Robert Ferguson Observatory here in the Sonoma Valley

About a year ago, I joined some friends for a night of star gazing at the Robert Ferguson Observatory here in the Sonoma Valley. What? We have an observatory?

We sure do!

It was during this visit that I met David Cranford. David was the docent operating the robotic telescope that night. It was VERY dark, no one could see anyone else other than as vague outlines. David’s knowledge and humor emanated from the night and kept us all entertained. (His choice of background music? Pink Floyd’s, Dark Side of the Moon of course!)

On the spot, and in front of the crowd, I invited David to be part of my radio program. He accepted (with prompting) and became “Science Guy”!

He now has a Thursday night radio show on KSVY.

I caught up with Dave recently to find out more about the Observatory:

When and why did astronomy catch your interest?
The space program and I grew up together: I was 6 in May, 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American in space; I watched every minute of the coverage of his fifteen-minute flight and I was hooked. I knew the names of all the astronauts; I knew all the mission profiles. On Christmas Eve, 1968, I listened to the crew of Apollo 8 as they read from the book of Genesis, and I was touched deeply by the convergence of engineering and spirituality – left brain and right, yin and yang. And I was floored by the notion that just as sailors had done for millennia, the astronauts navigated by the stars. Even at thousands of miles per hour, they used the same tools and techniques as the Phoenicians! A few years later I took an astrophysics class at City College of San Francisco and the more I learned the less I knew. I’ve been trying to figure it all out ever since.

Tell me about the observatory.

Robert Ferguson was an avid amateur astronomer who built telescopes and shared his enthusiasm for astronomy with everyone he met, especially children. He started Striking Sparks, a program that gives away ten telescopes each year to Sonoma County school kids through an essay competition. The telescopes are built by the Sonoma County Astronomical Society, an organization that Bob was affiliated with for many years. Bob was the inspiration for the development of an observatory as an educational and public resource for the community and thus bears his name.

The idea of a community observatory was in the “dream stage” for about ten years. The Valley of the Moon Observatory Association was founded in July of 1995. Phase 1 of the Observatory (the West Wing) was completed in February, 1997. The second phase (the classroom, bathrooms, library and East Wing) was finished in May, 1999. The final phase, the construction of a domed observatory for our 8” refractor, was completed in Spring, 2002.

How long have you been volunteering there? And how did you find out about it?

Along about 1993 I went camping with a dozen friends at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. It was a gorgeous evening in late spring, and after sunset most of us headed for a clearing to check out the evening sky. I remember thinking, “Man, what a great place to watch the stars! Somebody should – oh, I don’t know, maybe build an observatory or something!” Then the weekend ended and I forgot all about it. Fast-forward ten years to when a friend introduced me to George Loyer. George was doing project management at the time, which was how we connected, but he was (and is) also president of the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association, the observatory’s parent organization. He invited me up during Mars Madness (Mars’s closest approach in 60,000 years took place in August, 2003) and I got a chance to see the layout and look through the scopes. After about fifteen seconds, I asked if they needed volunteers for anything; George told me that they started training courses in January and he’d let me know when to show up. I’ve been putting in a couple of hundred hours a year ever since. I especially like operating the robotic telescope; rather than an eyepiece it has a digital camera, and by displaying the image on a PC monitor we can involve a couple of dozen people at once instead of one at a time. You probably remember from your own visits that this kicks off some amazing conversations about the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. (Thanks to Douglas Adams we know the answer is”42″ but sometimes you want a little more detail.)

What programs does the observatory offer?
RFO offers a number of programs aimed at providing astronomical education to the public. We have at least one public viewing night a month (except December, when the weather rarely cooperates) as well as a number of courses throughout the year. My favorite is the Night Sky series; three courses a year (Fall/Winter, Spring, and Summer) with each course meeting six times. Our own very knowledgeable and personable Jack Welch goes through the mythologies of the various constellations and explains the objects within (galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae) and then the attendees spend an hour or two looking through a number of telescopes at those objects. It really drives home the material from the lecture. We also offer an observing laboratory; each session has a theme, such as stellar birth and death or multiple star systems, and each session has very limited enrollment to allow each attendee a maximum amount of observing time. And finally we offer private nights; for about $220 you can rent the observatory (with staff) along with the group campsite. Stay in the observatory as long as you like viewing whatever you like, then walk about fifty yards to your tent and hit the sack (or start a campfire and sing Kumbaiya, watch the sun rise, and eat s’mores until you’re sick – whatever). We’ve had bachelor parties, weddings, sweet-sixteen parties, sales meetings, youth groups, high school (and university) classes – and even just groups of friends. The campsite is limited to 50 people; that’s less than $5 apiece, cheaper than a movie!

What tips do you have for a first time visitor?
If you’ve never been to the observatory before, you should know that it can be wicked cold. Layer up! Warm socks, long pants, sweater and jacket, hat, and even gloves will all pay for themselves quickly. The more comfortable you are, the more you’ll enjoy your visit. Also, flashlights – because of the way the human eye works it takes between twenty and forty minutes for most people to adapt to the dark, and you just can’t see very much through a telescope until then. The problem is that any flash of white light makes your eyes start all over, which can be frustrating, and which is why astronomers (and sailors) use red light at night. So either bring a red flashlight, or rubber-band a couple of layers of red cellophane over the end of your regular flashlight. (We’ve usually got some on hand if you forget.) And finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You won’t appear dumb; you’ll be asking the same questions Einstein, Newton, and Hawking asked, and that puts you in pretty good company. All of our docents want to answer your questions for you, or better yet, guide you to find your own answers. It’s in our own best interest to help people feel comfortable wondering about the night sky and our place in the universe.

How can folks get more involved?
RFO encourages public participation on several levels. We’re in the process of building a new 40-inch reflector, which takes a lot of money even with most of the labor donated, and we’re always looking for funds for that. And members help support our ongoing outreach programs with their donations. And, of course, we can always use docents who volunteer their time in exchange for access to a world-class observatory. Docents don’t need any special training or knowledge; they just have to be interested in the night sky. We’ll provide training. We have astronomers, true, but we also have folks who help you park your car, take your money, and manage the traffic flow through the observatory. (And docents receive free admission to most of our programs!)

The Robert Ferguson Observatory www.rfo.org is located in the hills near Kenwood, California, in Sugar Loaf Ridge State Park

From Highway 12 east of Santa Rosa, turn on Adobe Canyon Road and follow it to the end. Cost for stargazing nights: $2 per adult, Children free, plus $6 per car parking.

We all had a great time at the Observatory. Be sure to bundle up and don’t forget the hot drinks! It is a great family affair and would be a fun surprise for the kids. Since it gets dark so early in the winter, you can visit the Observatory and still get home at a reasonable hour. As soon as the 2007 schedule is out, I will add it here. It will also be on the www.rfo.org website.

Thanks to David and all of the folks at the Observatory. Another wonderful part of this great Valley.

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1 Comment

  1. Misty said,

    March 16, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    Hi, im interested in the event tonight, its at 7?


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