Meet the Star Men

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

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.

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

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.

In 2008, Meade moved its manufacturing from Irvine to a factory in Mexico to save money. Everyone puts some blame on the economy; scopes are a luxury product, and buying one is more than a few hundred dollars out of your pocket—it’s also a lifestyle choice.

The trend is reflected in OCA as well. According to one astrophotographer member, membership is declining at a rate of about 70 people per year.

“All the members are older now, and there are not young people coming in,” says OCA member Kyle Coker.

Scott Roberts left Meade Instruments in 2008, though he doesn’t blame his exit on Meade’s financial troubles.

“A lot of people ask why I left: because I was turning 50 years old and wanted to see what else I could do out there.”

He has since started his own telescope-manufacturing company: Explore Scientific. That’s OCA president Bobchin’s preferred scope.

“Scott has always believed in very high quality and stringent testing,” says Bobchin.

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Jim Benet explains the geography of the sky through Greek mythology, using the parables to tell stories of love and tragedy, all played out with the constellation characters in the sky.

Cassiopeia (Messier object No. 103) is an open cluster of stars. She was the wife of King Cepheus. Their daughter Andromeda (spiral galaxy, M31) was sacrificed to the dragon-monster Cetus (spiral galaxy at M77), but Perseus (open cluster, M34) saved her. He goes on like this, breathless with wonder and excitement, stopping only briefly to look at the object through the eyepiece.

He is intent on finding as many of the 110 Messier objects as he can—even though it’s unlikely with such a late start.

As he tells stories, he also punches the coordinates of objects on the Messier list into the control paddle of his GoTo scope. The scope whirs into position. He bends over and looks into the eyepiece at M45, the Seven Sisters star group that people often mistake for the Little Dipper.

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