Meet the Star Men

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

Busch uses a Meade 12-inch Advanced Coma-Free compound telescope. It’s a model particularly well-suited for astrophotography. The rig is in a protective dome next to his observatory; he directs its movement and monitors its imaging process from his laptop while sitting behind the desk in his shack.

The floors of the shack are covered with expensive red carpets, posters of astronomical phenomena paper the walls, and bottles of Scotch line the windowsill: Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Oban, Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich among them. Busch, who lives in San Juan Capistrano, is a lawyer when he’s not an astronomer.

A pine box on the floor is full of bottles of wine. There is a microwave, a coffeemaker, two computers, books and a bunk bed, all crammed into a space no larger than 10 feet by 15 feet.

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

On one wall is a glossy black-and-white photo of Star Trek’s Spock and his Vulcan wife (well, sort of—it’s complicated), played by Arlene Martel. The actress’ signature is scrawled across the photo in black Sharpie under the message “Joe, Best thoughts.” He and his wife had dinner with the actress a few years ago. When she signed the photo, she asked if he was going to put it in a drawer and forget about it.

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.

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!”

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