was the best of times. It was the worst of times."
by Robert Haler
Texas Star Party is "the" annual event in the amateur astronomy
world. It is held at the Prude Ranch just outside of Fort Davis,
Texas in the Davis Mountains. Located in the high desert at over
5000 feet and about 100 miles from the nearest sizeable town, it
offers some of the best skies in North America. The place is dry,
dusty, and is a long way from civilization; but the great viewing
and great people make it worth the trip. No matter how jaded you
may have become. No matter how many times you have looked through
giant telescopes - or talked to the "important people" - or looked
at wild new telescope designs; the Texas Star Party is a magical
am a vendor, so I left an extra day early from my astronomy store
in Independence, Missouri. Taking note that Independence was the
jumping off point for many of the west-bound wagon train trails,
I packed like I was never coming back. 10 days worth of clothing.
toiletries, towels, re-hydratable food, bottled water, a fancy tent
- and a spare, tent repair stuff, telescopes, binoculars, eyepieces,
star charts, books, flashlights, and enough tools to rebuild civilization.
But only 6 pairs of underwear - damn!
star party didn't officially start until Sunday, but I got there
Saturday evening and set up my tent on the upper field. For my money,
the upper field is where the action is. I camped next to Gil and
Kathy Machin - my good friends and veterans of 20 consecutive TSP's.
If the weather was good, I would have ready access to their decades
of astronomical wisdom. If the clouds rolled in, I would have pleasant
company to chat the hours away. Having nice people to chat with
is important. Entertainment is hard to come by when there are no
stars to look at. The nearest radio or TV station that doesn't suck
is about 400 miles away - and reading with a white light can get
up a tent at the Prude Ranch is non-trivial. There is almost no
vegetation and the ground is a little harder than an average sidewalk.
Leave your plastic and wood tent stakes at home. Bring your hammer
and 3/16" thick, 10" long steel spikes. You really find out who
your friends are if the wind is blowing 40 miles an hour. Anybody
who will help you with a tent that's flapping around like a wild
animal is your friend. Thanks Kathy. And oh yeah - I certainly enjoyed
the ultra sharp and multi-pronged "sand burrs" as they impaled my
dusk I was setup and ready for my first night on the ranch - but
not the first night of the star party. The star party did not officially
start until the next night. Part of the charm of showing up a day
early is that you get to look at those beautifully clear, steady
skies - and wish it was dark. There were still two groups - the
Baptists to the north and the Methodists to the south - staying
in the cabins. We were camped in the "demiliterized zone" between
the two. And for some reason - perhaps an obscure religious tenant
of which I am unaware - they were using white lights!!!!! They had
street lights and porch lights and white flashlights and car headlights
and motorcycle lights and camper lights and cigarette lighters and
camera flash bulbs!!!!! Couldn't they see the stars? Didn't they
know the torture they were inflicting? Don't go early unless you
The next day was different. I woke up kinda late. The stress of
driving 1000 miles was mostly out of my system. And it was a beautiful
morning - cold - but beautiful. The good days at the ranch seem
to follow a predictable pattern: It gets down to about 40° in the
wee hours of the morning. You wake to a cold, clear sky. As the
sun clears the mountains the temp goes up 20-30° in an hour - and
the wind starts. The sun driven wind kicks up all day, blowing around
the 3 inches deep powder-like dust, coating all exposed objects
thoroughly. (Sometimes you hear soft weeping sounds coming from
first timers who forgot to cover their scopes.) Lots of different
kinds of clouds build and blow through - making it look very unpromising
for the night to follow. Some days bring GIANT dust devils with
the power to tear away tents and throw telescopes impressive distances.
But the clouds and the winds almost always die with the sun. Almost
I said before, I'm a vendor. I sell telescopes. I had expected to
spend Sunday setting up my wares. But because of some "confusion",
they said come back Monday. So I decided to visit McDonald Observatory
just 10 minutes up the road. Have I mentioned that the Davis Mountain
skies are so good that they are home to a world-class observatory?
TSP sponsors special "technical tours" of the McDonald facilities
during the star party. I hear they are extremely interesting and
thorough tours. I sure do wish I had gone on one of them. I went
on the "regular" guided tour. Our group consisted of me, a naval
officer on vacation, and 25 or so "super seniors." First we got
to go inside the dome for the 107" telescope. It is an impressive
sight. It's a Cassegrain optical system on a modified English cross-axle
mount. It has the regular Cassegrain focus, three focus points at
the sides of the tube (the Cassegrain focus sent to the side by
a tertiary mirror), and a Coudé focus in the basement 4 floors below.
The telescope was impressively large and impressively complex and
"scientific" looking. I enjoyed poking around a little bit and having
a close-up look at the mirror cell. The narrative our guide provided
was - let me be as charitable as possible - remedial. He used a
cardboard model with a shaving mirror glued in the bottom to sorta
show the septa- and octa- generians how the light bounced around
inside the telescope. I sat quietly on my hands so I wouldn't be
tempted to slit my wrists. When our guide finally asked for questions
- every hand in the room shot up. "Wow," I thought, "These lovely
older ladies are really interested in astronomy." So I put my hand
down. First question: "Who funds this facility?" Second question:
"What are the yearly operating expenses?" Third question: "Do those
funds come out of the state treasury?" Fourth question: "Are you
allowing any foreign students to use these facilities?" I quit listening
and tried to find out where Rod Serling was hiding in the dome -
but he wasn't there. Finally - it ended. And we moved on - to something
hastily exiting the Twilight Zone of the 107" dome, I headed over
to the new and exciting Hobby-Eberly
(HET for short). You view the HET from inside the George T. Abell
Visitors' Gallery. I don't think Mr. Abell was involved with astronomy
during his life time, but it sure was nice of his foundation to
provide the Visitor's Gallery. It's sort of like a mini classroom
grafted on to the front of the observatory. The HET has an almost-finished
11 meter mirror made out of a bunch of individual hexagonal segments.
All of the segments are identical and are ground with a spherical
curve. These things are about 3 feet across and 3" thick. They
have one on display in the visitor's gallery inside a big plastic
It is impressive! At the back of the classroom they have a plastic
wall through which you can look into the dome. The lighting in the
dome is low because of a need to keep the heat load down during
the day. They won't let you in the dome for the same reason - air
conditioners running their little hearts out. And, I suspect, because
the super structure of the scope looks too much like a jungle
I know I wanted to climb on it. It's hard to get a good view through
the plastic, but I got some pretty good pictures using a digital
camera. This telescope was built solely to take the spectra. It
is mounted on an azimuth table and the altitude is permanently set
at 35º from zenith. There is a kewl tracking system that moves above
the telescope just like the setup at Arecibo. I won't go into all
the gory details. You can find plenty of info on the web. (http://www.as.utexas.edu/mcdonald/het/het.html)
The best thing is to go see it for yourself. And take the TSP technical
tour. I more or less forced myself to ignore the "class" when we
got to HET, but I was very close to taking hostages.
back at the Ranch…
The star party was getting nicely underway. Many people had arrived
and started setting up camp. The previous guests had cleared out.
The intrepid TSP staff had spent the day neutralizing all sources
of evil white light. Mercury vapor lamps had been removed. Bunkhouse
windows were covered with aluminum foil. And the snipers had all
manned their towers - with shoot-to-kill orders at the first sign
of an unfiltered flashlight. Sunday night was clear and dark and
steady. It was a good night to observe and a good night to be alive.
Oh yeah…I put on my snow suit when it got dark…
next few days were wonderful. I got my portable store straightened
away and started providing my fellow TSP attendees with fine astronomical
merchandise. The days were warm, windy, and dusty. Several informative
talks were given by knowledgeable speakers. And the nights were
calm and filled with all of the dim fuzzies you could hope for.
I was suffering from a serious case of sleep deprivation….but life
was very, very good. TSP magic was at work.
night I got some sleep - but only after removing several cubic yards
of Prude Ranch from the inside of my tent. The winds did not die
Friday evening as they had before. They shifted around to the north,
became stronger, got colder, and picked up every loose particle
of dust for 50 miles around and threw it at us. I spent until midnight
putting extra stakes in the ground and adding extra ropes to keep
my tent upright. I finally collapsed into a fitful, dusty sleep.
Other's didn't have quite so easy a time of it. My friend Justin
Teenor from Kansas City was staying in a small two-man dome tent
on the lower field. He said that there was so much dust he had to
wear a bandana just to breath inside his tent. We also heard more
than one spouse threaten divorce if they were ever again forced
into another "vacation" like this. TSP magic.
I mention door prizes??? The Great Texas Giveaway? Saturday looked
like it might be a repeat of the night before - but most of the
TSPers stayed. You see, you MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN. The big meeting
of the star party is Saturday night. The main program is presented
and the awards are given out. Some of the awards are serious: Messier
certificates, Amateur Telescope Making awards, Best Astrophoto,
etc. Some are not so serious: biggest computer geek, the award for
"doing nothing" (it was blank), and other awards who's mentioning
decorum does not permit. Any way, everyone hangs around and listens
politely to all of the star party business whether they are really
interested or not because - YOU MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN. Finally,
about 9 o'clock, several young astronomers started drawing names.
People won ball caps, The Sky software, books, charts, t-shirts,
Naglers, copies of the Real Sky, and a 6" Celestron Star Hopper.
As suddenly as it began, it was over. Star partiers, lucky winners
and non winners, bladders bursting, started herding for the door.
For some of them, this was the end of another TSP and the beginning
of the trip home. For me and some of the other faithful, another
fine night on the ranch began.
the way back to my own campsite, I found Rick Singmaster sitting
quietly in the twilight next to a 20"
he had just delivered to a customer. The customer was a 7 year old
girl. Her daddy had bought her that fully decked out scope. I think
my father got me a full set of Hot Wheels once… The little girl
was already in bed, but I spent some peaceful hours talking to her
dad and Rick. We took turns finding stuff through sucker holes in
the clouds with the 20" scope. It was a pleasant ending to another
great star party experience. Ya - I know I gripe a bit - but I still
love star parties, and this is one of the best. P.S. After spending
a week at a great observing site like the Prude Ranch, driving home
1000 miles in the rain really sucks!
(Bob) Haler is a Kansas City based amateur astronomer and telescope
builder. He runs an astronomy store in Independence, Missouri (www.lymax.com).
He is also an operator on the Undernet IRC channel #sciastro.
Bob's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org