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Texas Star Party 1998

"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."

by Robert Haler

The 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 place.

I 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!

The 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 you shot.

Setting 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 knees.

By 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 have to.

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 always.

Like 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 really kewl!!!

After hastily exiting the Twilight Zone of the 107" dome, I headed over to the new and exciting Hobby-Eberly Telescopeimage (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 boximage. 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 gymimage. 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. ( 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.

Meanwhile back at the Ranchimage… 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…

The 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.

Friday 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.

Did 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.

On the way back to my own campsite, I found Rick Singmaster sitting quietly in the twilight next to a 20" F5 scopeimage 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!

Robert (Bob) Haler is a Kansas City based amateur astronomer and telescope builder. He runs an astronomy store in Independence, Missouri ( He is also an operator on the Undernet IRC channel #sciastro. Bob's email address is .

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