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 the only comet I remember that was visible all night when it was at its brightest. I remember it having two tails, and being able to see the comet “move backwards” in the sky, thus learning that a comet’s tail always points away from the Sun.
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 no cheap telescope!
It was a Celestron 4.5 inch equatorial mounted 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 at any stars, and didn’t know where any deep sky objects were.
And there was another problem! Dad never learned how to properly use the scope.
He never learned how to balance it, nor did he he know that equatorial mounted scopes have to be polar aligned to track objects properly. He also never got the clock drive installed, so every time we used it we always had to manually adjust and HOPE we got the objects back in view. I remember watching him use this telescope like it was a chore, and seeing his frustration every time the objects got lost.
So unfortunately, the telescope laid dormant in the office for nearly 10 years, only being brought out on special occasions. For Dad, it was just too frustrating for him to operate it. My interest in astronomy had reached a low point in the early 2000s, and it felt like “yeah we have a telescope, but who cares? It hardly gets used!”
And there were also no Hale-Bopp caliber comets appearing, and thus without any big incentives, this 1997 Christmas gift was about to suffer the fate of all trash telescopes!
After the death of my oldest brother in 2007 (ten years after we got the telescope), I started looking towards the heavens again. The heavens in return gave me an incentive. Comet Holmes had an outburst that October-November, and it became a naked eye object… if we were under dark enough skies.
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. It also meant that for the first time in this telescope’s lifetime, someone was going to learn how to operate it!
As a result, it became “my telescope.” My knowledge grew fast, and my love for Astronomy got rekindled. Pretty soon, the telescope got new life, and because of my growing knowledge of constellations and deep sky object locations, it began to view star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies!
Yes, even the clock drive got installed!
It got taken out to the desert on a regular basis, and anytime there was a celestial event, it was assembled and used, and I became that guy in a public place talking to curious people and seeing them look through it.
It has been with me on numerous trips to my usual dark sky spot, as well as other dark places like the Hopi Reservation, and has showcased planets, stars, clusters, nebulae, and galaxies in the sky to family and friends, young and old; and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t chaperone me on a few dates as well.