they can be launching astronauts to the ISS in two or three years. That, despite the fact that they’ve managed to orbit exactly one small satellite thus far after numerous attempts. We are now to believe they will be able to field an advanced and safe manned spacecraft capable of doing rendezvous and docking in two or three years? Puh-leeze. My guess is that there will not be anything available to transport our astronauts to LEO before 2020. And if a similar Administration is in power at that time, I’m guessing they’ll just decide that without the ISS we don’t need an LEO system at all. It will be cancelled or allowed to wither on the vine.
What is most ridiculous? Obama seems to think he’ll save money on LEO by starting over with new players, with some Apple computer of space hardware. That might be true if we could expect private industry to spend their own money on the spacecraft and booster. Do you think any company will do that, spend the multi-billions required, on the outside chance they’ll eventually make lots of money sending astronauts into Earth orbit for the government? Or that they will clean up on space tourism? If you do, I have a nice bridge for you. When all is said and done, the taxpayers will wind up spending exactly as much, if not more, than we would have on Ares I. And it will be a standalone, not part of a system like Constellation.
I could go on. I’m a-gettin’ madder by the minute. There’s no money for a Moon program, but there is plenty for a high-speed Amtrak line in Florida (billions and billions) that I guarantee nobody will ride, will never be profitable, and which will suck down dump truckfuls of OUR money for however long it is allowed to. Yeah, I’m mad. Enough talkin’. What can be done?
Do not wait for 2012 to vote these suckers out of office if you believe that is the cure. The gigantic oil tanker that is the U.S. government will have changed course by then, and it will take a long, long time to move it back to the correct heading. Nope, the thing to do is contact your Senators and Representatives now and let them know you think this “plan” of Obama’s is a huge mistake. Yeah, “contact your Congressman” sounds corny—but it can still work and will work if enough of us do it.
We won’t always have this pretty planet. Someday something will happen. It could be tomorrow. It could be in a thousand years. It could be in a million. If you, like me, want to see us or our distant descendants keep on keepin’ on, the time to act is now. There may be plenty of time to get all our eggs out of one basket. Or there may not be. There will most assuredly not be enough time if we, like this Administration, always put it off to “someday.”
Postscript: If you’d like to see a good, if maybe a wee bit slightly over the top, video on this subject, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2IQVZmHnJQ Certainly, I expect y’all will let me know what you think of this article. I’m e’en now practicin’ my runnin’ and duckin’.