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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 54, No. 11 May 31, 2002
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

'Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes'

By Bill Murphy

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As a kid, there were so many things you wanted to do. For Mike Pendley (5852), building his own telescope was one of them.

But, as John Lennon famously said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans."

[Mike Pendley ]

ALMOST THERE -- Mike Pendley uses a spherometer to calculate the curva-ture of the 10-inch mirror made by fellow Sandian Dick Fate (6135). Mike and several colleagues offer a twice-monthly, no-cost, drop-in workshop to provide technical assistance to amateur telescope makers.


For Mike, other dreams, other ambitions, caught and held his attention and the telescope-making dream was consigned to that deep storage bin of the psyche.

So things stood for decades. Then, in the mid-1990s, Mike decided to join the Albuquerque Astronomical Society, or TAAS. That seemingly inconsequential decision turned out to have major consequences, indeed: it breathed new life into his boyhood dream and ultimately led him to become one of the chief mentors of others in the community who want to build 'scopes of their own.

Not long after joining TAAS, Mike noted a little item in the club's newsletter. John Dobson, the guru of gurus, the capo di tutti capi, the Big Kahuna of amateur telescope making, would be in Albuquerque for two weeks to run a telescope-making class.

"Here's 'the man' himself," Mike thought. He jumped at the chance to sign up.

Dobson, a Manhattan Project veteran already into his 80s at the time, developed the so-called Dobsonian Mount, a simple, easy, reliable -- and cheap -- way to mount small reflector telescopes. The mount allows a telescope to be easily moved in three planes (up-down, side-to-side, and diagonally) and stay where it's pointed. That easy-to-build mount, much simpler than the complicated equatorial mounts in common use, in turn opened the way to an explosion of home-built scopes.

Mike says he "was turned on" by Dobson's class, and after finishing a 10-inch telescope in two weeks (representing somewhere between 20 and 40 hours of actual work), he concluded "Gee, everybody's gotta do this."

He was inspired by Dobson's ability to demystify the telescope-making process.

"John Dobson is a philosopher," Mike says, "and his philosophy is 'Everybody needs a telescope, and we don't have much time.' " A corollary to his world-view is that a good-enough telescope in hand is better than a perfect scope that you never finish. "If you get it 90 percent right," Mike says, parsing Dobson's philosophy, "it'll serve you well."

Thus armed with his newfound appreciation that telescope-making didn't belong exclusively to an elect priesthood of initiates, Mike volunteered to help TAAS launch a formal telescope-making class.

When he started the class in 1995, Mike says, "I was only slightly smarter about making telescopes than my students, but they didn't seem to notice."

Over the next several years, Mike faithfully offered the class twice a year. It took students through all the steps required to complete a telescope. It was very formal. In week 1 you did step a; in week 2, you did step b, and so on. A couple of years ago, after helping dozens of students complete 'scopes, Mike decided to take a new approach. Instead of a formal class, he decided to offer an open-ended telescope-making workshop. It's much less structured. He and partner Ray Collins, a physics teacher at Valley High School, make themselves available twice a month to offer advice to telescope makers at any stage of their progress. The flexibility of the new approach, Mike says, has worked out very well. On any given evening (first and third Wednesdays of every month all year round), anywhere from one or two to six or eight 'scope makers will show up at Ray's classroom at Valley looking for advice and assistance -- and, not infrequently, a pep talk.

Having built three complete 'scopes himself, and completed a bunch of mirrors that he's used in classroom demonstrations and to perfect new techniques, Mike says building your own telescope isn't hard. Even so, he allows that most folks who begin a telescope never finish it.

"It's not a skills issue; it's really a matter of staying focused and interested," Mike says.

Mike agrees that a telescope builder probably isn't going to save a whole lot of money over what he or she might spend buying a commercial 'scope in the 6-inch to 10-inch range. "I'd be willing to bet, though, that you'll end up with a better 'scope -- even if it's your first one."

Thanks probably in very large part to the demystifying influence of John Dobson, home-built telescopes are more pervasive than ever. Mike notes that when he first joined TAAS less than 10 years ago, most of the 'scopes at star parties were commercial devices. Today, they're mostly home-built.

So consider: You might get a better scope if you build it yourself. You probably aren't going to save a lot of money. You might just ask, "Why bother."

Well, Mike would reply, there are some intangibles. Personal satisfaction? Of course. A sense of accomplishment? Sure. A better, more intimate knowledge of your 'scope? 'natch.

But then there's the clincher: "At a party," Mike says, "when you tell someone you just built a device with a mirror that you ground to an accuracy of a tenth of the wavelength of light, you can be pretty sure there's no one else there who can make the same claim. It's cool."

Last modified: June 4, 2002


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