Everyone remembers their first and holds it dear to our hearts! How did I get my first telescope? Well, read on below.
It was 1997.
I was nine. I was highly interested in science, and was leaning toward Astronomy.
1996 and 1997 saw two great comets, Hyakutake, and the much more widely remembered Hale-Bopp.
Hale-Bopp was very well publicized because of how easy it was to spot, and was visible to the naked eye for a long time, nearly the entire year!
It seemed everyone had a telescope pointing at it, from the Riverside Astronomical Society, to my older sister’s science teacher! It was almost impossible to escape the hype around Hale-Bopp!
Because of the two great comets occurring over such a short period of time, we became so accustomed to viewing bright comets that my nine year old self thought “oh, these happen all the time, so wouldn’t it be awesome if we could have a telescope of our own when the next comet comes?”
I pitched the idea to my sister and she agreed, so we both approached my father together and said “this Christmas, we’d like a telescope as our combined gift.”
Dad said, “okay.” But little did we know that he wasn’t going to go for the cheapest and easiest one to buy, he wanted a serious piece of equipment.
Most people get their first telescopes from department stores – which are often Christmas gifts for nerdy children. The cheap telescopes usually get used a few times before the user has had enough patience with the flimsy mounts and poor optics, and then the thing starts collecting dust before it’s sold in a garage sale with missing parts.
Dad got ours from a camera store, and he says that it cost around $350.00 in 1997, the equivalent of around $500 today, which means this was not a cheap telescope!
It was a Celestron 4.5 inch equatorial mounted Newtonian reflector. It may be considered “small” by telescope standards, but compared to the typical Christmas gift telescopes, it was huge! It came with working Right Ascension and Declination setting circles and a clock drive, and gave us the high tech feel that trash scopes do not offer.
Sure enough, when we first used it, we could see the cloud bands and Galilean moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, and the surface features on the moon. While the telescope’s optics were working just fine, the moon and planets were pretty much all we saw. Dad almost never pointed it towards any stars, didn’t know where any deep sky objects were, nor did he think the telescope could see them.
And There was Another Problem!
Dad Never Learned How To Properly Set Up The Telescope!
As it is an equatorial mounted telescope, the one major thing is he never bothered to align it with the north celestial pole, or even get the mount pointed north for that matter! Therefore, the scope never tracked properly, and it was pretty much a game of pointing the tube at the object and HOPING we’d be able to stay on it with the fine adjustment controls.
For my father, it was just too frustrating for him to operate it. I remember watching him try to operate it like it was a chore, and seeing his frustration every time the objects got lost. So unfortunately, the telescope laid dormant in the house for nearly 10 years, only being brought out on special occasions to look at the moon or a planet. Both my sister and I were interested in other things at the turn of the century and never showed an interest in learning how to use it. My interests in all things astronomy were at their lowest point.
Many times, guests would see the scope in the back office and say things like, “oh that’s so cool you have a telescope!” and I’d think, “yeah, whatever… It never gets used!”
And with no Hale-Bopp caliber comets appearing, and thus no major celestial incentives, this 1997 Christmas gift was about to suffer the fate of all trash telescopes!
After the death of my oldest brother in 2007, I started looking towards the heavens again – both literally and symbolically. The heavens in return gave me an incentive. Comet 17P/Holmes had an outburst that October-November, and it became a naked eye object… if we were under dark enough skies. This was the spark I needed, as it had been ten years since I saw any comet in the sky!
I simply decided on my own that in order for me to find it this comet, I needed to learn the constellations and how to navigate them. Sure enough, I learned how to read star charts, and was able to find the comet with ease!
It also meant that for the first time in this telescope’s lifetime, someone was going to learn how to properly set it up and operate it!
Learn how to get it polar aligned? Done.
Learn the proper way of manually slewing the tube? Done.
Learn how to track with the fine adjustment controls? Done.
Learn how to use the celestial coordinates on the setting circles? Done!
Yes, even the clock drive got installed!
Thanks to books, media, and college courses, my knowledge grew fast, and my love for Astronomy got rekindled. After laying mostly dormant the first 10 years, this telescope had a renewed purpose. As a result, it became “my telescope.” and because I now knew how to navigate the heavens under dark skies, it began to view star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies!
From 2007 to 2017, it went to Joshua Tree National Park numerous times, plus other dark places like the Hopi Reservation. Anytime there was a celestial event, this telescope was set up and ready to view! Besides family and friends, many random strangers also came up and looked through it if the scope was visible in a public location. Plus, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it chaperoned me on a few dates as well!
When I purchased my Orion 8 inch telescope in June 2017, the old 1997 Celestron was retired after 20 years of service.
The telescope itself is still in decent shape with good optics and the mount still works fine. While it’s no longer my main telescope, I still keep it stored in an accessible location, ready to be used for special occasions such as large public star parties and eclipse viewing events.
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