The 'Right Stuff' Generation - Gordon Mandell
I can remember in elementary school, listening to the Mercury launches with a transistor radio held to my ear. What a thrill. By the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon I was in high school having never lost my enthusiasm for astronomy and space exploration.
Our high school was fortunate to have an observatory with a rotating dome and an Alvan Clark refractor that had been donated to the school years before. I had my first view of Saturn through that telescope.
I joined the local astronomy club and with the help of several members built a Newtonian telescope with an eight inch mirror that I ground myself. The tube was constructed out of an aluminum liner around which cloth soaked in a plastic resin was applied. The mount was fashioned from plumber's pipe and the counterweight was an old coffee can filled with lead. Crude but what marvelous wonders I could see with that instrument. I can still remember the eerie, greenish tint of the Orion Nebula. Unfortunately I had to put the reflector away for awhile.
There was college, medical school and residency. I met my wife and we were married while I was a medical resident. Then came the kids. Work and family responsibilities didn't leave much time for astronomy. After 20 years in my parent's basement the Newtonian had fallen into disrepair. Could my old friend be resuscitated? I retrieved what was left of the telescope, determined to use it again. Fortunately the mirror was in good shape, it just needed a new beryllium facelift. The secondary mirror and helical focuser were fine. Sadly the tube and mount were DOA (dead-on-arrival). I found instructions in one of the astronomical magazines how to build a Dobsonian mount. Amazing! Some wood, a little Teflon® and I was back in business.
My kids and I used that scope for 10 years. I taught my sons the constellations and basic astronomy. We spent many enjoyable nights together with the telescope. Kids grow up and become interested in other things. I was at a point in my life that I had more time (and more money) and decided to retire the old reflector and purchase a new telescope and mount with the purpose of using it for astrophotography.
That was six years ago. I purchased a five inch refractor and a computer-controlled mount that I still use. Approximately one year later I captured my first image, M13 globular cluster in Hercules using an off-the-shelf digital camera and from my own driveway. Since that time I have acquired a permanent, roll-off roof observatory located off our back deck and have clocked many hours under the stars and in front of a computer screen.
Despite continued enthusiasm and the acquisition of great equipment, I was facing a dilemma. The community where my permanent observatory is located had grown considerably and so had the number of businesses, homes, post lamps and street lights. The light pollution had gotten to the point where the only serious astrophotography I could accomplish from home was narrowband imaging; and I wanted more. I had heard about remote astrophotography but was filled with uncertainty. I really enjoyed using my own equipment and sharing astrophotographs captured from my own back yard.
I believe that there is no better way to learn this hobby than to use one's own equipment, but there were other problems at home. Pittsburgh only has 59 sunny days (and clear nights) per year. And who wants to remove snow off the roof of the observatory in the middle of Winter? iTelescope.Net came to my rescue.
Great equipment, great customer support and clear, dark nights galore. Since joining iTelescope in September 2010, I have found that there aren't many nights that I can't image (if I want to). The sky conditions are outstanding and how wonderful it is to photograph targets that would otherwise not be possible from my location. There's something to be said about taking images from one's own backyard but after successfully executing a scripted plan at a iTelescope facility and downloading and processing the data, the images are mine.
When I see the preview images being displayed on my monitor, I get the same thrill I got listening to the Mercury launches all those years ago. Since joining iTelescope, I am rediscovering astronomy; only this time from the comfort of my own study.