It was the mid 1980's. I had just received my degree from Odessa College. I was living with my wife, Angie, in a single wide trailer at my Dads ranch near Odessa, Texas. I was also working in the oilfield in a job that I didn't particularly like. After a year or so of negotiation, I was offered a position at McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas.
Angie and I had a tough decision to make. The Observatory, owned by the University of Texas at Austin, was offering me almost exactly half of my current salary. The good points were the offer to supply housing on-site and the chance to live in a very rugged and remote part of Texas. After some soul-searching, Angie and I decided that happiness was more important than money and I accepted the offer.
We never looked back.
I first went to work for the McDonald Laser Ranging Station (MLRS) where we shot lasers at satellites and the Moon. I'm not making this up! The photo to the right shows the green laser beam being reflected by dust in the air as it heads for the edge of space. You can also see the clouds and stars surrounding the laser beam. We used a neodymium-yag laser lasing in the infrared. We then doubled the frequency of the laser into the green spectrum (where our receive detector was most efficient), and then shot it out of a 30" primary telescope at about 1 megawatt peak power. Very precise epoch timing and lots of math gave us the round trip time of the laser pulse and, from that information, the distance to the satellites and the Moon. On the Moon itself, we aimed at optical retro reflectors left by Apollo 11, 14, and 15 as well as Russian landers Lunakhod #1 and Lunakhod #2.
It was at the MLRS where I got to work with a bunch of great, if not slightly off-beat group of people. People like:
- Jerry Wiant, still at MLRS.
- Craig Foreman, doing the laser thing in Hawaii.
- Wendy Williams, still at MLRS.
- Kenny Harned, still at MLRS.
- Robert Gonzales, retired from U.S. Customs.
- Bonnie Storm, Passed away in 2006 in Ruidosa, N.M.
We lived for 4 months in a motel set up for visiting astronomers at the Observatory, then for almost a year in a single wide trailer on the Observatory premises. Finally, we landed one of the big, 4 bedroom houses, also on the Observatory premises.
After 5 years at MLRS, I accepted a position with the Scientific Support team working on the main telescopes, including the 30", the 36", the 82", the 107", and helping to support the 432" HET when it came on line.
I spent the next 10 years working with these guys. The work was a mixture of low and extremely high tech stuff. I was in charge of the Charge Coupled Device (CCD) detectors. These are very large equivalents to the little CCD arrays in your typical digital camera. Our CCD's were a lot more expensive, liquid nitrogen cooled, and irreplaceable.
We also did a lot of other things like aluminize mirrors every summer, change out instrumentation, balance telescopes, etc, etc.
While I was in Scientific Support, I got to know some very talented people. People like:
- Dave Doss, still doing it.
- Jerry Martin, now working full time at the HET.
- Earl Green, still doing it.
- Mark Blackley, still doing it.
- Darrin Crook, still doing it.
and a whole bunch more.
All told, I spent 15 years at McDonald Observatory and enjoyed it immensely. In fact, I still live about 5 miles from the Observatory and my side business does a lot of work for them, so I get up there quite often.
In late 1999, I was offered a position with American Electric Power helping to keep the nation's electrical grid online. The pay was much greater that what the Observatory could offer and the new job would keep me in the Ft. Davis area, so I bid farewell to them and started a new career.
I still live near McDonald Observatory as I type this. We're way out in the boonies. It's an hour and a half to the nearest stop light. Love it.