Monday, May 30, 2011


Editorial: Tucson amateur astronomers are fortunate in that they have easy access to spectacular dark skies, and we are also equidistant from two of the biggest astronomical meetings offered. We're about 450 miles from both the Texas Star Party and the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference. And while that puts us well under a days drive from either, few locals take advantage of the proximity. Perhaps we're spoiled by our own local skies, but for me, the joys of attending these events is in catching up with and making new friends, seeing interesting telescopes and equipment, the interesting talks, vendors of all types, and finally, the observing comes in a distant fifth. We just returned from RTMC and have some opinions to pass along.
RTMC normally is held over the Memorial Day weekend at YMCA Camp Oakes at 7,000+ feet elevation a few miles east of Big Bear California. This year was the 43rd so it has a long and established history. I've missed only 2 since 1986 when attending the first time. It was great then and is still great, though for various reasons, is endangered.

The "golden age" of RTMC was back in the mid-90s. Attendance was over 2,000 amateurs. You could hardly walk 30 feet before being stopped by another friend with which to catch up with. There would be over 30 entries in the informal telescope making competition. A walk through the "telescope field" and "Telescope Alley" revealed some of the most innovative ideas in astronomy and was an inspiration to all who would put grit to glass or screwdriver to wood in making a telescope. But at about the same time that inexpensive optics from Asia and high gas prices arrived, attendance started dropping, even as the number of vendors climbed. The telescope field was filled with vendor's tents, pushing the telescope making elsewhere. The event rebranded itself as "RTMC Astronomy Expo", in an attempt to widen it's appeal, but I didn't detect much improvement. Last year, in an attempt to appeal to observers, they moved it up 2 weeks before the traditional Memorial Day Weekend to provide a dark sky, and attendance still dropped. This year, back to it's regular spot on the calendar, attendance was under 800 (my guess), the vendors, now given a dust and wind-free spot in the Fall's PATS(Pacific Astronomy and Telescope Show), are also no-shows. The telescope field was once again deserted, as were most of the vendor spots along the borders of the lanes leading through the grounds.

But I still had a great time this year. The core of the old RTMC were still there. I sat for an hour or more swapping tales with Gerry Logan, one of the preeminent telescope makers of the last few decades. Telescope entries were up some this year. I connected with some friends I'd not seen in a while, and the talks were still top notch. But if attendance continues to suffer, I can't imagine the event can continue in anything close to it's historical or current form. In years past, the Tucson attendees used to meet for a group photo - we would get upwards of a dozen or 16 TAAA members. This year we had 6... All I can encourage you to do is to make the trip - it is still a great chance to spend a weekend eating and breathing astronomy, and if anything, it is more family friendly than ever with kids and family activities all day long (and into the night). And with Big Bear and the spectacular scenery of the mountains all around, there is no lack of alternate activities. Please consider a visit next time around!

Finally for some content! We travelled Thursday evening, staying at the base of the mountain in Indio, and made the morning trip Friday. We decided to stay in Motel 6 in Big Bear, though I've traditionally taken and slept in the back of the van in the past. Like I said above, meeting and catching up with friends is the best, and shortly after we got there at noon, we ran into Steve Peterson from TAAA, who is also a co-worker at Kitt Peak with me. We normally rib each other about what we're tempted to get from the vendors, and this was no exception, though there was a lack of vendors for a Friday afternoon! We still roamed, and ran into Claude and Teresa, while we were visiting former Tucsonan Dennis Casper, who had brought a recently completed 18" F/8 telescope. Dennis used to work with me at the Mirror Lab and I'd not seen him in several years, so was great to see that he's continued the optics tradition. I promised to return after dark to look at Saturn through his long-focus reflector. True to form, it was a great view, and the night shot here shows him checking out M13 in a 30 second exposure with a 16mm fisheye with Scorpius at left, Corvus at right, and a passerby with a red light approaching.

A little later we ran into Mike and Elvira from Phoenix, with their friend Tom, who runs a B&B near Flagstaff. Telescope nuts all, we swapped recent travel stories and checked out a Mirror-O-Matic machine that was demonstrating mirror grinding. This one was built by Eric Shrader (red shirt), and was one of several talks and demonstrations about telescope making.

There were several excellent talks, certainly one of the more interesting ones was by Russ Genet who gave a talk on "A Portable 2-Meter Telescope". As someone involved in large telescope fabrication, it was certainly fascinating to see someone approach the problem with a shoestring budget. His criteria were a lot different than most. In order to cut down expenses as much as possible, his telescopes do not need to be optical quality, in fact, designed for photometry, the measurement of brightness of objects, his telescopes do not have eyepieces or even an accessible focus as long as the detector can be mounted there. The mirrors also aren't the aspheric parabolas or hyperbolas that most large telescopes have - an inexpensive spherical surface suffices, corrected with a pair of "Lenscrafter-quality" lenses. The optical quality needs only to be good enough to focus an image which fits on the detector. He built a 40" diameter version which was up on the telescope field, and had models for 60" versions. The 40" was supposed to fit in a Jeep Cherokee. He figures that scaling to 80" wide is the most you can carry on the open road without permits...

With the drop in attendance, the swap meet also suffered, so fortunately I was able to save what meager funds I'd brought along to spend on trinkets. All I ended up getting was a new camera case, which was a good deal, cause my current one has just developed a bum zipper... Still, it was fun to go shopping - I ran across Dennis Young looking for a buyer for his WWII vintage 100mm binoculars. Behind him is another acquaintance, Mike Clements, who on more than one occasion brought his 40" telescope up to the Grand Canyon Star Party. He has the mirror blank for a 70" and is working on a site and telescope for it. Mike currently has no plans to make it portable...

So we still had fun, we're likely to go back. If you've made a telescope or have some interesting ideas, bring and enter them! Or just go to experience it - you will be glad you did!


David A. Harvey said...

Nice report Dean. I've never been to RTMC or TSP - though you and Gary R. have both said they are musts for any astronut. Maybe next year . . . but then again -maybe I ain't nuts enough.

Alan said...

Great post Dean- With planning, this would be a fun trip to make next year...I have never traveled to an event other than a star party, but your post makes me want to check RTMC out even though I am not a telescope maker!

Terri Lappin said...

Thanks for the report, Dean. Gary and I decided not to go this year. That's too bad that attendance continues to fall. We should do a "go to RTMC" within the TAAA next year. Getting up in the San Bernadino mountains is always a lot of fun and a good way to pass the time, especially since Tucson has usually breaks 100 degrees by Memorial Day.

Phil said...

Enjoyed your 2011 RTMC review. There were some interesting and well crafted telescopes displayed at the conference. For the first time, I saw a unique Merit Award winning computerized GOTO 102mm binocular telescope in action. I Look forward to the 2012 RTMC.