Meet the Star Men

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

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.

Astronomer Joe Busch at his Anza Observatory
Portrait by Zack Herrera/Actutographed by Joe Buschal sky pho
Astronomer Joe Busch at his Anza Observatory
Craig Bobchin, president of OCA, stargazes from his backyard observatory
Zack Herrera
Craig Bobchin, president of OCA, stargazes from his backyard observatory

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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.

Roberts was the 24-year-old manager when a dealer from Celestron convinced him to sell some of Celestron’s scopes on consignment; he gave the store 90 days to offload them. They were all sold in 30 days, and Roberts was hooked.

“The first time you see the rings around Saturn, and it sinks in that you’re looking further and further back into time, you let your inhibitions fade away a little bit,” says Roberts, who now lives in Laguna Hills. “You feel the vastness of the universe.”

By 1983, Oceanside Photographic Center was selling so many telescopes that the name didn’t make sense anymore. It was changed to Oceanside Photo and Telescope (OPT) and was moved to a larger space that could handle the rapidly expanding business of telescope sales.

In spite of the growth, Roberts was restless by 1986. He sent out his résumé; Meade Instruments snapped him up.

The Irvine-based telescope manufacturer was one of the biggest in the country at that time and Celestron’s rival. Roberts had been selling both companies’ equipment for a few years by then.

Roberts was hired as a sales manager; he eventually worked his way up to vice president in charge of the company’s global presence. He was the face and personality behind the brand, an enthusiastic amateur astronomer himself who brought even more people to the hobby.

During Roberts’ tenure, Meade became the biggest manufacturer of amateur telescopes in the world. He was with the company for more than 20 years, through ups and downs and battles with Celestron. In 2005, he created an epic meta-club, the Meade 4M Alliance, a kind of super-constellation of amateur and professional astronomers, magazines, conventions, and manufacturers. The alliance claimed at least 40,000 members at its peak—the world’s first and largest factory-sponsored astronomy association. Meade underwrote everything the alliance did, and while the company was at the top of it, it was the biggest thing to happen to Southern California’s astronomy scene.

In 2001, Meade tried to flex its muscles in court, suing Celestron for copyright infringement.

“Any two entities that compete head-to-head become more and more alike,” says MacRobert of Sky and Telescope. “They were trying to make incremental improvements over each other, especially with the Schmidt-Cassegrain. It became the mainstay of the amateur because you get a lot of aperture in a small, portable package. They both made one, and they looked exactly alike, except for their trademark colors.”

Meade felt that Celestron’s NexStar software was too similar to their “Level North” technology that debuted in 1998. The feature allowed astronomers to orient their scopes by pointing them first north, and then toward the horizon. After that, an amateur with no knowledge of the stars could find any object in the sky by punching in a number on a control pad. In 2004, Meade and Celestron reached an agreement: Celestron has to pay Meade a royalty on sales of all telescopes that use the “Level North” technology.

“Meade was eating their lunch for a while,” MacRobert says about the rivalry. “Celestron was at death’s door.”

Things have changed, and now Meade has faced its own struggles. In 2008, its stock fell below $1 for the first time. That same year, the company reported sales of $98.5 million, down from $101.5 million the year before. It blamed the drop on the nationwide closure of all Discovery Channel Stores.

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