McDonald Observatory honors local volunteers tonight

18 May 2006

FORT DAVIS, Texas —Tonight, McDonald Observatory will honor the many volunteers who help with its public Star Parties and other events throughout the year.

McDonald Director Dr. David L. Lambert will host the event, which will kick off with a reception in the Director’s Residence on Mt. Locke, followed by dinner at the nearby Astronomer’s Lodge. Later in the evening, volunteers will get a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope with HET Site Director Bob Calder.

“Our cadre of volunteers are one reason why our thrice-weekly Star Parties have the fine reputation they do,” Lambert said. “I salute them all.”

In the course of the past year, more than two dozen volunteers have helped the Visitors Center staff of McDonald Observatory with its Star Parties at the Visitors Center telescope park, as well as monthly Special Viewing Programs on two of McDonald’s large research telescopes, the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope and the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith Telescope. Volunteers assist visitors with telescope viewing, and answer their astronomy-related questions.

“We’re always looking for knowledgeable amateur astronomers who would like to assist with our public Star Parties,” said Shannon Rudine, volunteer coordinator for the Observatory. “Our greatest need is with operation of the telescopes.”

He explained that most of the volunteers come from Fort Davis and Alpine. However, Rudine said, some come from as far as Houston.

“Volunteers allow us to offer a wider variety of objects to observe through telescopes at Star Parties,” he said. “They give us the freedom of showing more objects to the public, help us with larger crowds, and help the lines move faster. We try to have at least five or six telescopes in operation at every Star Party.”

Van Robinson has been volunteering for the Observatory since 2000. He moved to West Texas from Dallas after retiring. “I moved out here to enjoy astronomy, which was my main hobby,” Mr. Robinson said. “I heard about the Star Parties at McDonald and asked if they needed help.”

Now Mr. Robinson helps with Star Parties when an Observatory staff member is away on vacation, or at times when the Observatory has especially large crowds of visitors — such as Spring Break. He also helps with the Special Viewing Night program on the Struve Telescope about once a month.

Why does he do it? “For the joy of seeing kids get excited about seeing things in the heavens that they’ve never seen before,” he said.

You don’t have to be an amateur astronomer to help out, though. Current volunteer Russ Ingram had never before looked through a telescope when he accompanied a neighbor to a Star Party at the Observatory two years ago.

“I found it to be interesting, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. Mr. Ingram credits volunteer training for bringing him up to speed on how to use telescopes and understanding the objects seen in the eyepiece. He’s been volunteering for two years now. “I answer questions, and talk a little bit about what we’re seeing in the telescope,” he said.

“The most appealing thing about it to me is that so many people that come here are from the big city and they have no clue about what’s up in the sky.” Mr. Ingram said he enjoys being able to share with kids their first view of Jupiter or Saturn.

“And it beats watching TV!” he enthused.

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For more information about volunteering at McDonald Observatory, contact volunteer coordinator Shannon Rudine (phone 432-426-4101). Information on volunteering is also available online here.

Volunteers Tour HET

Volunteers at 0.9-meter Telescope

Visitors enjoying a star party at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald

Star Party