Reflecting on ‘First Light’

By Tedy Rushton

In 2018, the ‘First Light’ dedication ceremony was held at the South Mountain Environmental Education Center, an outreach program in South Phoenix operated by the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation (aka The Phoenix Zoo).

Events at the dedication ceremony included an inoperable communications cable, a private reception attended by Zoo executive director Bert Castro, Vice President for education programs Ruth Allard, SMEEC director Lisa Herrmann, Fabric Artist and Events co-ordinator Dian(n)e Howell who spells her name with one ‘n’ but says she likes the two ‘n’ spelling better, and Theodore Rushton, who used to be subject to Dian(n)e’s ‘slashing red pen’ editing (he was always nice when he edited her writing) and to this day burdens her with “originalist” spellings from his little and big Oxford English dictionaries (which are somewhat different than his “creative” spellings).

“Originalist meanings” are very important in the United States;  the goal is to use the original meanings of the U.S. Constitution as written (but, very wisely, not explained) by the authors of the U.S. Constitution.  Thus, the importance of the original “First Light” of this optical deep space imaging system (ODSI, which has no relation to Rushton’s favourite school, the ODCVI).

One of about 100 guests, a South Mountain Community College instructor and former Arizona State University proto-humanity anthropology professor explained, “It is awesome to hold in your hand the skull of a proto-human who lived 2.5 million years ago in Africa, and then look at a telescope image of light that left a distant nebula 2.5 million years ago and just arrived at South Mountain and see it displayed on a computer monitor.”  Perhaps very wisely, he didn’t bring along any empty skulls to Friday’s reception.

Everyone’s skull was full of appreciation for this telescope project which will be shared by the astronomy clubs at South Mountain High School and South Mountain Community College  – –  where this “essay’ was written in the combined “College – City of Phoenix Library”.  The telescope, with its permanent mount at SMEEC, is a first-ever such school venture in Phoenix  – –  as distinct from local regional astronomy clubs.

The Zoo itself began operation in 1962 due to the efforts of Fred Maytag, son of the man who founded the Maytag appliance business in 1893.  The Zoo was built on the grounds of the original Arizona Game and Fish department fish hatchery,  built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Its original CCC-built ‘Superintendent’s Home’, a gem built of river rock, is now a national Historic Site.  

Mary Rushton, for whom the ODSI telescope project is a memorial, died just over two years ago.  She was also an anthropologist who switched careers, spending 38 years working with computers as a ‘systems analyst’ at A.S.U. (and 50 years married to Theodore, who she ‘found’ while excavating at Cahiague, a Huron village site near Orillia).  She lived for 40 years just across the street from South Mountain, a greatly enjoyed the exercise and fresh air of walking ‘Pupsicle’ on the Judith Tunnel trail which starts at SMEEC.  ‘Pupsicle’, a stray who wandered into her life and whom she had adopted shortly after retiring, keeps watch on her home while Theodore is away, asleep or otherwise inattentive, indifferent or inept.

‘Pupsicle’ was well trained by Mary, and is always on ‘Home Watch’ duty.  His rewards from Mary included ‘Sausage egg breakfast sandwiches’ from Mickey D;  Pupsicle got the sausage, Mary got the egg, and Theodore got the empty bun  – –  unless, of course, Pupsicle wanted it.  

In addition to walking Pupsicle, Mary always enjoyed the astronomy lectures by Gordon Rosner, who has long had a daytime job as an aeronautical engineer who helps launch space satellites using reusable launch vehicles  – –  20 or more years before Elon Musk got the idea  – –  i.e., the launch vehicle lifts the orbital rocket to about 60,000 feet, where the rocket engines fire and it soars into orbit.  Some are used to re-supply the Space Station, others are for communications, and others he doesn’t discuss.  He plans to retire from the space race in early November, and begin a new career rebuilding and restoring motorcycles.

As for Theodore, of course, he had the major role when everyone else finished the preliminaries.  After extensive training by Rosner, which involved several practice runs, Theodore pushed the ‘Go On’ button on the control panel and the telescope came to life.  The Celestron ‘Made in China’ telescope swung around, then rotated upward to find and focus on the Moon in its very first try.  Earlier, while still daylight, Theodore tried several times to visually find the Moon before he could locate it;  the telescope found it on its very first attempt.  The ‘First Light’ was perfect.

Then came the formal portrait.  Dave Siebert, now an official Zoo photographer who Theodore had known for many years when Siebert was an ‘Arizona Republic’ staff photographer, asked for Theodore to point at the Moon  – –  much like the telescope was accurately pointing at the Moon.  “No!  no!  higher!  It’s up THERE!”  Unlike the instant precision of the telescope, Theodore finally found a direction “close enough for a picture.”

How does a brand new ‘Made in China’ telescope know exactly where the Moon will be over Phoenix  – –  when someone (Theodore) who’s lived in Phoenix for 46 years can’t find the Moon in the late afternoon sky?  Maybe it’s why President Trump is more worried about China than he is about Theodore?  Can Trump find the Moon?  Could he even find China?  Or does he rely on the pilots of Air Force One?

Then, as the evening darkened, the Telescope found everything from Saturn to the Triffed Nebula.  Guests gathered around the computer monitor to look at these images;  there’s no longer a need to squint through the eyepiece of a telescope, always risking that a slight bump to the telescope will edge it away from its objective.  It’s like the all-growed-up-telescopes in places like Kitt Peak and Mount Graham and Hawaii and Chile which astronomers never have to visit, and instead just send messages, “Please look at such-and-such for me and e-mail me the results.”  Even telescopes at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff e-mail what they see to distant astronomers.

However;  and this is a nice touch of nostalgia.  Remember those pictures I sent, a long time ago, of the ‘Pluto’ telescope at Lowell?  At the end of the counter-balance arm it had a boxing mitt, so if it happened to hit an absent-minded on duty astronomer on the head it wouldn’t damage the scope or the astronomer.  Well, there’s a counter-balanc arm on the SMEEC telescope  – –  except, in our modern world of electronics, it’s a nice red LED.

Everything’s up to date in South Mountain! 

Mary would have been proud.  Theodore is happy to have been part of it.  Lisa and Gordon did the hard work to take Theodore’s initial offer and create an astounding community resource.  Support from the Phoenix Zoo was vital and outstanding, as was support from South Mountain Park superintendent Dan Gronseth and his staff.

Photo 1:  The ‘In Memorium’ label on the telescope mount.

Photo 2:  The shadow to Theodore taking a picture of the telescope.

Photo 3:  Gordon Rosner.

Photo 4:  Saturn  – –  pardon the fuzziness due to a 1-second han d-held exposure.

Photo 5:  The Triffid Nebula.

Photo 6:  A sample memorial paving brick which will cover the ground around the permanent mount.

Photo 7:  Instead of a boxing glove  – –  an LED.