Observatory 13: Palomar

My time in California was very full! I was in Los Angeles for a week and saw the California Science Center, the Griffith Observatory, the Palomar Observatory (about which you are about to read), the Mount Wilson Observatory, and the Planetary Society home office (the latter two about which you will read someday soon). Other than seeing the Hollywood sign from Griffith Observatory, I didn’t really do much in the way of typical tourist sightseeing. Of course, I was a pilgrim and not a tourist, so I’m not really upset about that. I do hope someday to return to LA and engage more in its culture, but for now, let’s get on with Mount Palomar, which I visited on September 1, 2018.

Palomar: The Short Form

The following is what I managed to record in my journal, which, if you are a regular reader you know, is woefully incomplete but helpful as far as it goes.

Two and 1/2 hour drive SE through a couple reservations to Palomar Mtn. It’s still an active research facility so they kick everyone out at 4pm. Conditions are good enough they observe [on] over 300 nights a year. There is a nice little visitor center with lots of posters about the history and science. A few interactive displays. Nice gift shop with lots of swag.

The dome of the mighty 200″ Hale is beautiful Art Deco style, designed as a “cathedral of science,” and you get that in its scale, design, beauty, and acoustics. The mount and scope are epic in proportion. Dwarfed by the next generation coming online but really just massive. It’s like a battleship of astronomy. It has been upgraded with adaptive optics, so it can produce better resolution images that the puny Hubble. A great experience to be there.

– written 9/5/2018 at Albuquerque, NM

That’s it. I’ll try to fill in some gaps here next, and you can also see my pictures with commentary >HERE<.

Palomar: The Long Form

I had been to Griffith on Friday evening, and Saturday was my day for Palomar, which was only offering tours on the weekends. It was a two and a half hour drive southeast from LA to Mount Palomar, and since I planned to attend worship somewhere on Sunday, it seemed like a good idea to make the long drive on Saturday and go to the more local Mt. Wilson on Sunday. The drive down was pleasant enough on a beautiful, warm fall day. It was mostly freeway driving (about 100 miles / 160 km) until it wasn’t, getting off I-15 about 15 miles (24 km) north of Escondido, then heading east on highway 76. This was also a pleasant road which included going through several small towns and at least two Indian reservations, the Pala and La Jolla. Lastly there was the standard narrow, winding road up the mountain to the observatory. I remember a couple of these (Kitt Peak, especially) to be white-knucklers, but I don’t remember that about Palomar, so either it was an easier road or I was getting used to the hairpin switchbacks.

My guess is this is crowd control by scientists and engineers: essential information and warnings only. No frilly welcomes or unnecessary use of color. Someone from the sales department probably added the pretty “Tours Today” poster.


When you arrive at the top, there is a midsize parking lot with a couple picnic tables around as I recall. Simple signs indicate when and where to go and warn that the gate is closed at 4pm. The grounds are well kept but not manicured, looking fairly natural in some areas. If you stick to the path (as directed by the signs) you soon come to the visitors center, which is a low, small, simple building. Inside is a guestbook, restrooms, the gift shop, and the display hall. You buy tour tickets at the gift shop, as seems to be the case at most of these facilities. The displays in the hall include a model of the 200″ telescope and its dome, an actual 18″ telescope used for several decades onsite, and mostly illuminated posters full of words on the walls. Having taken the time to read a lot of the words, there is a lot to be learned there. But you have to be willing to take the time to read it all. My guess is a lot of people and kids especially miss most of that information. Kind of a shame, really. I feel like they could update some of the displays to be a little more interactive. The posters have cool color illustrations that are eye catching, so that’s good. Just … there are so many words!

Panorama of the visitors center museum/display hall. Each panel is full of sciency words!

I arrived at about 11:00 a.m., and if I remember correctly, my tour was at 1:00 p.m. There was no cafeteria or food service, and I don’t remember exactly what I did for food. It runs in my mind that I packed my lunch and ate it in the car between reading all the words and going for the tour. Let’s go with that.

A Cathedral of Science

The tour started at the back of the dome for the 200″ Hale telescope (a.k.a. “the Big Eye”), so I wandered over and got there early. (This “early” as you call it is something that happened to me quite often on the Grand Tour and rarely happens to me in real life. Now that I’m admitting that to you, I suppose I have to consider why that is so. Anyway…) The Palomar dome looks like it could be a monument on the Mall in Washington, DC, a beautiful, smooth, bright white dome with art deco ornamentation on the shutters. Against a blue sky with the sun on it, it is absolutely stunning. It is so iconic that many pop culture references to observatories, whether in movies, cartoons, or comics, are based on Palomar. 

We met at the back door, essentially. There were maybe 20 people in the group and a couple docents. The tour started outside there with an overview of some of the history of the site. The 200″ telescope project was a direct result of the 100″ telescope at Mt. Wilson – both from the work being done with it and the fact the its mirror was remarkably poor in its fabrication. But more on that when we get to Mt. Wilson! The 200″ was the brainchild of George Ellery Hale, who conceived it and arranged financing for it in the late 1920s. It was designed in the 1930s during the Great Depression, working to overcome a variety of new technological issues, including how to cast a mirror that big and then how to support its weight. The outbreak of World War II put work on the project on hold so that it wasn’t commissioned until 1948, twenty years after its conception and ten years after Hale’s death. The telescope was then named for Hale, and so he achieved the creation of the world’s largest telescope four times in a row: the Yerkes 40″ refractor, the Mt. Wilson 60″ reflector, the Mt. Wilson 100″ reflector, and the Palomar 200″ reflector, all of which were of course on my list for the Grand Tour.

We entered the observatory building from that back entrance into the downstairs maintenance area. Honestly, after all this time, I don’t remember much about this part of the tour, except that recurring sense that real science smells like oil and steel. There was interesting information delivered to us, but it beats me what it was. Well, there was the massive beams supporting the structure of the dome and the telescope mount on the floor above us. The colossal loads beneath which we stood have been ably held by these Atlas-like foundations for over 80 years so far. So we got that sense of scale before even seeing the Big Eye.

We made our way upstairs to the observing floor. This is very cool, and not everyone gets to do this. If you don’t take the guided tour and come during the week, you can only get to the visitors gallery, which is a room on the side with a glass wall. That would be lame. Meanwhile, being out on the floor didn’t mean we could touch the scope or anything, but we were out under that magnificent dome! They say the building was designed as a “cathedral of science,” and it certainly feels that way! First, it is a vast, soaring, majestic space like a cathedral. Second, on the inside the dome appears to be made of stainless steel panels, and the light under the dome is reflected in rich, warm tones that give it a sense of artistry and beauty, qualities notably lacking in most other similar structures. Third, the acoustics under the dome are very much like a cathedral. It doesn’t take much to be heard from some distance, and all that is said hangs in the air in the reverberations. Last, they have done a lot of holy science in there, as mere mortals stretch out to reach and understand heaven.

“The Big Eye” – the 200″ Hale reflector, a magnificent machine under the “cathedral” dome. This is the upper half. It was once someone’s job to ride at the top, which probably wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.

All Hale the Big Eye!

The telescope itself is simply colossal. I mean, it’s not as big as the Large Binocular Telescope, but that’s really two anyway, so it isn’t a fair comparison. But this has the same feel of just being huge. The mount, a polar-aligned fork mount, is like a big suspension bridge or something on a battleship. The optical tube, an open steel cage, is like a water tower. The mirror is obviously 200″ or five meters or 16 feet 8 inches in diameter. That’s two and 3/4 times my height. Yes, I know I saw several mirrors almost twice that size in Arizona (SML / LBT), and yes, they are phenomenally large. But standing next to the mirror cell for this venerable, world changing and still world class telescope, I was impressed by its size. Sue me! The mirror cell is, I’m pretty sure, bigger than my car… yes, I just checked. Definitely bigger than my car. I think it is actually possible to ride in the cage under the mirror cell. Interestingly, the cage at the other end of the tube, the top, where the secondary mirror sits, originally was designed so someone could sit there and, by observation and manipulation, guide the telescope to stay on its target. That was actually someone’s job, to ride at the top and steer the telescope all night! This got to be pretty cold, as you might imagine, especially if you’ve ever spent a non-summer night out under the stars. Eventually they got their hands on some war surplus electrically heated flight suits (they have one on display), and thus the poor grad students or whomever could avoid frosting over.

I would love to have a chance to see through the Big Eye. Of course, it is still used for real scientific work, so letting tourists use it isn’t really going to happen. Besides, it has been refitted, as virtually all modern scientific instruments are, to be strictly photographic. As far as I know there isn’t a visual eyepiece to look through even if you got the chance. But what a view it would offer if you could see through it! As mentioned above, it also has been fitted with adaptive optics, which means a software system analyzes turbulence in the atmosphere and mechanically deforms the telescope mirrors (generally the secondary mirror) to compensate for that turbulence, effectively removing the effects of the atmosphere from the image. Along with that, as I consider the size of the instrument, I’m aware that it is 25 times larger than my backyard telescope. That means for every one photon hitting my mirror, the Big Eye gets 625. What a remarkable, even transcendent experience it must have been to look through that on a steady night! I wonder if those astronomers in the early days ever got bored or jaded or blasé about what they could see. I suppose they did, but I hope not.

The tour ended with some Q&A, then a walk down a long flight of stairs to the front door of the dome, with a bust of Mr. Hale sitting just inside the door. Outside it was a beautiful, warm fall day, just as it had been when we started, but it seemed like we had traveled through time and space. I mean, technically we did travel through a couple hundred meters and a couple hours, but it felt like cosmic distances and long eras. It was like coming out of a ride at DisneyWorld. It was like coming out of a blockbuster movie. It was like coming out of a really good worship service. That’s the proper effect of a pilgrimage site, or the experience created by interacting with true creativity, to break us out of our ordinary timeline and allow us to imagine a broader universe.

Having had such a broadening experience, I bought a bunch of swag at the gift shop and made my way back to my apartment.

Observatory 12: Griffith

In my last entry I described the day I arrived in Los Angeles, including my visit to the California Science Center. That was a Wednesday, August 29, 2018. The next day, according to my journal and my now vague memories, was spent doing laundry, getting groceries, and watching Netflix, a luxury with which I was pretty unfamiliar at the time. Doing laundry was also a luxury, as I didn’t have the opportunity during my week in Arizona, and my last attempt was that time in New Orleans when the machine flooded the kitchen in my apartment. Good times. This was a much better experience than that, entirely without incident. But that’s not why you’re here reading this! So let me tell you about the next day.

Griffith Observatory – Short Form

Here’s what I wrote in my journal a week after I left L.A., then I’ll add some details after that.

Griffith Observatory [is a] classic science center from the 1930s with a huge underground gallery added in 2003. Saw the sky show and got to look through the 12″ Zeiss refractor at Saturn. View was nominal, expected for look over LA, but still glad to have done. Four moons visible, Cassini Division, disk shadow. Stood in line with Gita, a science teacher from India. She was fairly knowledgeable about many things, some more than me, some less. She had never seen a planet through a telescope. I think she was a little disappointed at 175x, but that’s how it goes. There were a lot of people there, which is heartening. Lots of adults.

My Journal, 9/5/2018

Griffith Observatory – Long Form

The Approach

I’m sad that I didn’t write more in my journal, and I’m sad that I haven’t written up my memories before now, because things are getting pretty foggy after two years. But let’s see what we can do here. I was not really familiar with Griffith before going there, so I didn’t know what I was getting into. Well, that’s not entirely right. I had explored the website, of course, so I knew it wasn’t a research facility. And I knew that they had public telescope viewing every clear night. What more do you need to know? Let’s go! Sundown was about 7:30 p.m. local. Since I wanted to do the viewing, I knew it would be a late evening before getting home. Consequently, I wasn’t in a hurry to get there when the doors opened.

It wasn’t very far from my apartment to Griffith, about six miles, but decided to take a Lyft. It was about 4:00 in the afternoon. My driver was an interesting young man, a musician and song writer, as it turned out (hence a Lyft driver?). When I told him I was a pastor on sabbatical, he said he was a PK (“preacher’s kid”) and had learned his love of music in the church. That was cool. So after that pleasant drive, I was in the parking lot. The Griffith is a beautiful building to begin with, but there’s also the view. Griffith Park is in what I think is the Hollywood hills. One reason I think this is you can see the Hollywood sign just opposite the observatory! It was surprising to me to have these lovely, rugged, sort of wilderness hills overlooking one of the most populous cities in the world.

Art Deco. Very nice!

The observatory itself is, again, the beautiful, white, art deco building with a decorative dome and planetarium dome in the center and observing domes on either end. There is a monument in front, also art deco in style, commemorating six great historical astronomers. The approach to the front door also has markers in the sidewalk showing the scale distances of the orbits of the solar system planets. There were quite a number of people of all ages milling about outside, making their way in or out. I was excited to see the inside, because the outside was such a pleasant start.

Remember the Buhl!

Inside, the Griffith Observatory is a classic planetarium. High ceilings, subdued lighting, two main wings for displays and the planetarium / sky show theatre in the back. It reminds me of the Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh that I loved when I was a kid. Another similarity is the Foucault pendulum in the lobby. This is a 19th century experiment in which a pendulum, free to swing in any direction, with a very long cable for its arm and a large bob demonstrates the rotation of the earth. The pendulum thinks it is traveling in a the same plane with each swing and wants to do so, but it is actually moving in a slight arc as the earth turns under the pendulum. This is proven by a circle of little pegs set up on the floor that the pendulum very slowly knocks down every so incrementally.

Anyway, the one wing had a variety of telescope models, replicas, and displays including a replica of Galileo’s telescope and a Faraday cage with a big Tesla coil, and the other had various science-y alcoves, ending with displays about the sun. This part is under the solar observatory/coelostat in one of the two domes on the roof. There is a large screen showing an image of the sun’s surface, which unfortunately was blank because the sun was in the minimum phase of its 11-year activity cycle. I enjoyed exploring all these displays for some time.

I took in the sky show in the Oschin Planetarium at about 6pm, as I recall. It was a pretty standard planetarium show with digital images, star patterns, and whatnot projected on the dome with dulcet narration. I don’t really remember the content, just the pleasant contentment of sitting in the big comfy reclining seat in the dim light, digging on the science, and feeling nostalgic about the whole planetarium experience. I always love the giant spider projectors, again, going back to Buhl Planetarium in my childhood, and more recently in the Hopkins Observatory in Williamstown. This one, like many such, is made by Zeiss.

The Zeiss star projector in the Oschin Planetarium, not quite as buglike as the older ones were.

Space, Underground

Had I visited Griffith in my youth, that is all I might have found. Some years ago (2002-2006), though, they underwent a major renovation by adding an enormous gallery and a second theatre underground! They actually have a movie about this in the underground Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, which I watched dutifully and enthusiastically. It was a fantastic engineering project! They didn’t want to change the beautiful original art deco building, and since it is perched on the edge of a hill, there was no room to expand outward. Their only option was to go down. So they had to figure out how to dig out a cavernous space under the building while artificially supporting said building so it wouldn’t fall into the new hole. This they did successfully! The result more than doubled the size of the facility. 

The Big Picture in the grand gallery downstairs. It shows a bit of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies.

Much of this space is given to the cosmos beyond earth, so the solar system (displays about each of the planets and whatnot, with scale models hanging from the ceiling) and beyond to far-flung galaxies and discussion of cosmology. The entire back wall is a single photographic reproduction of a section of sky that includes the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. According to my notes and a short film telling about it on the floor of the gallery, it is the largest such astronomic reproduction in the world and includes millions of galaxies and hundreds of thousands of foreground stars. The whole area on the sky can be hidden by your thumb at arm’s length. This is brought home by a sculpture of Einstein sitting on a bench holding up his thumb to do exactly that. It is a remarkable display, and all the more because they have telescopes on the balcony that you can use to look at it as if you were under the night sky. I found this to be very cool, as I have explored that region of sky with my own telescopes.

Into the Night

Sunset was about 7:12 p.m. on September 5, 2018, with astronomical twilight lasting until about 8:30 p.m. I don’t remember if they said when the viewing through the big telescope would begin. I do remember getting something to eat at the Cafe at the End of the Universe (with a tip of the hat to Douglas Adams). I’m not sure if I did this before or after looking through the telescope. I think it must have been before, because the time stamps on my pics shows I was at the telescope at 8:52 p.m., and the cafe closes at 9:00, as does the gift shop. I distinctly remember eating in the cafe and then going to the gift shop for some time. I also remember that there was not much available at the cafe other than grab-and-go stuff like microwave hotdogs, which I think is what I had. This was somewhat disappointing as meals go, especially since the cafe is listed under WolfgangPuck.com. I also remember that some staff person was mopping the floor and putting chairs up. My reconstruction is that I was eating at around 8:00, well after the dinner rush. It was a disappointing meal, as I said, also because I was really hungry. It had been pretty long since lunch, and I had been burning a lot of calories in walking and braining. Afterward, as I said, I went to the gift shop where I bought some refrigerator magnets and not much more. At this point I was still thinking I didn’t want to get too many t-shirts, because I had very limited carrying space. Eventually, I gave up on that, as I was able to pack more and more efficiently with every move. But really, this isn’t very important, is it? Let’s get on with it, shall we?

It was in fact dark by 8:30 p.m. when I emerged on the roof. The sky was clear and full of light pollution from the remarkable lights of Los Angeles. The city (at least its downtown) is like a lonely mountain in the middle of plain. Just a flat grid of lights all leading to a central peak of skyscrapers. It is kind of pretty, but of course it blots out all but the brightest stars and planets. The line for viewing through the 12″ Zeiss refractor was long enough but not depressingly so. I fell in, and it took about 20 minutes. As I mentioned above in my journal entry, I got to talking with a science teacher from India named Gita who was ahead of me in line. It took me quite a while to realize she was from India, because she had virtually no discernible accent. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, except that she was well versed in earth sciences but had never seen a planet through a telescope. I remember being eager to engage and encourage her about astronomy, and also feeling somewhat rebuffed. I wish I’d written more down at the time. Otherwise, there were quite a lot of people in line or milling about on the roof. It was a very pleasant night weather-wise, and there was a pleasant atmosphere among the museum patrons, with lots of lighthearted banter and the murmur of many energetic conversations going on at once.

The target for the evening was Saturn, which was high in the southern sky. Venus and Jupiter were low in the west and close to setting if not already set by 8:30. Mars was rising over the city. As you may recall, it was near its close approach but had been covered by a global dust storm since the end of spring. That left Saturn as the best candidate, and let’s face it, Saturn is always a good candidate. The line made its way into the observatory dome and wrapped around and up a narrow wooden staircase to the eyepiece. Staff were stationed here and there to direct and assist, and while I seem to remember someone being at the top of the steps, my pictures show that wasn’t the case. Huh. Anyway, one would go up to the eyepiece, get in a good look, then come back down and head to the exit, and then the next person would go.

The Zeiss 12″ refractor, looking as much like an antiaircraft gun or laser turret as weapon of scientific inquiry.

The Zeiss refractor is a 12″ diameter tube, about 16 feet long (f/16, I guess). It has a variety of other scopes mounted with it for guiding, spotting, and additional views, whatnot. The whole lot is on an equatorial fork mount, kind of. As noted above, the view of Saturn was, well, standard and adequate. Since Yerkes I had been tempering my expectations, and what would one expect of heavily light-polluted skies over a major metropolis? So, the seeing wasn’t great, kind of wavy. The magnification was 175x, which I can often beat at home. On the other hand, it is a 12″ refractor, so lots of photons to look at, which makes for a brighter image, which probably counters the light pollution some. Plus, it’s the Griffith Observatory Zeiss refractor, which is said to have had more humans look through it than any other telescope in the world. That makes it worth being on my list.

After admiring the view of Saturn for a minute or so and then the view of Los Angeles for a while, I decided to call it a night. I made my way to the parking lot and called for a Lyft, which was also true of about a few hundred of my close Griffith friends, or so it seemed. Anyway, it was pretty crowded. While I waited for my ride, I could hear the sounds of baseball from the valley below, which was I guess coming from Dodgers Stadium, about 5 miles away. It sounded like it was just over the hill from me. My Lyft driver had to make a couple passes, as I didn’t see him on the first one. We eventually connected, though, and had a quiet ride back to my abode, as he was pretty much the opposite of the driver I had on the way to Griffith. Well, it takes all kinds.


My trip to Griffith was a delight. I thoroughly enjoyed the blend of old and new, nostalgia and innovation on display there, as well as just soaking up the astronomical goodness of it all. I was very pleased to see how many people, and particularly adults, were there, not just for the displays but for the nighttime observing, on a Wednesday. Although I hadn’t been familiar with Griffith before, I am really glad I put it on my list and that I got to look through their historic Zeiss refractor. With the possible exception of those hot dogs for dinner, it was a wonderful experience.

To see the rest my pictures from the Griffith, click >HERE<.

California, Here I Come!

It has been a ridiculously long time since I’ve written, and I still have so much to tell you about my sabbatical, which itself is now ridiculously long ago. Closing in on two years. That’s … ridiculous. Nevertheless, I now find myself in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, and as I have been out of the house three times in eight weeks, my heart and mind are turning to thoughts of travel. So let’s get back to that epic journey of yesteryear!

When last we met, I was on my way out of Arizona and heading for Los Angeles. The train from Tucson to LA was about 10 hours overnight, as I recall. (There was a great deal that happened on this leg of the trip – LA, that is – that I never recorded in my journal, so I am hoping to rebuild as many memories as accurately as possible here now.)

Assistance from an Old Friend

I had been in touch with my dear friend and seminary roommate Steve Craig, who is pastor of the >St. John’s Presbyterian Church< in Los Angeles. Steve and I hadn’t seen each other for about 30 years – again, ridiculous – but had been in touch on and off through social media and such.

Looking just like we did in 1988. More or less.

Steve graciously offered to pick me up at the train station and get me to my rental car to start my Cali adventure. I was eager to see him after all these years. The train arrived at about 6:30-something, and I was on the street just after 7:00 a.m. Sure enough, there was Steve, waiting for me, God bless him. He honestly has barely aged a day. Just like me! And still the kind, gentle, funny, friendly, and faithful guy I knew so long ago. He took me to breakfast … somewhere.. I have no idea where we were, but it was a fun place with great food and coffee. Then off to LAX neighborhood to get my car, which we accomplished without too much trouble.

Never having been in LA for any length of time and never having driven there, I was a little anxious about getting around on my own. I also had no place to be until mid-afternoon when my AirBnB place would be ready. Steve was kind enough to take some extra time to help me get oriented. I wanted to see his church, too, so we made our way there in separate cars, me following him. In this way, I quickly learned that driving in LA is pretty much like driving anywhere and better than I imagined.

We got to St. John’s, and Steve gave me the tour. He’d been there for 17 years at that point, a good long run. The buildings are in the modern-just-slightly-postmodern style from the 1960s or 70s. Steve told me of the congregation’s life and struggles and strivings, a story like many Presbyterian churches of our day. They are doing some good work with Steve at the helm. No surprise.

I can’t overstate how this time with Steve helped me. At this point, I had been a month on the road with no direct contact with anyone I know. Sure, I’d talked with Molly on the phone, and I’d made some friends at the Siena Center. But here was a familiar face in the flesh! I don’t think I realized at the time how much I was missing that. And while I could certainly have managed to pick up my car and get across town on my own, as I had done in several cities already, it was just a relief to have that help from someone local who happened to be a good friend. I’m not sure why I was so anxious about getting around Los Angeles. I’ve driven in Washington, DC, and New York City. Well, any way, spending a couple hours with Steve really helped me get settled and ready for the week.

Going Solo for Some Science

The other thing Steve did for me was to suggest a way to kill some time until I could check in to my apartment. The California Science Center was not far away and was right up my alley. It turns out to be right next to the LA Coliseum, although I didn’t know that until I was leaving. Any way, that puts it about 10 miles from St. John’s, and not quite as far from where I would be staying, but that isn’t important right now. Point is, I found it without much difficulty, thanks to modern GPS technology.

California Science Center

The CSC is a great museum with lots and lots of science (as you’d hope) – space and aeronautics, physics and mechanics, physiology and psychology, biology and ecology, to name a few. There are a couple advanced-for-their-day-and-still-not-too-shabby aircraft outside on your way in, like the A-12 trainer for the SR-71 Blackbird. It makes sense they’d have such a thing, but I’d never heard of it. It’s like a short, two-seater Blackbird. Pretty cool way to start. Inside I spent a lot of time with the space artifacts, including a Mercury capsule, an Apollo command module, and mockups of the great space telescopes, like Hubble and Spitzer. (They’re just mockups, so I didn’t count them on my list of observatories I visited, but it’s still cool to have a selfie with the Hubble!) The CSC is also home to Endeavor, the last space shuttle to enter service as a replacement for Challenger. Before I got anywhere near it, there is a display telling some of its history and a mockup of the STS mission control room. There’s a video running with all the STS launches simultaneously, which is cool, until the Challenger explosion, and when that comes up, all the rest start to click off, so that’s the only one running. I about wept right there in front of God and everyone. It’s an important part of the shuttle story, of course, and it’s the reason Endeavor got built, so they have to tell it.


Also in that gallery, there is a simulator with a 3 minute shuttle mission from launch to landing. I don’t usually go in for the extra expense, but I figured, I’m in LA on sabbatical. It’s six bucks. DO IT! So I did. And the video was misaligned, so half of it was offscreen! I mentioned it to the staff when I and the other two patrons on the ride got out. They offered to refund my money, and I accepted. The other guys blew it off, but I took the refund, and they also gave me a ticket for one of the other simulators in the museum. Sure! Let’s do it! That one turned out to be an air race with motion control in three dimensions. Turns out I’m a terrible pilot, and I spent half the time upside down! Fortunately, they have you put all the stuff in your pockets in a locker before you get in. Man, I was so bad at flying that thing, but I had a ball any way.


Among the other displays and galleries at the museum there is a sizable exhibit on psychology. I’ve been to quite a few science museums in my day, and this is the first time I recall seeing such an extensive coverage of the topic. Some displays were about perception and memory (if I recall correctly). Another was about crowd interactions. The one that really caught my attention was about fear and anxiety. It seemed a little intense for young museum goers, but then, it was presented in a format that might not hold their attention – a retro style TV with a couple of couches, and a video talking about how and why we experience different kinds of anxiety. It’s a topic that doesn’t get a lot of play in polite conversation, so upon reflection, I think it was one of the most interesting and potentially helpful exhibits in the place.


Eventually I made my way to the hangar where the space shuttle Endeavor resides. As you walk in you face the starboard nose of the ship, which towers over one’s head. The ship is suspended high enough that its belly is out of reach, but close enough that you can make out the ID numbers printed on the heat shield tiles.

The good ship Endeavor, last created of the U.S. space shuttle fleet

It’s hard to get a sense of how big these craft are from tv coverage or on your laptop, but standing underneath one, it’s pretty impressive! It takes quite a while to walk around Endeavor, especially if you read the interesting interpretive material under and around her. Also in the hangar is the SpaceHab, a laboratory that flew inside the shuttle cargo bay. It’s both bigger and smaller than I would have imagined. I found the display on the RS-25 engines to be of particular interest. This is the third space shuttle I’ve seen on display, the others being Enterprise and Discovery (having seen both of them at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, VA.). Enterprise had no engines as a prototype, but I was always drawn to Discovery‘s engines. When I studied aerospace engineering, we never really got into propulsion systems, and I was more interested in the structures and materials side. But just imagining those engines blazing is a bit of a thrill. Ironically, it turns out that Endeavor currently has no engines! According to one display board, its RS-25s were removed to be used in the Space Launch System (SLS), the giant rocket that will hopefully some day take NASA back to deep space. The nozzles that appear are just nozzles with no plumbing, one of which flew in space and the other two of which were used for test firings. Hmm. Oh well.

Once around the back and returning to the front on the port side, there is a model of the planned new exhibit hall for Endeavor that will display the ship mounted to an external fuel tank and standing upright as if ready for launch. The CSC has on display the last existing external fuel tank, which is just outside the shuttle hangar, and which I saw on my way out. These tanks were considered expendable and were dropped into the ocean when emptied during flight. This certainly contributed to the high cost of each launch. Had these tanks been recovered and reused (don’t know if that would even be possible) it would have been a huge savings. At the time, though, it was entirely impractical. Any way, the CSC has one, and so the planned new display. The model shows that there will be a gantry, which is presumably how visitors will be able to see and inspect the craft and its tank. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I like being able to walk around the shuttle and see its underside. As I said, just being next to it gives it a sense of grandeur. Upright, it will lose some intimacy, I think, but perhaps gain in scale and grandeur. It will certainly be better for the tank than having it sitting on the back lot, as it were. Well, they didn’t ask me, and that’s fine. I hope I get to see it one day when it’s done so I can compare the experiences.

Plan to put Endeavor into launch position. Could be cool.

There were many other things that I saw and took in at the museum, but these are the highlights. It was a satisfying way to spend the day. You can see my pictures >HERE<.

Heading for “Home”

About mid-afternoon I headed out in hope of missing rush hour traffic on my way to my home for the week, an AirBnB apartment on the north side, somewhere between Dodgers Stadium and Glendale. I was unsuccessful in my hope, or perhaps it’s just always like that. I followed my GPS directions, which were a bit this way and that, avoiding the heaviest traffic and accidents, and going pretty much through downtown LA. It took about 45 minutes to go 8 miles, but I wasn’t on a schedule, so who cares, and I got to see some interesting neighborhoods at low speed. Eventually, the high rises gave way to urban residential, close set houses with small yards on narrow cross streets. I had explored the area as best as I could virtually on Google maps, so I thought I had a pretty good idea where I was going. That turned out to be mostly true until I got right to the place. My target was an apartment in a building at the back of a larger lot with several other apartments on a common driveway. The problems that appeared when I got there: (1) There were a couple such setups on the street (2) none of the street numbers visible matched what I was looking for (3) the apartments I was looking for had been painted a different color between the G-maps street view picture and my arrival.

This is my AirBnB apartment complex. Mine is the one at the far end of the driveway. When I did my research on the internet, all these were painted tan.

Missed it by >| |< that much

Now, I tend to be a pretty intuitive person. That’s my Myers-Briggs score, and that’s how I generally operate. Unfortunately, my intuition is often wrong. Rather than use the nearest street number as a guide, I went with the nearest color compared to what I was expecting. This led me to pull into a driveway that ran up past a house to a structure in the back. Sounds sort of right…. The structure turned out to be more a garage or shed, though, than apartment. There were several cars parked in the driveway, and several people standing out in the front yard of the house having a beer who had watched me as I pulled in with a sort of “Now, what’s that guy think he’s doing?” look. I got out of the car and walked back to … what, check in? … with these folks. As I approached one of the men asked, “Can I help you?” in a sort of “You obviously need some help, and I’m not sure I’m gonna be the one that gives it” kind of way. I said I was looking for an AirBnB. They all looked at each other and said it wasn’t here. I apologized and asked if they knew where it might be. They did not. I apologized again and made my back to the car, turned it around, and slowly drove out under their sort of “On your way, you dumb tourist” kind of glare.

That’ll do

I sat at the curb across the street wondering what to do next – try another random driveway or try to contact the host or what. I checked the numbers again, tried to recall what the pictures had looked like, and decided to try again on the next driveway down. This turned out to be correct. I had an assigned parking place, which was made for efficient packing, because there was barely room to squeeze in my rented Hyundai. Walk up a long flight of steep stairs to a duplex apartment. You enter at the kitchen with washer/dryer behind the door. The kitchen is open to the living room with a small balcony patio. Down the hall is the bathroom and one good-sized bedroom with a queen bed and large window looking out on the back lawn. Very adequate! All nicely appointed. The kitchen has a full size fridge, dishwasher, and gas stove. The view from the balcony is very pleasant, looking to the Verdugo Mountains to the north. The neighborhood has a definite working class vibe that reminded me of our neighborhood in Dayton.

View from my balcony on my first evening in LA.

Spending Time in LA

My adventures in LA were mostly astronomical. Other than my observatory trips I didn’t venture out too much. I went to the Super A Market to get groceries, and I went to Patra’s Charbroiled Burgers for some local flavor. Even then, I chickened out and ordered my meal to go and ate at the apartment. This was in part because Patra’s tables were a mess of grease, to be honest. And there was hardly anyone else there, so I wouldn’t be gaining any local experience from people watching and would end up with grease stains on my clothes. The burger I got there, though, was FANTASTIC! So it was well worth the trip, even if it was shorter than I’d planned. So I cooked most of my own meals again and spent a lot of time planning my observatory outings and the next leg of the journey after LA. I did watch the worship service at >Catoctin Presbyterian< that Sunday, which included communion. I participated with bagel and coffee. Does that count? Molly and I also produced an episode of our podcast, >More Than Hearing.< It was a challenge we hadn’t tried together while I’d been on the road. I think our bicoastal episode turned out pretty well, all things considered.

So that was a pretty eventful first day in the big city. Watch for my coming write ups of my three observatory tours from that week – Griffith Observatory, Palomar Observatory, and Mt. Wilson Observatory – the latter two of which were among those that I was most anticipating on the Grand Tour.

Sabbatical 2018: The Movie

Here’s a video summary of my sabbatical travels touring U.S. astronomical observatories. It is entirely inadequate to capture the depth and richness of the experience, but it will give you a taste with some pretty pictures and peppy music (from http://www.bensound.com).

The review presentation

I presented this with a review of the whole experience, or bits and pieces of the whole experience, for the congregation after worship on Sunday, December 9, 2018. We also video recorded that presentation, including this. It’s under an hour long, and you can see that here:

A Sabbatical Map

Here is a map of my sabbatical journeys. It includes the trip to Green Bank, the New England swing, and the Grand Tour in chunks. The paths are approximate, especially on the Grand Tour, as they are here driving routes, and I took the train. Also, I didn’t put the exact addresses of the places I stayed. But you’ll get the idea. I think if you click on the box in the top left of the map header you’ll get the legend. Then if you want, you can turn off the driving routes, which will make it easier to see the places I visited. There are several light blue pins marking places I thought I might get to but ended up not going. This time. I worked out a rough estimate that I traveled over 8000 miles in a little over two months.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this experience, for the opportunity to travel to see these amazing astronomical instruments, and for the people who made it possible, namely my congregation at Catoctin Presbyterian Church, my family, and my wife Molly. I am grateful to the church for the financial means to go and for the spiritual support to send me. I am grateful to Molly for her encouragement and for her taking over many of the duties I left as I went. I am grateful to God for the privilege of this journey and for these beloved people in my life.

As my sabbatical is drawing to an end I plan still to keep writing about my experiences. I’m still processing the whole thing, what happened, what didn’t happen, what I learned and didn’t learn, what it all means. So stay tuned.


Photo Dump… Observatories 7-17!

My sabbatical is drawing quickly to an end. My Grand Tour wrapped up last week. My writing output has been lousy. I do, however, have lots and lots of pictures from the Tour that are in annotated albums over at my Google account. (My last photo dump went to my flickr account, but I got a new Android phone for the Grand Tour, so all the pictures automatically synced with Google, so there we go.) So I’m doing what I did after the Lesser Tour and dumping the pics for you to see. I then hope to go back and add commentary posts here for each leg, plus some interpretive and reflective posts on the whole experience.

So here we go. Click on the headings to see the pictures.


Kitt Peak Observatory

Kitt Peak, near Tucson, Arizona, is the National Optical Astronomy Observatory for the United States, established in 1958. There are over two dozen telescopes of various shapes, designs, and age there ranging from 16″ to 4 meters (160″) in size. They do a nice job with their tours, visitor center, and gift shop. I also participated in a nighttime observing program, and that was also well done, despite the monsoon making actual observing impossible.

Sunset at Kitt Peak

As part of the evening program, we got to view the sunset from the crest, which was spectacular. I took many pictures which only hint at the glory. The clouds made it more dramatic, but as the light faded the clouds took control of the night, precluding any astronomical observing.

Mount Graham International Observatories

A couple hours east of Tucson you can find Mount Graham, but you can’t go up it without a permit or signing on with the Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park tour, which is what I did. It takes over an hour to ascend the mountain road with its 108 switchbacks. At the summit are three observatories: the Sub-millimeter Radio Telescope, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, and the Large Binocular Telescope. We toured all three. Meanwhile, the weather degraded from mostly sunny to socked in, foggy, and 25-30 mph winds. The monsoon is real. I’m sure it had nothing to do with me being there.

Lowell Observatory

I traveled by car from Tucson to Flagstaff to see the Lowell Observatory, about a 4-hour drive. It saved me some logistical nightmares of getting there by train. Lowell is a beautiful facility, and they do very nice interpretive work. They also do public observing every clear night, and we happened to get such a thing while I was there. Lowell, named for famed astronomer Percival Lowell, is where Clyde Thombaugh discovered Pluto.


California Science Center

Not an observatory, but a cool science museum that has lots of space artifacts including the space shuttle Endeavor.

Griffith Observatory

Sitting on a hill overlooking Los Angeles is Griffith Observatory, named for Griffith Griffith. Yep, that was his name. This facility has been an important center for science education in L.A. for generations. It’s still very cool. They do public observing through their 12-inch Zeiss every clear night, despite the atrocious light pollution. You still get a decent view of the planets, which can be a real Gee-Whiz! moment, especially for the uninitiated.

Palomar Observatory

The Big Eye, that is the 200″ Hale reflector, one of the most famous telescopes in the world, is housed in this beautiful, Art Deco observatory dome. If you ever see an observatory in a cartoon, it’s probably based on Palomar. It is still among the largest telescopes in active service, and this is an active scientific facility. A couple hours southeast of Los Angeles, actually closer to San Diego, Palomar doesn’t suffer too much from pollution of the bright lights, big city. They have nice gift shop and visitor center and a good tour.

Mount Wilson Observatory

Mount Wilson was one of the first great observatories on the West Coast, developed by George Hale, the man behind Yerkes and (eventually) Palomar. It’s about an hour and change northeast of Los Angeles and is home to several former claimants of World’s Largest Telescope. Now primarily an educational outreach facility and center for outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking, Mt. Wilson played a key roll in changing the way we understand the shape, structure, size, and age of the Universe.

New Mexico

Molly flew out to join me in Albuquerque 32 days after I boarded the train in Harpers Ferry. We spent a day doing a self-guided Breaking Bad tour, which you can look here at if you’re into the show. We also enjoyed the New Mexico Space History Museum, the White Sands National Monument, the Three Rivers Petroglyph park, and the Valley of Fires lava flow site. Again, if you are interested in these, feel free to click on over. I’m going to keep the major bullet points for the official Grand Tour sites, such as…

Sunspot and Apache Point Observatories

Up on a mountain overlooking Alamogordo and White Sands, near the town of Cloudcroft, and just down the way from Mayhill where I spent a week on my last sabbatical, you can find Sunspot, the national solar observatory. You might have heard about Sunspot in the news recently. It was closed and evacuated by the FBI three days before we got there, leading to all sorts of speculation and conspiracy theories. Turned out to be a criminal investigation of a janitor involved in child porn, and definitely not aliens. Gross. Any way, just around the corner is Apache Point, an active observatory that is home to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an important digital, 3-D map of stars and celestial objects that revolutionized the field about the turn of the century. No visitor center, gift shop, or tours, but the public is welcome to stroll around. So we did.

Monastery of Christ in the Desert

This is the bookend retreat for the sabbatical, balancing the week at the Sienna Center in Wisconsin. Molly and I spent three days and three nights with the Benedictine brotherhood at this monastery on the Chama River near Abiquiu, NM. It is a beautiful and remote setting. Most of the time was spent in silence, or a close facsimile, and we attended quite a few of the services of the hours. The brothers start their day with Vigils at 3:30 a.m. and Lauds at 5:00 a.m., and we managed to miss those somehow. We very much enjoyed our time in reflection there, and the night sky was incredible.

Moon Over the Monastery

Here are many repetitive pictures of the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and friends low over the mountains west of the monastery on two successive nights.

Acoma Sky City Pueblo

Molly’s mom joined us from Colorado when we returned from the monastery to Albuquerque. We spent a day at the Acoma Pueblo, about an hour west of ABQ. I had been planning to go to the Chaco Canyon Native American Heritage site, which is the remains of a very large community dating from about 800-1200 AD in northwestern New Mexico. Chaco shows a great deal of intricate astronomical knowledge built into the layout and architecture of the entire site. Unfortunately, the logistics of travel precluded getting everywhere I hoped to go, and Chaco fell off the list. Sky City was much more doable and turned out to be a fascinating side trip. The Acoma are thought to be descendants of the Chaco people.

The Very Large Array

The last of the Grand Tour observatories, the Very Large Array, is a bookend to the first observatory on my sabbatical, Green Bank. The VLA is the largest radio observatory in the world, a collection of 27 radio dishes, each 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter, set in a Y pattern with a 22-mile diameter. It is well known from Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series and the Jodie Foster movie (based on a book by Sagan), Contact. Once again, radio astronomy proved to be absolutely fascinating, not only to me, but also to Molly and Mom who were both quite impressed. Good tour, good visitor center, nice gift shop.

And that’s pretty much it!

We spent a couple days with Mom at her place in northern Colorado, after which we took the train from Denver home to Harpers Ferry. I have some pics of the trip home here. I still have a couple places I want to get to in and around DC, but time is running out to get it in under the title “sabbatical.” Like I said, I hope to post more about the journey, things I learned, ideas I’ve pondered, observations I’ve made about life, the universe, and everything, so stay tuned.