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Meet the Star Men

Thanks in part to Orange County Astronomers and its desert clubhouse, Southern California is amateur-stargazer heaven

Busch says he told her then, “‘I’m gonna put it in my observatory.’ So I took it to my wife, she framed it, and I hung it up.”

Unlike Bobchin and Benet, Busch would rather spend his time comfortable and warm in his observatory while staring at the rough image of a constellation on his laptop as it slowly gains more detail and depth. He is not bothering with the Messier Marathon; he is what members of the club call an “extreme photographer.” The scope will do all the work for him, tracking the deep-space object of his choice for hours, while it collects the data and creates the image. Later, he will use an editing program to combine frames, clear out a dust speck on the lens or erase the tracked path of a satellite.

Other imagers stop by Busch’s observatory, free as they are to leave their equipment to its task. They chat about how the tracking is going. If the high winds are creating a wobble, they talk about wives and businesses and drink more coffee.

Leonard still says he is the founder of today's OCA
Leonard still says he is the founder of today's OCA
Scott Roberts looks to the future while looking back in time through his new scopes
John Gilhooley
Scott Roberts looks to the future while looking back in time through his new scopes

Busch gives up trying to stay awake after 2 a.m. He leaves his computer to track his object and tucks himself under the blankets on the bottom bunk.

*     *     *

Like the mythological figures that wheel across the night sky, OCA has a creation story. Actually, it has two.

One of them goes like this:

One night in the spring of 1967, 23-year-old Art LeBrun brought his Edmund Scientific 4.25-inch reflector telescope to his Uncle Chuck’s house in Anaheim. The pair took turns looking at the moon. The then-39-year-old Chuck thought, “This is cool!”

He bought his own small reflector scope, and he and his nephew would spend weekends in the back yard scanning the stars.

One day, Chuck wondered if there were a club they could join.

“I wrote to Sky and Telescope magazine and asked them,” says Chuck, now in his 80s. “They said there wasn’t one in Orange County, so I told them I was going to try to organize one.”

Chuck put an ad in the October issue of the magazine. It listed Chuck’s home address, his home phone number, and the name that Chuck and Art had decided on while sitting at the kitchen table—the Orange County Amateur Astronomers Association (OCAAA). A dozen strangers showed up for that first meeting a month later, on a cool Wednesday evening. Old men, young guys in high school, Chuck and his nephew, all of them pointing their scopes at the sky from his driveway until the cold drove them into the house, where they would spend the rest of the night drinking hot chocolate.

Now, ask Jim Leonard, and he’ll tell you a completely different account of how it all began.

The 77-year-old Santa Ana resident says he started the club with an ad in the Santa Ana Register in the early ’70s and that the club was called the Orange County Amateur Astronomers (OCAA). According to his account, 72 people descended on his two-bedroom apartment on South Cedar Street in Santa Ana.

“The landlady had a fit,” he says. “We plugged the street with cars.”

If you believe Chuck, on Feb. 28, 1972, OCAAA became a California corporation and dropped the extra words to become the Orange County Astronomers. If you believe Leonard, OCAA was the precursor to OCA. Given the chance, both men will campaign for their own version of the truth. Chuck has old newsletters from OCAAA printed in a wobbly, typewriter print, as though each letter is tilted on its axis. Leonard has a picture of his old apartment and a message typed across the bottom: “That’s the apartment where it all started, believe it or not!”

Chuck says he had never heard of Leonard or his OCAA until OCA’s historian, Sheila Cassidy (one of two women on the group’s 11-member board), included an e-mail from Leonard explaining his version of the beginning in OCA’s newsletter, Sirius Astronomer.

Most likely, they are both right. Eventually, the two clubs became indistinguishable from each other, absorbing the other’s members into a single group, like two galaxies spiraling together into one.

OCA bought the Anza site in 1979 and has been building it up since then, adding more viewing pads and individual observatories. Eventually, they got plumbing and electricity. The modular house was pieced together on-site in 1998. But the crown jewel is the 22-inch, computer-controlled telescope: the Kuhn Obs Sky Cruiser, worth about $300,000 and designed by William Kuhn, an engineer in the club. The Anza site is like Disneyland to amateur astronomers: Just knowing it’s there makes them giddy.

*     *      *

The man considered by many to be the face of amateur astronomy in Orange County and beyond isn’t even a member of OCA.

Scott Roberts helped build a multinational telescope and astronomy company. He created a place where astronomers of all types could share their obsession with the stars and deep space. But before all that, he was just a guy in a camera store.

In 1982, the Oceanside Photographic Center sold only photography gear. It was tucked into a tiny space in a building on Hill Street in downtown Oceanside, a place that residents of the small military town north of San Diego consider the bad part of town.

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