Ad Astra per Aspera- Chapter One

In Which I Find the Object of My Search, Only to Wonder if it was Better Not to

     As I ascended the slight grade on the sun-dappled forest path, I had a hard time believing I was finally here.

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For twenty years, I had looked forward to this day, seeking relevant volumes in dusty used bookstores, poring over topographic maps, driving through this place while trying to look nonchalant. No Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings, no Indiana Jones in an Amazon jungle, had ever felt more anticipation than I did that August morning. The fact that I was probably trespassing only added to my tension, and I have never been one to break rules, but a slight tingle of thrill drove me onward.

As I rounded a bend, a clearing materialized before me, and at the far end, the object of my quest gleamed white like some long-forgotten temple. Millbrook School Observatory, at last.

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As soon as I recognized the building from photos in fifty-year-old books, part of me wished I hadn’t. This incredible structure, built entirely by the blood, sweat, and tears of high school boys, lay abandoned and neglected in a corner of the campus now given over to the storage of machinery and scraps of lumber, themselves seemingly long-forgotten. A dumpster out in front of this facility? Really? Is that all the respect they can muster for what these young men accomplished?

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The small clearing was surrounded by tall trees, which made it difficult to recognize where everything I thought I knew so well was situated. Weren’t some of the photos I had seen taken from this spot? I thought they had been, but where was the concrete patio on which the nice young men in jackets and ties displayed their home-made telescopes? Had this three-foot-high mound of earth always been here? Had the site of the observatory once lauded by Scientific American magazine become a landfill? How had they even seen the sky from here?

I waded through thigh-high weeds, moving ever closer to what had been a center of science, community outreach, and geophysical research a few short decades ago. Vines had overrun and started to penetrate the doors covering the dome’s slit. They seemed to force it open, making it appear rather more vulnerable to the ravages of time than it ought.

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The whitewashed finish of the building’s cinder block exterior had crumbled away in places, revealing construction details that should, by right, have remained seamlessly incorporated into the facade.

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A blue tarp that had once protected equipment that did not even belong here now hung forlornly in tatters, exposed in its impotence against the elements.

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I found myself wishing the school had demolished the observatory years ago, rather than let it be shamed like this.

I approached the door that sat forlornly open, feeling more than ever like an archaeologist about to enter the burial chamber of an ancient monarch. It seemed to invite my approach.

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I can see they don’t value this, but will they mind if I do? After all, not having found anything marked as visitors’ parking, I had left my truck on the other side of the campus and walked all the way over here, feeling as conspicuous as a fox among the hens. But nobody seemed to pay me any heed, so after glancing over my shoulder one last time and listening for the sounds of maintenance or security personnel, I ducked inside and entered.

Immediately, my mood improved a bit. There was the student astronomers’ masterpiece, a 12″ reflecting telescope pointed to the south at an angle that meant it could be looking at the rich Milky Way star fields in summer or star birth regions in Orion during winter. The floor was relatively uncluttered, allowing me to examine the scope closely from all angles. Although its paint was flecked and peeling, the instrument gave off a feeling of solidity and dignity, as if it knew its own power.

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Cautiously, I reached out a hand and attempted to slew the magnificent structure in right ascension. It complied without a sound, with just the right amount of friction to prevent an observer from overshooting his target. I did the same with the declination axis, pointing the massive framework tube ever-so-slightly more northward, and once again the instrument responded perfectly, almost with pride in the quality of its construction. So far, so good mechanically; what about optically?

I located the knob used to remove the primary mirror’s wooden cover and decided to lift it off. This was really my Rubicon. If anything went wrong now, I could easily be prosecuted for trespassing and destruction of private property. Hang on! This telescope deserves to have someone care about it. My righteous indignation fueled me on.

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As I reached for the cover, I became aware of an almost-invisible inscription. What ancient knowledge would its decipherment give me? Raised slightly from the mirror cell’s surface, but painted in the same gloss black, were the words “MILLBROOK SCHOOL FOR BOYS.” I chuckled for a moment, trying to imagine how the makers of this behemoth expected it to go missing and need identification. Then it dawned on me: this was not meant to help recover a stolen telescope. It was written by a group of people feeling pride in their accomplishment, and wanting future generations to know about it.

I removed the cover to reveal a slightly tarnished surface, no worse than others I had successfully cleaned in the past, with…a postage stamp stuck to the middle of it?!

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Someone has vandalized…no; wait a minute. The stamp, I realized, had once been a reference mark for the collimation of the mirror in the optical train. While it’s customary to place a tiny magic marker spot on the center of your mirror for this purpose, I had never seen one an inch by three quarters in size. Still, as long as it was smaller than the portion of the mirror shadowed by the telescope’s secondary mirror, it was no problem.

All of a sudden, I was back in archaeologist mode. Stamps change. If I could find out when this particular specimen was issued, I would have an earliest limit on when someone had last maintained the observatory’s equipment. On further inspection, it was in the denomination of 32 cents, and carried an illustration of a man with a glorious Victorian mustache, in a military band uniform, playing a trumpet. Across the bottom near the perforations was the inscription, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Sousa. 32 cents. That should not be hard to track down.

I replaced the mirror cover and in doing so noticed the crudely-bent metal strips and cardboard spacers holding the mirror in place.

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I could not imagine that Neale Howard, the science teacher who had inspired the creation of this observatory, would stand for such shoddy workmanship. After all, his students had machined every metal part of the tube themselves. What could account for this deviation from his usual standards? I glanced at the eyepiece end of the telescope and observed that the secondary, directing the light to the eyepiece at the side of the tube, was a mirror.

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That’s strange. Didn’t Howard’s book specify that a prism was a better choice in this particular configuration? Something was afoot. People had tampered with this telescope!

Feeling appalled, I next examined the clock drive mechanism. I don’t remember being able to see the drive gear from his pictures. And what’s with these twist-on plastic connectors?

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When I had first found that the mount’s bearings were in good shape and the mirror was cleanable without needing re-aluminizing, my mind immediately leapt to thoughts of Millbrook Observatory’s glorious re-opening. How many people had been introduced to the wonders of the universe through this instrument? Why could this not continue? Now, seeing some of the other problems, including the infestation of the sun-warmed dome by wasps and hornets, I wasn’t so sure.

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Two decades after my quest to see Millbrook Observatory had begun, I had finally accomplished that objective. But, like all scientific and historic investigations, mine had left me with many more questions than answers.

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I retreated down the forest path still hoping not to be discovered.  As I walked back to my truck, I reflected on my life in amateur astronomy. It had begun in the days of robotic planetary probes, led to an unsuccessful attempt to make astronomy my career, driven me to create my own equipment, and revealed to me the educational oasis that was and is Millbrook. Its history was meaningful to me because of my particular interests and hobbies, but the more I learned about it, the more I realized it was a paradigm of how education should happen. America needed Millbrook as much as, or more than, I did.

I knew my involvement with this place had just begun.

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