Sunday, July 21, 2013


The Astronomer Looks at 60…

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call,
Wanted to sail upon your waters
since I was three feet tall.
You've seen it all, you've seen it all.

I have been drunk now for over two weeks,
I passed out and I rallied and I sprung a few leaks,
But I've got to stop wishin',
Got to go fishin', I'm down to rock bottom again.
Just a few friends, just a few friends.

—Jimmy Buffet

I did this five years ago muchachos, so why am I doing it again? While our insular little avocation doesn't change much year to year, it changes a lot more quickly now than it did when I was a sprout, when amateur astronomy changed about as fast as the Jaeger’s ad in Sky & Telescope. These days, a lot happens in five years in amateur astronomy--relatively speaking, anyhow. That and the fact that the big six-oh seems like some kind of milestone. 60 ain’t considered REAL old these days, but I do feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground and want to talk about that, at least as regards the pursuit you and me love.

Last time we went this way, in 2008, I bent your ears about three things, amateur astronomy’s people, gear, and the pursuit itself. This time, I added a fourth, “Uncle Rod;” we know each other a lot better five years down the line, and I thought you’d like to hear a little bit about Unk’s current state of mind—such as it is.

My state of mind is actually purty good on the day after my big day. I will admit to y’all I was slightly freaked-out by the approach of 6-0, but having a wonderful birthday celebration put Unk in a better frame of mind. It would be hard to top last year, but this one may have done just that.

I spent the day, just like I did last year, working on my tabletop space program, working on one of my space models, that is. Last birthday, it was a big Apollo Command Module; this year it was a humongous Launch Umbilical Tower to go with my latest creation, a 1/144 Airfix Saturn V. As I was agonizing over the countless tiny parts, there came the AH-OOOOGAH! That means “mail's in” at the ol’ Manse.

And not just mail. There was a nice big box on the front porch emblazoned with “B&H,” as in “B&H Photo,” my fave photography supplier. Inside was this year’s main gift, a new gadget (camera) bag. The one I’ve been toting around for the last decade and a half has been looking awful tattered and has been too small for a long time. Thanks, Miss Dorothy! The birthday goodies didn't end there, though. Among other things, I also got a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, Halo I in other words. I had a ball playing the old warhorse, which looks brand new with fantastically spiffed-up Xbox 360 graphics. I had also hoped to receive a Celestron f/7 reducer for the Edge 800, Mrs. Peel, but no dice. Cotton-picking Celestron has delayed it again. Its page on the B&H website now says “July 26.” We’ll see.

My mood was further improved when I saw all the kind birthday wishes y’all had left on my Facebook page, but the pièce de résistance was a visit to a Mexican restaurant, which is what ol’ Unk likes to do every b-day. Last year’s little joint was great, but this time we decided to go a mite upscale, to Fuego, who bill themselves as a “coastal Mexican eatery.” The restaurant, in a funky and interesting old building originally occupied by a 1930s A&P grocery, looks cool and the food was, yes, several clicks upscale. Unk, as per usual, got the fajitas, shrimp fajitas in keeping with Fuego’s theme. They were simply excellent, as was their presentation and the service. Did Unk have a gigantanormous Margarita? What do you think?

By the time Unk and Miss D. made it home, I was in a rather philosophical but mellow mood, perfect for contemplating the things you will find below…

The People

What I talked about people-wise last time was what still seems to concern a lot of y’all:  amateur astronomy’s demographics. What the h-double-L am I going on about? Something you probably hear frequently from the old timers in your club:  “Amateur astronomy is doomed. Nobody in the hobby under 50. Bring kids in? Hell, kids today ain’t worth a hoot.”

I began thinking about this anew the udder day while reading a long, long thread on the Cloudy Nights astronomy bulletin board concerning Meade, who, as you may know, is in the process of imploding and is looking for a buyer. We’ll talk about the fate of Meade Instruments a little later, but what interested me most about the CN discussion was how many seemingly knowledgeable folks there took a fracking ridiculous Los Angeles Times article about Meade’s troubles seriously.

This article was written by somebody who probably knows something about the world of finance, but who doesn't know pea-turkey about amateur astronomy. That’s neither surprising nor distressing. What is is that the writer didn't bother to find out a thing about us before turning in this load of codswallop. The writer’s brilliant conclusion? Meade is in trouble because amateur astronomy is dying: “People no longer hold stargazing parties, and households that once proudly displayed their telescopes no longer think they are trendy, analysts said.”

Who were the analysts doing the postmortem on amateur astronomy’s carcass? In this old boy’s suspicions, probably someone close to the principals, someone who wanted to deflect criticism, “It wasn’t our fault; we ran Meade like a well oiled machine!

Yes, people still hold “stargazing parties.” Yes, people still love their telescopes, if not because they are trendy. No, amateur astronomy is not dying. That shouldn't be news to any of y’all, especially those of you who've been around a while. I know if li’l Rod were transported from 1965 to 2013, he sure wouldn’t think amateur astronomy is on its last legs. All those full color ads in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy. The hordes of people at the big star parties. Hell, young Unk wouldn’t have guessed there were as many amateur astronomers in the world as congregate yearly at Prude Ranch.  Amateur astronomy ain’t dying, it’s plain to see. Why do some of our brothers and sisters think it is?

There was plenty of venting on that pea-picking thread, and not just by the oldest of the old-timers, either. Everybody seemed to want to write the obit: “Kids don’t give a hoot and holler about astronomy. All they want to do is play with them cell phones,” “It ain’t just astronomy, kids today hate all of science,” “In my day every teenager wanted a telescope and a chemistry set; now it’s them consarned Xboxes,” “Amateur astronomy is finished.”

Damn. Enough to depress even glass-half-full Unk. But I know this ain’t true. Starting with the assertion that my generation was so scientifically advanced compared to the current one. The 1960s was an exciting time to be interested in science or math. NASA was riding high and the Moon did not seem to be the limit. Don’t fool yourself, though. For every sprout who dreamed of a 4-inch Unitron or a big A.C. Gilbert chemistry set, there were ten thousand who lusted after slot cars and mini-bikes.

So, what makes otherwise knowledgeable amateurs think today’s younguns are a bunch of nogoodniks? The older generation always just naturally believes the younger ain’t worth pea-turkey, and that the whole country, or at least amateur astronomy, is going to hell in a hand-basket. But that’s always been the case. I remember hearing this from the codgers in the first (adult) club I belonged to back in the 70s ("Them new-fangled digital setting circles have ruined astronomy"). Grownups having been saying this about the younger generation since at least as far back as Socrates’ time.

Another reason? Some of the thread’s despair about the younger generation came from people who have a lot emotionally invested in Meade and prefer to think it’s them dadgum kids (or the Gen Xers, or the yuppies, or whomever) that are responsible for their favorite scope company’s demise rather than Meade itself. Sorry, y’all; Meade is not in trouble because Bud and Cathy stopped asking for scopes for Christmas, but because nobody much wants a Meade telescope right now.

Like Mark Twain’s, amateur astronomy’s demise has often been predicted and announced, but here we still are and here we shall remain. Since I teach a university astronomy class aimed at the general student population, I believe I am uniquely qualified to comment on young people and astronomy, and what I see is heartening. Today’s youngsters are every bit as smart and good as my generation was. And they still come to amateur astronomy. I am constantly amazed at how many students ask me for advice on a first telescope. I was even more amazed when our students, including quite a few non-math, non-science majors, took it upon themselves to organize their own astronomy club.

The Gear

In one sense, we are in a happy place astronomy equipment-wise. An example? The 1970 “Orange Tube” C8’s cost in current dollars would be at least $5,000.00. That’s right, for the price of a simple non-go-to, barebones, uncoated SCT in 1970, you can now buy an Edge C11 on a sophisticated go-to mount—and have a grand left over for eyepieces and bottles of Rebel Yell.

“So telescopes are far more accessible than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. What’s bad about that, Unk?” The reason for them becoming so cheap has some of us nervous. That reason, of course, is that except for a few top-tier brands like Astro-Physics that most us can’t afford and don’t need, telescope production has moved to China. Yes, Chinese telescopes are cheap. Yes, they’ve become surprisingly good. What’s the catch? Some of us wonder who’s going to be left to buy them at any price once the few remaining U.S. manufacturing jobs are gone.

I don’t like to see one American telescope company after another fall by the wayside, but the truth is neither you nor I can do squat about it. If I want a TV set I have to buy Chinese (or Korean), and if I want a telescope that fits my needs, I have to buy Chinese. The only foreseeable change will come when Chinese scope prices go up because Chinese workers demand an increasingly higher standard of living. I reckon we’ll be buying Indonesian or Vietnamese telescopes then.

Which I suppose brings us to the latest victim, Meade. It’s not quite clear how the story ends for Old Blue—at least three (Chinese, natch) buyers are interested—but it is pretty clear its days as an independent U.S. owned telescope company are numbered. How did that happen to what was the largest scope company in the world in the go-go days of the late 1990s? Three strikes, y’all…

Strike One:  Meade made plenty of money for a small-medium sized company in the 90s. But it went to their heads, I reckon. They were going to be HUGE, and not just in telescopes and astronomy. They went public, and, shortly after that, it appeared they set out to cripple their main competitor, Celestron, in part by suing the pants off 'em.

Unfortunately for Blue, the lawsuit battles with Celestron seemed to do more harm than good. I would guess lawyers sucked up lots of Meade cash for not much in the way of results. Yes, they somehow convinced a judge you could patent having a telescope point north for its go-to alignment (!), but that didn't do much to help ‘em. Celestron soon switched to a non-infringing alignment system, and Meade garnered little in the way of royalties. And they began to lose the affection of some of their fans—Meade didn't seem special anymore. What had once been an innovative underdog began to look like any other ruthless corporation run by dadgum pencil-pushers.

Strike Two:  Meade seemed slow to realize it was just too expensive to produce SCTs in California anymore. Their belated move to Mexico and the production problems incurred in that move lost them more good will. I mean, hell, even their most trouble-free telescope of all, the LX90, got screwed up, which made more folks mad at and wary of Meade.

Strike Three:  In 2006, Meade started down an awful bad road: advertising innovative products out the ying-yang that were delivered late and didn’t work right when they were finally delivered. The RCX 400 “Advanced Ritchey – Chretien” (ahem) was the first. Its innovations were many, but so were its problems. At least some of them worked out of the box, though, in contrast to last year’s LX800, which didn’t work at all.

What puzzles me is that Meade must have spent a significant portion of whatever cash remained on the development of the LX800/850, which was too expensive to appeal to their traditional customers. It was, instead, aimed at the crowd that would usually buy at least Losmandy if not Astro-Physics or Takahashi, and who were not likely to deign to purchase anything with a Meade nameplate on it.

The true shame? Meade had one new one, the LX80 alt-azimuth/EQ mount, which, if it had been done right, could have hit a homerun and maybe, just maybe, have turned the company around late in the ninth inning. If Meade had devoted every ounce of its resources to making sure the LX80 didn’t just meet but exceeded customers’ expectations, the story might be different now. But they didn’t. I tried one of the mounts, owned briefly by my buddy Jack Huerkamp, last year: pitiful, just pitiful.

The Pursuit

Whether you’ve got an humble SkyWatcher or a tony Tele-Vue telescope, what the hell do you do with it? If you read the Astromart and Cloudy Nights BBSes a lot, you might conclude from all the fuss over CCD cameras and mount periodic error that we are all doing long duration deep sky imaging. That most of us are auto-guiding six-hour shots of PGC umptysquat.

Not at all. Most of us are doing what we have always done, looking through the eyepieces of medium size (6 – 12-inch) telescopes at the brighter and prettier deep sky objects, the Moon, and planets. What has changed since Unk was a sprout? “Bright, easy, and pretty” has pushed farther and farther out. Back in The Day, Unk and his teenage chums in the Backyard Astronomy Society considered the Veil Nebula, for example, to be a PROFESSIONAL object, well beyond the reach of our puny scopes. Today it, and many, many NGC DSOs, are bread and butter targets, for novices.

The reason for that is twofold. Better equipment—much better eyepieces and filters—is one. More than that, it’s information. Back in that hallowed Day, we didn't know what to look at or how to look at it. Beyond Scotty’s column once a month in Sky and Telescope, there was no one to tell us those whats and hows. Now, there is tons of info, including not just wonderful books like The Night Sky Observers Guide, but websites like Adventures in Deep Space.  And all the software. And the discussion forums. The amateur astronomy information explosion has done more than anything else, including bigger and better telescopes, to push back the amateur astronomy deep sky frontier.

I said most of us are not imaging, but that may be changing when it comes to one formerly specialized type of astrophotography. More and more amateurs are turning to deep sky video cameras to counteract light pollution. While the light pollution in my small city ain’t that much worse than it was in the 1970s, it’s more widespread at least. I have to travel farther to get to a decent site. Video allows you to observe the Messier and NGC in detail from a putrid backyard. From the average club site? You will be ticking off 16th magnitude galaxies with a C8.

If you want the details, the straight poop about video astronomy, see my article in the February 2013 issue of Sky and Telescope. Suffice to say video is catching on because of two things: it allows you to see the deep sky in detail and in color with a modest telescope, and it does not require the investment of gear, time, and talent CCD imaging does. With video, you see your object in near real time, looking good, no processing required. Guiding is usually not needed. You don’t even have to involve a computer if’n you don’t want to.

The one thing holding deep sky video back has been the admission fee. You could have either cheap but limited, like the Orion StarShoot Deep Space Video Camera, or expensive and capable like the Mallincam Xtreme or Stellacam III. The Orion or modified off-the-shelf cameras could give you a taste, but maybe not enough or one to convince you video astronomy was worth the trouble. To really get going, you needed to invest well over a thousand dollars on a top of the line Mallincam or Stellacam.

I can’t give you any details yet, but I believe the above is about to change rather dramatically. There is a camera on the way that will be considerably more advanced than the Orion and similar offerings but won’t cost much more. It is poised to allow Joe and Jane Amateur to go as deep as they want for less than the price of a top-of-the-line eyepiece. More on it as soon as I can spill the beans, y’all...stay tuned.

Uncle Rod

Which brings us to your favorite southern-fried country cousin and raconteur, moi. The words that come to mind as I begin my 60th orbit on the third rock from the sun and approach (next year) my 50th anniversary in amateur astronomy? “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” There’ve been some troublesome spells; most everybody makes mistakes and wrong turns in the course of growing up, and I made more than my share. Believe me, if I could go back 40 years and change everything--or at least one thing--I would. Of course, I have been very lucky.  If you’d told young Rod that one day he’d be writing for his favorite magazine, observing and imaging the sky with computerized SCTs, and going to and speaking at star parties at the drop of a hat, he dang sure would not have dared believe you.

Yeah, when I get up in the morning, there are a few more aches and pains than there used to be, but only a few. I feel good. Yes, I try to get more exercise and watch what I eat—except when I am on a deep sky tear down in Chiefland—but mostly I’m doing exactly what I want to do.

Now that I am retired from the engineering game, I have more time to devote to my astronomy students, to observing, to writing for the best astronomy magazine on the planet, Sky and Telescope, and, of course to the little old AstroBlog. Yeah, “60” feels weird for somebody from the generation that didn't trust anybody over thirty, but that is just OK, muchachos. I hope the next ten years are going to be gooduns, and I look forward to living them with, you, my friends.

Next Time:  A Tale of Two Cameras... 

Amazing. As always, a good read on astronomy, the universe and everything else. Including 42.
Thanks Unk!

From Brazil
Another wonderfully written article giving us a perspective on the state of amateur astronomy today. As always loaded with practical information.
Great read, Unk! After all the fireworks on the CN thread, this is the most reasoned and level-headed discussion of the state of amateur astronomy (including Meads travails) I've seen.
Congrats on 60 and retirement. Not so bad after all!

Hi Unk Rod--
I agree with you 110%. That Meade press release was nothing but "blame the customer" for the sins of the manufacturer. They've had troubles delivering a high-quality telescope since before the days of Comet Halley. They've fought with their dealer and distributors, sued good the guys like Roger Tuthill, and provided horrible customer service. And recently they totally missed the market with the 800 and 850 series because much as love imaging, that's not the core market. Most amateurs "dream" of imaging, but when push comes to shove, they prefer good old "looking at stuff."
Hi Unk Rod--
I agree with you 110%. That Meade press release was nothing but "blame the customer" for the sins of the manufacturer. They've had troubles delivering a high-quality telescope since before the days of Comet Halley. They've fought with their dealer and distributors, sued good the guys like Roger Tuthill, and provided horrible customer service. And recently they totally missed the market with the 800 and 850 series because much as love imaging, that's not the core market. Most amateurs "dream" of imaging, but when push comes to shove, they prefer good old "looking at stuff."
You are sorta like the glue for the astro community, ya know?

An enjoyable read as always, Sir.
Great read. Turning 64 this year but still love the C8 I bought in 2000.

When my LXD75 dies, I'll get a celestron mount.

Our club has seen a decline in membership for the first time in many years, but those three or four times a year I go to a 3 day club star party are still a great time.

Many firms die from not understanding the cost/benefit ratio that fulfill the needs of customers. Meade was/is one. I think the brand does have value and like Celestron will continue in china or India. I only image when I'm at home using 30 second exposures with stacking due to light pollution. But nothing beats that viewing under the stars at Oregon's dark sites.

The biggest things I noticed since I turned 60 is how many of the folks my age or older are selling large Dobs or SCTs, and finding love the the C8's of the world. And how a big scope no longer has the draw for me that it had even 5 years ago.

Of course, Happy Birthday Rod! Thanks for the illuminating comments on Meade. I was unfortunate enough to buy one of those defective LX90 scopes, and even with exchanges (multiple!) it never worked right, had RA motor chatter. Still, I loved my LX200R.
Happy 60th and many more!
Dave Hockenberry for the Chester County Astro Society, West Chester, PA

As we have much in common if you must watch Battlestar Galactica DVDs
Richard Hatch was my roommate in LA and sends his regards.

Lock and Dam #24
Please tell Mr. Hatch how much Miss Dorothy and I enjoyed and still enjoy his work in BOTH series. :-)
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