Sunday, June 30, 2013


Space Truckin’

We had a lot of luck on Venus
We always had a ball on Mars
Meeting all the groovy people
We've rocked the Milky Way so far
We danced around with Borealis
We're space truckin' round the the stars
Come on, let's go Space Truckin'!

—Deep Purple

If you’re going to observe profitably at a distant star party, muchachos, or even at a not so distant one, you have to get your astro-stuff there. Given the propensity of today’s amateurs to accumulate ever-greater amounts of gear, that’s not always easy, and I’m often asked, and not just by pea-picking novices, “Unk, how the heck do I get it all in the car?”

It used to be a lot simpler. Back in the blessed (or not so blessed) days of the early 1970s, I didn’t pack much stuff. There wasn’t a lot of stuff to pack. You had a telescope optical tube, a mount, an observing table (I used a TV tray), a box of eyepieces, a star atlas, and a red flashlight. Oh, there might be a few ancillary items like a thermos of coffee and a portable 8-track player for listening to Deep Purple’s Machine Head in the wee hours—which served to keep inimical wildlife at bay—but life was purty simple.

The worst part of packing for a deep sky expedition for your not-so-old Uncle in the 70s was maneuvering my 8-inch f/7 Cave OTA into my Dodge Dart. Getting it back in that lousy Dodge for the return trip in the wee, cold hours wasn’t much fun either. And wrestling with the GEM mount’s sixties-style pedestal was worse—just had to take them cotton-picking legs off. But packing didn’t require planning. Get that big white tube in the car somehow, partially disassemble the mount and throw it in the trunk, toss whatever else you had in after it and you were ready to rock.

There things remained for quite a while. Actually, packing got substantially easier. The Orange Tube C8 that displaced the Cave in my affections was quicker to load. Yes, the footlocker it came in was a bit of a pain, but it was still easier to manage than that long white tube, fitting in either the backseat or trunk without a fuss. You couldn’t collapse the legs of the original Celestron tripod, but at least you could fold ‘em in, and the Celestron “triangle” tripod was a pleasure compared to a pedestal.

My years of easy, casual star party packing ended in the early 1990s due to three changes in my observing life. I went to a larger telescope, a hot water heater style Meade StarFinder Dobsonian, I began attending distant star parties with my new wife, Miss Dorothy, and, by the time the decade was out, even luddite old Unk had embraced wired astronomy:  computers and CCDs.

The biggest deal was the 12-inch Meade Dobbie. I didn’t pack her all the time, mind you, but she was a frequent star party scope for us in the 1990s. Today, even mass-produced and inexpensive Dobsonians like the Orion (Synta) Dobs can be had in truss tube form and can be disassembled for relatively easy transport. Twenty years ago? Not so much, unless you were willing and able to spend for the high priced spread like Obsession. Otherwise, if you wanted a 12-inch or 16-inch or 17.5-inch telescope and couldn’t pay a lot for it, you got a Sonotube Dob.

The big help in those days, as I’ve written before, was that I had a little hatchback car, a Hyundai Excel. If ever there was a perfect automobile for the traveling astronomer, it was the hatchback. While most of ‘em were small, they were able to accommodate a surprising amount of gear and were easy to load. Hell, I got Miss D., Old Betsy (the Meade StarFinder), and all the astro-junk we needed for four days at a star party in the Excel for the 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

All too soon, the Hyundai was history and the more “adult” Toyota sedans I moved to didn’t want to have a thing to do with Betsy. That was OK, I was back to SCTs in a big way by then, and when I began feeling the need for Bets’ horsepower again, I converted her into a truss tube (or more properly my ATM friend Pat Rochford did). Any packing headaches in the latter part of the 90s and into the new century had more to do with stuff other than the scope. I’d moved from a scope, eyepieces, a small table, and a simple tarp-like picnic canopy to computers, video cameras, enormous ice chests, big tables, video monitors, DVD recorders, humongous tailgating canopies, observing chairs, camp chairs, and—well you get the picture—for every star party.

Anyhoo, my biggest challenge of the 1990s was the 1999 Texas Star Party—an event I ought to tell y’all about some Sunday. The “nuff said” on that TSP is that it turned out to be a great one, with some of the best skies TSP has ever experienced. But I had to get me, Miss Dorothy, Old Betsy, the observing gear, and enough camping equipment for a week way out west all the way to Prude Ranch.

Being able to break Betsy into components helped, but the secret was planning where and how everything would go in the Camry and going slow with the gear loading. I gave the packing problem a lot of thought, and did quite a bit of experimenting. I didn’t just start throwing junk in the trunk on the morning we headed west on I-10. And that is what you need to do, too: plan and prepare. Even if you have a larger vehicle than I did back in ’99, and even if you’re just going a couple of hours from home.

The first thing to decide is “which vehicle?” Many families have more than one car, and if you have a family, you may have some options. “Bigger is better” is the main thing. If you’ve got a Smartcar and a mini-van, you naturally choose the mini-van, all things being equal. All things are not always equal, howsomeever, so wargame it well. Yes, a mini-van  has more space, supposedly, than a sedan, but if you can’t fold down or remove the rear seats, or it’s so difficult to do so you know you won’t fool with it, you may find the sedan with its trunk has more useable space.

How about a new vehicle? If you’re getting ready to change horses prior to the TSP (or your big do of choice)? I’ve never been inclined to let my telescopes choose my automobiles, but I will say that one of the best things I’ve done to make my star party trips more enjoyable is to give up my beloved Camry for a 4Runner. I had more reasons for switching hosses than just wanting to tote telescopes, but that was a consideration. Anyhow, the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, has more space, but, even better, it’s astronomy friendly space. Not only does her back seat fold down, it folds down flat, making packing amazingly easy. And she has plenty of other useful features like AC power outlets and tie-downs.

Howsomeever…as I soon found out, just getting a bigger vee-hickle doesn’t mean you can just throw stuff in willy-nilly and boogie. What I’ve found is that as the size of your transport expands, so does the amount of gear you’ll want to put in it. Whether you’ve got a Prius or a 4Runner, you need to do what I did before the TSP: go slow, decide exactly what to take, and cogitate on how the puzzle pieces will fit together.

I don’t care how large your Detroit iron is, the most important thing you can do for yourself is decide what can be left at home. That doesn’t just make fitting everything you need into the available space easier, it makes that always-depressing packing at the end of the star party less onerous. Best way to approach it? When your stuff is laid out prior to packing, cull the items you took last time and didn’t use. Then work on them. Which of the things in that pile have you NEVER used at a star party?

You always bring a CD player and a mess of disks, even though you prefer to chat with your buddies on the field, or, in the wee hours, listen to the sounds of nature? Leave it behind. It’s a small thing, but small things add up. You load three camp chairs, but only one has ever been sat on? The other two stay home. You like to bring your 80mm refractor along “just in case,” even though you have yet to look through it at a star party? Sorry Charlie. Those binoculars that seem like a good idea, but never some out of their case? Same-same.

“But Unk Rod, this is my first star party. I don’t know what to bring.” That’s OK, Skeezix…we’ve all been there and done that. I have got you covered here and here with answers to your questons on what to bring, how to set it up, and what to do with it at the dagnabbed star party.

“OK Unk, so exactly how do I do it?” Let me preface this by saying I don’t haul a 20-inch Dobsonian or a 14-inch SCT around, but, then again, neither do most of y’all. I do go to a lot of star parties, have been going to them for decades, and have learned a thing or two about packing astro-junk over those years. Anyhoo, the first step is marshalling your stuff somewhere a couple of days before the event.

If you have a wonderful spouse like I do, you do that in the living room (“Front Parlor” in Chaos Manor South Speak). There are two reasons for laying the gear out early. First is that you want to get a good idea of exactly how much stuff you are going to take so you can give some thought to exactly how you are a-gonna fit it in the vehicle. The second reason is more important:  assembling all your stuff beforehand lessens the chance of forgetting something.

I’ve been using an equipment checklist for years now. Several checklists as a matter of fact. One for video imaging, one for visual, one for DSLRing, etc. But you have got to be careful. My checklist says “NexStar 11 tripod,” for example, and that is cool. But I neglected to break it down further, to “NexStar 11 tripod and tripod spreader.” The result being that one time I forgot that spreader, which had become separated from the tripod after my return from the previous CAV trip. It was not a fatal lapse, but was annoying. Having all the stuff laid out for a couple of days gives me a chance to check and double check, inspecting each item.

One other thing I do these days is load up the 4Runner on Star Party Eve. That is probably the best change I’ve made to my packing routine in years. Getting the astro stuff in the vehicle the night before departure means I’ve got plenty of time to solve any packing problems that show up, and I’m not tired and sweaty and aggravated on star party morning, which makes for a more pleasant trip. Worried about leaving stuff in the car overnight? I’ve never had a problem despite our downtown address, but you may want to leave obviously valuable things like laptops and cameras in the house till morning.

Alrighty, then. Here’s exactly how I do it. It’s the night before Chiefland and all through the house, yadda, yadda, yadda… The best thing about packing ahead of time is that my stress level is low. I can get ‘er done, but take ‘er easy, and there is the reward of a cold “sarsaparilly” when the work is done. As above, I’ve gone over my checklist a time or three and eyeballed everything. Finally, it’s time to get that mountain of junk in the 4Runner, which I have prepared before beginning.

Back when I had a Camry, said preparation consisted of lowering the back seat so there was an opening between it and the trunk, yielding as much space as the four-door sedan could give. Today, I lower Miss Van Pelt’s back seats, which is real easy with a 4Runner.

Where do I start? With either the 4Runner or the Camry, I’ve always begun with the tailgating canopy in its case. It’s big and heavy and I don’t want it on top of anything else. It goes up against the front seats, as far forward as I can get it. In the Camry days, I’d have moved both front seats as far forward as me and Dorothy could stand.

Up next is the tripod, which I place on top of the canopy’s case. I always remove the tripod spreader so the legs can be folded in as far as they will go. I don’t remove that spreader till just before I load the tripod, though, and I either place it in the middle of the floor in the house or in a temporary place in the 4Runner so I don’t forget it (again).

Tripod secured, I work from there to the rear end of Miss Van Pelt (don’t tell her I mentioned her rear end, y’all). Next item up is the scope case, usually either one of the C8 OTAs or the NexStar 11.  The folded-up observing table is laid flat just aft of the scope. It’s on the bottom and I’ll be stacking stuff on it, but not the scope, which would be too heavy and could damage it (in the Camry days, the table stood on edge up against the front seats).

On the table, up hard against the scope case, is the tackle box I use for my accessories, the big Tupperware container that holds more astro-junk, and an ice chest if I have to carry one. If’n I am toting a GEM, its head in a plastic box I got from the Wal-Mart goes on top of the scope case and accessory cases. When I was loading the Camry, the accessory boxes went in the backseat.

Continuing to work my way back toward the rear of the vehicle, I load eyepiece cases, camera cases, and the other stuff that’s in “tool attaches” right after the accessory boxes. Tail end Charlie is two or three jumpstart batteries. As I am packing, I am scrupulous to leave room on one side of the 4Runner (or in the backseat of the Camry) for suitcases.

And, frankly, that is just about that. The rest of the procedure consists of continuing to fit pieces together, putting the small stuff in “holes” here and there. My goal is always to get everything in the vehicle and arrange it so nothing gets squished and nothing shifts when I am taking corners, running over rough roads, or coming to a stop. I generally wait till departure morning to load the suitcases in the spot I’ve saved for them—we usually don’t pack ‘em till then—and to find a spot for the laptop where it won’t get damaged.

Among the final items, whether in the 4Runner or Camry, are the soft ones: coats and sweaters, pillows, and sleeping bags if I have to take ‘em. Stuff that can be used as padding and can be compressed to close trunk or tailgate. Last of all are a few flat items on top:  folded up computer shelter, flexible dew shield, stuff like that. I make dern sure nothing in the back is restricting my view in the rearview mirror, and if it is, I make changes. And—I’m done.

I’m tired and sweaty even though I’ve taken pains to work slowly, even in what passes for our winters these days. But afterwards I can take a nice long bath, watch some cable TV, have those “refreshments,” and be absolutely chipper when it’s time to hit the road with the dawn.

If you simply CANNOT get everything you need, really need, in your jalopy, you can rent car-top carriers from U-haul. Yeah, it’s a pain to have to return one when you get back, and they play hob with your gas mileage, but that’s better than leaving vital stuff at home I reckon. Trailers? I am not a fan, which is one reason I don’t own a big Dob. For me, they are a pain to tow, keep my speed down, and even the best of ‘em tend to shake, rattle, and roll the telescope. No thanks.

Does packing for a star party sound like an awful big pain, muchachos? It ain’t, really. A little practice and it will seem as natural to you as fleas do to an old hound dog. Is there anything I could improve on after this many years of star partying? Yep. I could be more careful with my packing for the return trip. I’m put out to be leaving a star party—any star party—and waste plenty of time cussing the gear and rearranging after throwing the stuff back in the truck instead of doing it right the first time. I herewith resolve to try to do a little better, though it seems unlikely I will this many years down the line. Just remember to stop up your ears if you encounter Unk on a star party field on tear-down morning.

Next Time: Another Summer in Chiefland...

Nice story! For me the 70's also meant expensive, unaffordable gear....but I could afford Deep Purple albums, still got my collection of Deep Purple vinyl. :-)
One additional consideration is crashworthiness of the arrangement and its behavior under hard braking.
Yep, that's why I mentioned I try to make sure nothing is going to shift, etc., over some of the ridiculous roads I wind up on. :-)
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