By Richard Ditteon
I have never before tried to write a history of anything. I have every reason to believe that my research has not been as complete as it should be. There are large gaps in the story of the observatory at Rose-Hulman and many unanswered questions. One reason for publishing this history even though it is incomplete, is to encourage alumni and others involved with the observatory to contact me with any information they may have regarding the observatory.
After World War II and the development of the atomic bomb, the United States thought it was technologically superior to all other nations. But that all changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. This event marked the beginning of the Space Age. It was also an alarming event for the United States. After all, the Soviet Union was a nuclear power and an enemy. The ability to launch objects into orbit gave them the "high ground."
While Sputnik was a surprise for most Americans, it was anticipated by American scientists who were working toward launching their own satellite for the 1959 Geophysical Year. The founding of an observatory at Rose-Hulman is closely connected with the effort to launch earth orbiting satellites.
Simply launching a satellite is not an end in itself. You also need to determine its orbit. When will it pass overhead? Where will it go in the future? How does the upper atmosphere affect the motion? Methods of tracking satellites had to be invented along with methods for launching them.
There are two basic ways to track satellites: active and passive. Active tracking uses a radio transmitter on the spacecraft. This was the purpose of the famous Sputnik beep. Ground receivers can triangulate on the radio signal to get direction and range. The problem with radio tracking, especially with early satellites, is that eventually the batteries powering the radio would fail. Also, radio tracking doesn't work for boosters or other objects that aren't equipped with radios.
The Fecker telesope in operation. This photo is from the 1978 Modulus.
Passive tracking methods include radar and optical techniques such as visual tracking or photography. Radar can give the most precise data, but it requires expensive ground stations manned by trained operators. Optical photographic methods used special, fairly expensive, telescopes called Schmidt cameras. As an alternative, the early US space program used amateur volunteers to visually track satellites. The program was called Moonwatch and was coordinated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
Moonwatch observers used small telescopes to spot satellites. Satellites are visible after sunset and before sunrise by reflected sunlight. The higher the satellite is above the earth, the longer it will be visible because it will spend less time in the earth's shadow. The Moonwatch observers measured the position of the satellite and its time of passage. Such observations were not very precise, but the stations were inexpensive to set up and operate. Many observations from many different stations could make up for the lack of precision.
Terre Haute was the site of an early and very active Moonwatch station operated by the Terre Haute Astronomical Society. The group was founded in 1957 by Mr. Nunz Addabbo who worked for American Brass. When he left Terre Haute leadership passed to Mr. Leo Deming, a local photographer, and Rev. George E. Mitchell. As evidence of the quality of observations made by the Terre Haute Astronomical Society, Mr. Deming received a letter of commendation from Hugh Odishaw, the Executive Director of the National Academy of Sciences for his "especially significant scientific contributions to the IGY Moonwatch Satellite Tracking Program."
Initially the Moonwatch station was located in a shack in the parking lot of the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company. Later it was moved to Mr. Deming's home when the plant experienced some labor difficulties. However, Mr. Deming's home wasn't the ideal location partly because of light pollution.(5)
In early 1960, Mr. Deming approached Rose Polytechnic about hosting the Moonwatch program on campus. The proposal was discussed at the April 6, 1960, meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board of Managers. Professor Irv Hooper who was the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering supported the proposal. Members of the ME department wanted to initiate a program in aeronautical engineering. Wilber Shook presented sketches of the proposed building. Estimated costs for the building were between $17,000 and $20,000.(6)
At the next Executive Committee meeting on April 25, 1960, it was announced that a little more than $81,000 had been received from the Lynn Reeder estate.(7) Mr. Reeder was a member of the class of 1915 in Civil Engineering.
At the June meeting of the Board of Managers discussion on the Moonwatch program continued. The Executive Committee was given authority to act on the proposal after more information was gathered.(8) Based on recommendations of Mr. Ruel Burns and Dr. Crawford Failey the Executive Committee decided in July to proceed.(9)
The architectural firm of Miller, Vrydagh and Miller was hired in August to make working drawings of the proposed Astronomical Laboratory and Observatory.(10) These drawings and construction estimates totally $14,270 were presented at the October board meeting. The board approved an appropriation of $15,000 for the construction of the Astronautical Laboratory and Observatory.(11) An additional $500 was later authorized so that at least part of the power line go to the building could be buried for aesthetics.(12)
At their 45th anniversary dinner, the class of 1915 decided to recommend to the Board of Managers that the Moonwatch building be dedicated as a memorial to Lynn Hadley Reeder. The Executive Committee accepted this recommendation and officially renamed the Astronautical Laboratory and Observatory the Lynn H. Reeder Laboratory.(13)
Official ground breaking ceremonies were held on February 23, 1961. C. H. Garmong and Sons were contracted to build the lab for $10,200. Public Service Indiana would install the power lines fro $478. Freitag-Weinhardt, Inc. were to install the water and sewer lines for $642 and the architects fees were $1,132. The $12,452 total was less than the original estimates.(14)
It was announced at the May Board Meeting(15) that the Reeder Lab would be completed later in the month. It was also announced that an anonymous donor had given Rose an 8 inch telescope and a dome to house the telescope. I learned from Mr. Deming that the donor was Mr. Crawford Failey, president of Wabash Reality, Inc.(3) Terre Haute First National Bank donated an additional $600 for the foundation for the dome. An additional $350 were approved for moving the building and the telescope from the donors home to campus. The moving expense was considered part of the original $15,000 allocated since the actual cost turned out to be significantly less. The 8 inch telescope was a Fecker style reflecting telescope valued at $9000.(16)
Notice that there is no mention of equipment for the laboratory / observatory in the costs or in any of the Board Minutes. The plan was for the observatory to be equipped by the Terre Haute Astronomical Society. The club had sixteen small telescopes (50 mm objective lens, 5.5 power) that were standard Moonwatch equipment. These telescopes and other pieces of equipment were purchased by the Terre Haute First National Bank which served as a sponsor for the local Moonwatch program. The club was also building a 12.5 inch Newtonian reflecting telescope. By the end of 1960 they had ground the primary mirror and were working on the telescope mount. Because of the excellent observing record of the Terre Haute Moonwatch group, the Smithsonian Institute loaned the group ten telescopes with 5 inch objectives, 20 power and 2 degree field of view.(17)
The completed Lynn H. Reeder Laboratory was a 40 foot by 16 foot building located on the hill above the baseball field. The building had redwood walls and a two piece flat roof. Half of the roof could be rolled back over the other half by means of a cable and hand-cranked wench to expose the telescope bay.(17) The ten 5 inch telescopes were mounted on poles, five along each wall. The 12.5 inch Newtonian was to be mounted in the center of the bay when it was completed.
After the May, 1961 board meeting there are no further references to the observatory in the board or executive committee minutes. From this point on my narrative relies on the memories of individuals who were involved with the observatory and events are much less certain. If anyone remembers anything from these early years, please contact me.
I'm not certain when, exactly, the Lynn Reeder lab became operational, but it was probably near the end of May, 1961. Initially, Jim Matthews, an assistant professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department, was in charge of the observatory. It is even less certain when the dome and Fecker telescope were installed, but it was shortly after the Reeder lab was completed. Certainly, the dome was installed by 1963 because it shows up in the background of a photo of the baseball team in the 1963 Modulus (page 76) and it may have been even earlier since it is mentioned in the 1962-63 Catalog (page 17).
The moonwatch program was active when the lab was completed, but rapid advances in satellite tracking soon eliminated the need for the Moonwatch program. The last mention of the satellite tracking activity that I found was in the 1964 Modulus' description of the Astronomy club. By the way, the astronomy club is first mentioned as a new club in the 1963 Modulus. The 1963-64 Catalog lists Jim Matthews as the adviser for the Astronomical Society. Robert McKnight (class of '64) was the first president of the club.
Mr. Matthews took a leave of absence from June 1963 to June 1966. In his absence, first Professor Eckerman and then Professor Garner served as advisers for the Astronomical Society. They may have been responsible for teaching the astronomy class also. The 1969-1971 Bulletin lists Dr. Rhee as the adviser for the Astronomcial Society. It also lists the astronomy course under the Physics Department for the first time. Obviously responsibility for the observatory had been turned over to the Physics Department. Dr. Rhee was a theoretical physicist with an interest in astrophysics. He started working at Rose Polytechnic in 1963.
Between about 1963 and 1973 several changes in the observatory occurred. A photo in the 1973 Modulus shows that the redwood walls of the telescope bay in the Reeder Lab have been either covered or replaced with aluminum siding. The 1976 Modulus shows a photo of the interior of the telescope bay with the 12.5 inch Newtonian installed. This photo also shows that the poles for mounting the 5 inch telescopes have been removed and the walls of the telescope bay are concrete block. These last changes must have actually taken place sometime before 1973 because I remember using the 12.5 inch telescope and there were no poles for mounting the small telescopes. In addition, the 1979 Modulus shows that the flat roof that covered the warm room had been replaced with a pitched roof. The roll-off roof of the telescope bay now rolled off underneath the roof of the warm room rather than above it. I would like to find out exactly when these modifications were made and why.
During this period, it appears that only one other person taught the astronomy course. That was Lance Wallace in 1974. In 1977, Dr. Rhee and his wife were killed when his car was struck by a train. The astronomy course was next taught in 1978 by Dr. William A Deutschman. Professor Deutschman continued to teach the course each Fall until 1982 when Don Hutter taught it. At this point, the Physics department adopted the practice of teaching the Observational Astronomy course every other year, alternating with PH322 Celestial Mechanics. Dr. Michael F. McInerney taught the course in 1984 (11 students), 1986 (12 students) and in 1988 (9 students).(18)
In 1990, Dr. Arthur Western taught the astronomy course to 14 students. At this time the course number and description were changed. The course became PH230 Observational Astronomy. The lecture content of the course was changed to make the course more rigorous. This change was made so that other departments at the Institute would accept the course as a technical elective and we could increase the enrollment in the course.
Also, in 1990 (I believe) Hans Eppinger of Hughes Optical Products, Inc. donated a 6 inch Clark telescope to Rose-Hulman. The donation consisted of the optical tube assembly for the telescope, but not the mount. Since we couldn't easily mount the telescope, it was hung on a wall in Moench Hall as a decoration.
In 1988, the architects of Howard, Needles, Tammen and Bergendoff developed a campus master plan for Rose-Hulman.(19) This plan was important in the history of the observatory because it completely eliminated the observatory. In the observatory's place was a parking lot for the new residence hall and chapel. I don't think the observatory was removed because any one was particularly opposed to Rose having an observatory, but merely because it was located on a prime campus site. At the time, Rose did not own any land that would be suitable for building a new observatory. As a faculty representative advising the architects in the development of the plan, I lobbied strongly for retaining the observatory, but to no avail.
In 1992, I was assigned to teach PH230 Observational Astronomy (10 students) and, by default, I was put in charge of the observatory. This assignment was made, at least in part, because of my vocal opposition to the elimination of the observatory. I wanted to do something about it and now I was in a position to act.
I felt very strongly, that to save the observatory the students needed to use the observatory. Students were much more likely to use the observatory if the equipment was easy to use. We did not have any modern equipment in the observatory and I thought that was our most pressing need.
There was only one, minor difficulty. I had no idea what I was doing. Like most of my predecessors in teaching the astronomy course, I had no formal training as an astronomer. I had taken Dr. Rhee's astronomy course in 1973, but Dr. Rhee was a theoretical physicist. We hardly used the telescopes at all. I needed practical, hands-on experience with modern equipment to determine what we needed.
During the summer of 1992, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics offered the Research Techniques for Undergraduate Faculty Summer Institute which I attended. I began to learn about real observational astronomy. At this workshop I met Vincent A. DiNoto, Jr. from Jefferson Community College. The Harvard Observatory had several Clark telescopes which Vince was extremely interested in. He nearly fainted when I told him that Rose owned a Clark telescope that was hanging on the wall as a decoration. I resolved, then to find a way to use the Clark we owned.
At the 1992 Homecoming, I was introduced to Mr. Gene Glass class of November, 1949. Gene is a very enthusiastic amateur astronomer from Corpus Christi, Texas. Of course, Rose did not have an observatory while Gene was a student. He wanted to see the observatory. While touring the facility I explained to him how dim the future of the observatory appeared. He agreed that to save the observatory we needed new equipment that would make it easier use. He donated money for a CCD camera (a very sensitive digital camera) designed for astronomy. Gene has been a consistent supporter of the observatory ever since. His donations have provided much needed general operating funds which have been used to buy software and numerous accessories for the telescopes.
I also, submitted proposals to the National Science Foundation's Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement Program in November 1992 and 1993. Neither of these proposals were funded because it was clear that I didn't know what I was doing.
In the spring of 1994 the Student Government Association announced that they had a surplus in the general fund. I asked the president of the astronomy club, David Borzillo, to go before SGA and request money to purchase a new telescope for the observatory. SGA approved the request and we purchased a Celestron 11 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope for about $2000. A month or so later, Dean Eifert approved the purchase of a second, identical telescope.
In the Fall of 1994, 36 students signed up for the astronomy course, the largest number ever.
My NSF proposal for 1994 mentioned the student purchase of the telescope.
The NSF reviewers were so impressed that the students were supporting astronomy with their own money that they approved my request for $18,000 to be matched by Rose for a total of $36,000 for new equipment. The NSF money allowed us to purchase two Meade 12 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes for about $4000 each. The Meade telescopes are on computer-controlled mounts. The computers in the mounts contain a database of thousands of stars, nebulae and galaxies. Once these telescopes are synchronized with the real sky, a few keystrokes can be used to move the telescope to any desired object. These telescopes represented the ultimate in ease of use at the time. Also included in the NSF proposal were upgrades for the two Celestron telescopes to make them computer controlled, three new CCD cameras and 4 laptop computers to run everything.
The new equipment accomplished my goal of making the observatory easy to use. The tedious procedure of manually moving the telescope from one star to the next to find the target object was replaced by a simple press of a few buttons and the telescope would move on its own to the correct spot in the sky. Now, with just a little training, anyone could use the telescopes to find interesting objects to look at. With a little bit more training, anyone could also make digital images of those objects.
All of this success did not go unnoticed. By December of 1995 the observatory was back on the campus master plan. Rose had acquired more land on the east side of campus and the plan was to locate a new observatory on this land.
But now a new problem arose. With all of this new equipment, we were out of space. To make room, I chose to sell the 12.5 inch Newtonian. The Newtonian took up a lot of space, it was difficult to use, and, in my opinion, it was unsafe. When this telescope was pointing toward zenith, the eyepiece could be as much as 9 feet above the floor. To use the telescope, the observer would often have to stand on a moveable ladder. Observers often grabbed the telescope to steady themselves and moved the telescope as a result. Although I am the only person that I know that actually fell off the ladder, I was always afraid that a visitor or student would also fall off. The picture to the right shows the telescope bay of the Lynn Reeder Lab with the new telescopes installed in place of the Newtonian.
In the Fall of 1996, 20 students took the astronomy course.
Also, in the fall of 1996, Gary Burgess, the physics department technician, built an adapter that would allow me to mount the Clark refractor on the mount for the Fecker telescope. I hadn't forgotten about this telescope and I wanted to see for myself how good the optics were. It was immediately apparent that the optics were superb, probably better than any of the new telescopes or the Fecker. During the spring of 1997, Gary and I completely disassembled the Clark, cleaned it and reassembled it. Gary polished all of the brass and coated it with varnish to protect it from the elements. Donations from Gene Glass were used to purchase a computer controlled mount (Meade LX-750) to replace the Fecker mount. The optical tube assembly for the Fecker and its mount were put in storage. I didn't have to sell the Fecker as I had the Newtonian, because by this time it was clear that we would eventually get a new observatory. On October 12, 1997, we held a dedication ceremony for the Clark telescope.
Twenty-nine students took astronomy in the Fall of 1997.
The next issue was how to fund the new observatory. Plans were being developed around this time for the new residence hall. The planned location for the new hall was to the north east of the Reeder lab and observatory. Lights from the hall would certainly interfere with the observatory. More importantly, the observatory was in the planned parking. It was clear that the observatory needed to be moved. Wayne Spary the Vice President of Facilities proposed a line item for moving the observatory in the new residence hall budget. This was approved by the Board of Trustees.
In addition, shortly after Darrell Loyless began is job as Vice President of Development in July, 1998 I approached him about fund raising for the observatory. I took him on a tour of the observatory and explained to him our needs. Darrell was easily convinced. When the development office approached the Oakley Foundation with a list of several items in need of funding, the observatory was on the list. The Oakley Foundation was very enthusiastic about the observatory. I wrote a proposal to them and they responded with a pledge of $500,000 towards construction and equipment. The new facility would be called the Oakley Observatory.
During Fall quarter, 1998, I took a sabbatical leave to develop a research program in astronomy. The equipment we had by that time was good enough to allow us to do any number of different research projects including variable star photometry and super novae searches. I choose to work on asteroid astrometry. By the end of my leave, I had submitted 69 asteroid observations to the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This work earned the Lynn Reeder Lab an official observing site designation as observatory 731. As far as I know, this was the first astronomy related research done at Rose since the days of the Moonwatch program.
Planning for the Oakley Observatory began as soon as we learned of the Oakley Foundation pledge. I did a lot of research on observatory design and construction via the internet. I also spoke with numerous people who had observatories at other colleges or universities to get their recommendations. I knew we would only get one chance to get it right.
The principle design decision was the number of telescopes. We could build an observatory with one large, research grade telescope or with several small telescopes. Since we already had several good, small telescopes (two 12-inch Meade LX-200's, two 11-inch Celestrons, the Fecker, and the Clark), the multiple telescope option was appealing. Another consideration is that the planned site, while relatively dark for the Terre Haute area, was probably not dark enough to justify a large aperture telescope. The limit of faint objects that we can see is not set by telescope size, but rather by the brightness of the sky. Most importantly is that the mission of the observatory could be better served by several small telescopes.
I decided on eight telescopes as the optimum number. Eight telescopes would allow 24 students to work in groups of 3. Any more telescopes (or students) would be too difficult for one professor to monitor during an observing session. Fewer wouldn't be economical. All of the telescopes had to be under one roof so that one professor could monitor their use. These requirements dictated the use of a roll-off roof.
For ease-of-use I wanted each telescope to be permanently mounted. Each mount had to be on a separate foundation, isolated from the rest of the building to reduce vibration. I also, planned for computer control of each telescope and internet access.
The architects assigned to this project were Barbara McCarthy and Bill Bradford from Vickrey, Ovresat and Awsumb Associates Incorporated Architects, Chicago, Illinois. In March of 1999, Wayne Spary and I went with the architects to visit observatories in Arizona. Particularly helpful was a visit to the Winer Mobile Observatory built and operated by Mark Trueblood. This observatory incorporated many of the features that I thought we needed in our observatory including some of the same equipment.
In the Fall of 1999, 27 students took astronomy.
Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on November 9, 1999. But construction had already begun and continued throughout the winter. The building was substantially complete by April 11, 2000, when a dedication ceremony was held. By this time, the telescopes had been moved into the new observatory and set up, but they were not yet polar aligned. Two new 14-inch Celestron telescopes had also been purchased and installed.
After the dedication, the real work of polar aligning the eight telescopes began. The astronomy club hosted several polar alignment parties, but he vast majority of this very tedious, but necessary, work was done by Susan Hare. Susan worked on polar alignment through the Spring, Summer and Fall of 2000.
By the beginning of the summer, the 14-inch Celestron on the east side of the observatory was working well enough to be used by Operation Catapult students. During the first session J. D. Mendez and John Kostrzewski fine tuned the telescope and made several asteroid observations. However, they did not report their data. Linda Burns, Joe Ferdon, Steve Kramb and Bryan Roberts reported their asteroid observations made during the second Catapult session and earned a new observatory code (916).
In August 2000, Chris Wolfe, Susan Hare and Emanul Bettelheim made dozens of asteroid obseravtions. They received designations (discovery credit) on three asteroids. The asteroids are 2000 QL6, 2000 QG9 and 2000 QF25. Of the 185 different observatories that reported asteroid data in 2000, the Oakley Observatory ranked 37th based on the number of observations made.
The first astronomy class to use the new observatory (Fall, 2000) had only 9 students. I'm not at all sure why there was such a sudden decline in enrollment. It may have been due to shifts in course requirements for the various engineering majors.
The Oakley Observatory is a wonderful facility with great equipment. We could operate very well for a very long time with only minimal operating funds. But new hardware and new software are being developed all of the time. I want to try to continually upgrade equipment to keep the observatory current.
I would also like to expand our research into new areas. There are many useful projects that can be undertaken with small telescopes and CCD cameras. Examples include asteroid photometry, variable star photometry and searching for super novae.
I would also like to have more visitors from off campus. We regularly host school groups and scout troops. I would like to have more star parties for the general public.
And finally, I would like to establish an observatory in the southwest (New Mexico or Arizona) that can be operated remotely. The biggest limitation we have is the weather in Terre Haute. We now have the technology to operate a telescope remotely, we should take advantage of the available technology to overcome are limitations.
After 40 years of operation, the fun is just beginning for the observatory at Rose-Hulman.
I want to thank Mr. Leo Deming for spending a delightful afternoon reminiscing about the early days of the Moonwatch program and the Lynn Reeder Lab. I am grateful to Mr. John Robson for making the Rose-Hulman archives available for my research. Jan Jerrell helped me track down copies of the Modulus year book. Albert McGarvey scanned the photographs. Lou Harmening, Dale Oexman, and Don Dekker who tried to identify the individuals in the 1961 groundbreaking photograph.
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