Meet the Star Men

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

As soon as the sun sets at the Anza observatory site and the sky turns orange, then purple, then inky blue, the members of Orange County Astronomers start tilting their heads back and tsk-tsking at the clouds. If they intend to find all 110 deep-space objects in the Messier Marathon, they will need each precious minute of night to be clear while they track the stars traveling across the hemisphere. When some stars set, others rise—the Scorpio constellation follows Orion—and the astronomers must see the stars on a corresponding schedule. It took amateur astronomer Charles Messier more than 50 years to identify them in the mid-18th century. Now, if weather permits, an amateur astronomer with a good GoTo telescope can find all of them in a single night, during the long, cold hours between dusk and dawn.

But in the foothills east of Temecula and west of Palm Springs, 4,000 feet up in the desert, the weather is not cooperating.

Craig Bobchin, OCA’s president, sets up on his cement pad a 6-inch Explore Scientific telescope on a Losmandy G-11 German Equatorial mount. To get here took a two-hour drive down the 91 freeway; up a narrow, winding highway; then along a barely discernible dirt road. At 10:30 p.m., there is still a low, thick layer of marine mist obscuring the stars. Occasionally, it parts long enough to give a tantalizing glimpse of the twinkling starscape, unpolluted by city light. When a hole appears in the cloud cover, Bobchin jumps at the chance to focus in on Sirius, the Dog Star, even if only for a few seconds.

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
Joe Busch's observatory is stocked with the essentials: Star Trek and scotch
Zack Herrera
Joe Busch's observatory is stocked with the essentials: Star Trek and scotch
Sky and Telescope ran LeBrun's ad for OC's first amateur-astronomy club in OCtober 1967
Courtesy Art LeBrun
Sky and Telescope ran LeBrun's ad for OC's first amateur-astronomy club in OCtober 1967
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

“This is just a sucker hole,” the Placentia resident says with a laugh. “You get excited and observe through the clouds. Then the hole closes, and you feel like a sucker.”

Jim Benet of Yorba Linda agrees. He also has a concrete observing pad on the Ten Pad Alley flat of OCA’s Anza site, 20 terraced acres carved into a hillside.

“Yeah, and as soon as the first person gives up and goes home, the sky clears up,” he adds. “But if someone brings out a new scope, it will be cloudy all night.”

A coyote yips somewhere nearby, its mocking tone bouncing through the hills.

Finally, the winds start blowing, and the desert air plummets below 32 degrees. The mist freezes and gets blown away. Benet pokes a finger toward the sky and draws an imaginary line across Orion’s belt, then down to his sword.

“Of course, the males in the club know what Orion’s sword really is,” he says.

Benet’s telescope is nearly as big he is, and in the dark, all you can see is his hulking mass cloaked in black, man and gear barely distinguishable.

He is using a Celestron brand, 11-inch, Schmidt-Cassegrain-type telescope on a Losmandy Equatorial mount. It’s the largest scope he could get that he can easily lift into and out of his SUV. The scope weighs 30 pounds, the mount 35. At the time he bought it, the equivalent scope made by the competing amateur-astronomy company, Irvine-based Meade Instruments, would have been too heavy—65 pounds at least, says Benet—because you couldn’t separate the scope from the mount.

The smooth stretch of concrete at the bottom of Anza is the Football Field, where less-committed stargazers can set up smaller scopes and tailgate behind their parked cars. Scattered across the site are individual observatories, the astronomer’s equivalent of an ice-fishing shack. Stepping inside one is like entering another world. Next to the observatories are domes that protect scopes so large and unwieldy it makes more sense to leave them at the site than to haul them out each weekend. On another flat is the Anza House, complete with beds and TVs, a kitchen and bathrooms, wireless Internet and computers. As far as observing sites go, OCA is not roughing it.

With about 700 members, it’s the biggest amateur-astronomy club in the country as far as Bobchin can tell.

“We talk to other clubs on a regular basis,” Bobchin says. “The only club that comes close to us is the Texas club up in Dallas.”

Dallas is nice but not as appealing to a man and his scope as Southern California; between the temperate seasons, the topography and the local manufacturers that support the hobby, there is no shortage of reasons why OCA has attracted the number of members it has. Still, all the signs indicate that the hobby is in the waning phase of its life cycle. Most clubs, OCA included, aren’t getting the young members who are needed to keep the community alive.

“When I joined the club in late 2001, all the members seemed to be graying, middle-aged men,” says Bobchin. “That’s typically the picture that people get of amateurs in the hobby.”

Meade Instruments, once a thriving company that supported amateur astronomy, has been struggling under decreasing sales and changes in management. After moving its manufacturing facilities from Irvine to Mexico in 2008, the quality issues that had been plaguing it only got worse.

Yet the astronomers go on with their all-consuming hobby. They spend cold nights, hunched over their scopes, just for the chance to see the small, blurry white dot of a galaxy millions of light years from Earth. Those who can read the sky like a novel debate the value of their personal skill with those who use the aid of a GoTo scope, which can find objects automatically. Some men spend years working on a single astrophotography image. Some buy thousands of dollars of equipment, then an SUV to haul it all. OCA is so important to its members that they have spent decades debating who its true founder is. Like a black hole, this hobby sucks up their time and money, but they’re not complaining.

“Yeah, I could be selling color laser copiers,” says Scott Roberts, an ex-vice president of Meade. “But to me, this means something. That’s why I stay in.”

*     *    *

Astronomy has been attracting amateurs since Copernicus put the sun at the center of the universe—and he did it without the aid of a telescope. It’s a science to which amateurs can contribute without needing a laboratory or a doctorate. All you need is an inspired obsession with looking up on a dark night and seeing the universe. Of course, having a telescope helps.

By attaching a slightly modified digital camera, inexpensive factory-built scopes can be turned into astrophotography rigs capable of creating images whose quality can be compared to those taken by satellites. Clubs like OCA have coalesced around such inexpensive gear. And the weather, of course.

“Southern California and Arizona—it’s [the] capital of amateur astronomy in America, possibly the world,” says Alan MacRobert, editor of Sky and Telescope magazine. “Here on the East Coast, we have SoCal envy.” He sighs. “We’re envious of you guys because you have clear skies. And you can get to dark skies with a reasonable amount of driving.”

The weather here attracted the astronomers, which attracted the telescope manufacturers, which attracted more astronomers.

These amateurs contribute to an international community of millions, each with a scope in his or her hands pointed at galaxies spanning incalculable light years. They collect data each night, compile images and scour them for a single dot of bright light that stands out against the millions: a star that wasn’t there in the images that came before or one that has suddenly disappeared. This is how amateurs discover novas and supernovas; their discoveries tell the professionals where to point their high-powered, high-priced gear so these rare astronomical phenomena can be studied and entered into the ever-growing canon of astronomical knowledge.

Recently, a man in Florida was monitoring a star from his home observatory when he realized it was about to explode.

“This is significant, not just because an exploding star is cool, but this is also the best study of a classical nova explosion,” MacRobert says. “Within hours, spacecraft and observatories were watching it.”

The hobby began to take off in the 1920s, when an amateur club in Springfield, Vermont, became the first to build its own scopes.

“They realized you could get the materials, grind and shape a mirror, and build a scope for a reasonable cost,” MacRobert says. “Amateur building was picked up by Scientific American magazine and spread to amateur science and what passed for geekdom in the 1920s and ’30s.”

There are still purists and artisans who make their own scopes, often taking a year to grind a perfect mirror in order to obtain a 99 percent accurate image, rather than the 95 percent accuracy typically found in a mass-produced optic. Some experts can peer through a scope and detect such subtleties in the mirror the same way a sommelier can detect notes in a fine wine that go unnoticed by laymen. The people who sell handmade scopes don’t even advertise because they’re backed up with years of orders that cost three times as much as a factory-produced scope.

Understandably, MacRobert doesn’t see much value in buying the handcrafted scopes when factory-made, large optics are indistinguishable to the average amateur. He does add one caveat.

“It’s crap at the low end because people don’t know better,” he declares. “They’re long, with very small aperture refractors on flimsy mounts. If people will buy them, someone will keep making them. They shouldn’t be bought, period, besides at a yard sale for fun.”

Crap aside, MacRobert explains, “it’s possible to buy off-the-shelf, large scopes for a few hundred dollars compared to few thousand dollars just a few generations ago.”

*     *     *

Joe Busch is one of those astronomers who’d rather not drag his scope out to OCA’s Anza site.

“I have 100 pounds of counterweight alone on it. When you put on both cameras and the eyepiece, that adds from 80 to 100 pounds.”

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.

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!”

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.

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.

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.

*     *     *

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.

The paddle beeps in Benet’s hand again, and the scope whirs to M42, the Orion Nebula. A quick glance through the scope at the hazy blotch in the sky, and he’s quickly on to the next object on the list.

Bobchin, like many of the astronomers who came out to Anza, gave up on the marathon when the clouds didn’t clear immediately after sunset. They’ve settled instead on idle gazing or astrophotography.

Bobchin looks through the eyepiece of Benet’s scope as it settles, momentarily, on a star cluster.

“It’s not centered!” Bobchin says, annoyed with Benet’s unrelenting push to see each object, rather than enjoy them in their splendor.

“I’m not going to center them all!” Benet shouts back, baffled at the mere suggestion, already punching more numbers into his paddle.

When Benet needs to take a nap or escape from the dropping desert temperatures, he slips into the back of his SUV, which he parked behind his scope. It’s lined with heated blankets, a small electric heater in the corner near his feet. And if he lies down with the window open, he can still see the stars.

mbrescini@ocweekly.com

This article appeared in print as "Star Lords: Thanks in part to the Orange County Astronomers and its desert clubhouse, Southern California is amateur-stargazer heaven."

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