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My Other Telescope is an 8.4 Meter


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My Other Telescope is an 8.4 Meter

 

By Patrick Stevenson

Former Assistant Supervisor of Large Optics Fabrication

Steward Observatory Mirror Laboratory

 

I have been interested in astronomy virtually my whole life, starting with grinding and polishing a six inch Edmund mirror back in the early '60's.  Given the times, and my family traditions, I opted for a military career that lasted a total of thirty years.  During those years my association with the hobby was limited to reading and looking at pictures.

Upon my retirement from the Army I did the typical Law Enforcement track.  It only took a year with the Sheriff's Department to realize that I just didn't want to carry a gun anymore.  While looking around for a challenging alternative I ran across an ad for a “Mechanition” (Read Gofor) at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab.  I was intrigued and applied for the position.  I was promptly told that I was over-qualified.  They felt that with my intensive experience as a retired Army Green Beret, with a Law Enforcement stint, and a BS from Northern Arizona University, that I would become quickly bored and move on.

Since I had virtually no experience in optics of ANY size, I argued that I could not possibly be over-qualified.  My love for the science and desire to work in such a prestigious institution in ANY capacity would more than make up for what I lacked in direct experience.  Still, I was told that I was over-qualified.  I was finally ready to give up but asked one thing before I went away.  I would stop bugging, but I wanted the answer in person.  In what was, I am sure, an act of desperation, I was given an interview.

I met with the Mirror Lab Manager on a typical summer morning and began my tour and interview.  It was clear that the answer was not going to change, but decorum dictated that I be treated as a serious candidate.  I learned that the position was generally filled by an Op/Sci undergrad; far from my age of fifty five, and worldly experiences.  In any case, the Manager lead me through the lab where I encountered the second 8.4 meter mirror destined for the LBT in Arizona.  As we passed the mirror located on the giant test tower, I touched the edge of the monster mirror and smiled.  This apparently piqued the Manager's curiosity and he asked what I was thinking.  I responded that this was not a telescope, it was a time machine.  One that would reach billions of years into our past, perhaps to the origin of the universe.  That comment got me the job!

I was so excited to be a part of something so immense in physical size, but also in technological advancement beyond imagination.  My spare moments between sweeping floors and getting tools for the “real” workers were spent in reading science papers on the projects, quizzing Phd's with stupid questions, and filling notebooks with critical information.  I was, literally, in “Hog” heaven.

By the end of the first year I had become the goto guy to assist the project scientists and engineers.  On one particular occasion I was way up in the test tower along with the Chief Scientist of the Lab conducting tests on the mirror some ninety feet below.  As we had nothing in common, the conversation was limited to “Hand me that”, or “Step back out of the way”.  Desiring to elevate my “serf to master” relationship I mused that it was interesting that this mirror would become significant by utilizing Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle.  I received a tolerating stare and a question from the scientist, “What do you mean by that?”.  I said that since we were using laser interferometry to test the mirror; the wave theory of light, and imaging would be done using CCD cameras detecting photons of light;  the particle theory of light, I found it interesting.  He looked at me for a moment and then said, “Who are you?”.  I replied that I was a gofor in the lab.  Nothing more was said that day.

I continued asking questions and being somewhat underfoot, but harmless.  The scientists and engineers began to notice me and actually engaged in multi-word sentences.  To make a long story short, I was promoted to Senior Staff Technician with an attendant 500% raise and became the Assistant Supervisor of the Large Optics Fabrication Lab.  Why?  Because I showed an insatiable thirst for knowledge and became an asset to the program.  This all happened in my fifty fifth and sixth years.  I had actually become one of the team, frequently invited to meetings chaired and attended by Scientists and Engineers!

The cycle time required to produce a finished 8.4 meter mirror was about two years, if nothing went wrong, which of course, it always did.  The entire process starting with casting, progressing through grinding and polishing, and terminating with integrating the mirror to the steel structure known as the “Cell” which would ultimately become the optical assembly ready to be shipped to some far off mountaintop.  Because of my lack of experience and my age, I searched for documents that would spell out each of the steps in the process.  There were none!  As a career military man, I was stunned!  The whole process was so new that the developers of each major stage; Casting, Polishing, and Integration were still in charge of their respective steps and simply directed work crews based on their memory.  While the system worked well, without proper instructional documentation, the very future of the process was entrusted to the mental and physical health of essentially three men!

I began a two year project of writing and documenting the entire process utilizing a Mil-Spec format that incorporated exact details including digital pictures of each step in the process.  I thought my efforts would be appreciated and accepted without reservation.  I was wrong.  I was presented with the, “If you write it all down ANYBODY could do it!” dismissal.  Job security was suddenly threatened!  I was viewed as a pariah and had to take my efforts underground.  Two years after I started, I completed a nearly two hundred page Mirror Fabrication Specification.  It was instantly rejected and relegated to an obscure file on the main server not to be seen again for almost ten years!

I retired from the Mirror Lab in 2009 and moved to a three acre plot forty miles east of Tucson in the Sonora Desert where I built my own 10x12 foot roll-off-roof observatory where I began astrophotography.  Years passed before I came in contact with my old boss at a Star Party.  Our friendship picked up as though no years had passed.  Although formally retired, he had returned to work part-time at the Lab.  He told me that my Mil-Spec procedure had been resurrected and was required to be used for each process.  My other suggestion that all new Technician hires be required to construct a ten inch Dobsonian telescope following the entire process from casting their own mirror, generating, grinding, polishing, testing, and completing the assembly of their telescope before they could work on large optics had been adopted.  I actually made a difference!   

   

Patrick Stevenson

Orion EON 130mm Triplet

Celestron CGX mount

ASI120MM Guide camera

Canon T3i modified imaging camera

Orion 60mm guide scope

fairhavens85602@gmail.com

 

Five years imaging

 

Past Scopes:

C14

C8

130mm Parallax APO

Orion 10” f/3.9 astrograph

Past mounts:

Losmandy G11 Gemini 2

Atlas EQ-G

Celestron AVX           

 


  • Patrik Iver, Joe Bergeron, Sol Robbins and 58 others like this


45 Comments

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JohnPancoast
Apr 07 2019 09:33 AM

Patrick, thank you for sharing! Citizen scientist!

Great read, thanks so much for sharing!

This is a wonderful story, and I thank you sincerely for sharing it here. There are a lot of lessons to be taken from It. In the industry I work in I also find a tremendous lack of documentation in the processes that are really core to our success, and a huge lack of hands on experience among those making the technical decisions that have the most far-ranging impacts 

Kudos! 

    • Al Abrams MD, memento and dyode like this

To me that is what it's called " a dream come true", you made a difference and I'm sure you are very happy that your work is now esteemed and contributes to a better knowledge.

Thank you for publishing such a great story.

 

Clear skies

Bernardo

Living in a burb of Phoenix, I have been to the mirror lab a few times to see various mirrors in various states of completion. It's always an interesting time.  2 words....   Dream Job.  You're a lucky man to have had time working there.

I retired from the Mirror Lab over ten years ago.  Except for family, and a few friends, nobody knew about my experiences there.  My sons told me that my legacy was not in the decades that I spent in the military, but rather my time at the Mirror Lab.  Only a handful of people in the world ever got to do what I did.  My efforts helped mankind in gaining a better understanding of the universe and our part in it.  My great-great grandchildren will be able to look at those giant telescopes in years to come and be able to say "My family helped make this happen".  What greater legacy than that?  Someday some engineer or scientist will wonder how that four inch long chip in the edge of LBT2 got there, and I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that I left a personal reminder that "I was there!".

    • Scott in NC, Al Abrams MD, frank5817 and 5 others like this

Upon my retirement from the Army I did the typical Law Enforcement track. It only took a year with the Sheriff's Department to realize that I just didn't want to carry a gun anymore. While looking around for a challenging alternative I ran across an ad for a “Mechanition” (Read Gofor) at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. I was intrigued and applied for the position.

Click here to view the article

Excellent anecdotes and career! Having genuine enthusiasm certainly makes all the difference. I worked optics and then big optics for Uncle Sam and the major observatories, with some of that time in the military. I'd estimate that only 10%, even among the ~professionals~ ... were passionately engaged in what we were providing to the community. The maniacs, thankfully, inexorably floated upward. Happy that includes your experience. Must have been frustrating that they shelved your self-motivated work for a decade; but nice that they eventually implemented that!

 

Regarding "touching the mirror" ... I would always do that with our stuff, even if I had to wear a clean room glove!    Tom

    • Al Abrams MD and BFaucett like this

That's a great story, Patrick.  Two questions, though:  Did your experience at such a facility make it more difficult for you to be satisfied with consumer telescopes?  Did you get to view through any of the research instruments the mirror lab made optics for?

Wow, those optics guys are an elitist (re: snobbish) group !  Good for you for persevering.

Actually, I think it made me even MORE appreciative of what's available to us "regular" folks.  None of the "Big" telescopes have the capability of looking through an eyepiece.  All of the imaging is done via CCD cameras or devices.  The outputs are on computer screens pretty much the world over.  Virtually all research that comes from the images is in the form of data tables, lists of numbers, etc.  Making the data into images is almost an afterthought.  Although we Technicians did fabricate a fake eyepiece once as a joke for a visiting group of scientists from Asia.  A few of them actually looked through the eyepiece!  They didn't share our sense of humor.

    • LesB, Al Abrams MD, Adam Albino and 5 others like this

What a wonderful story! What made me smile the most was touching the mirror helping you get your impossible dream job. I showed some passion for the craft when I applied for my next to last job before I retired, and that worked to help me get my dream job, too. Clear skies!

Thanks for sharing your wonderful story, Pat, which is an inspiration to us in a number of different ways.  During my career in a different but similarly technical field, I learned not to dismiss anyone who had a combination of a thirst/passion for knowledge combined with experience in understanding/valuing procedures (e.g. military or space).  Those kinds of people are invaluable to a team effort, especially one tackling a complicated project. 

 

All of that experience will be useful to squeeze all that you can out of that 130mm scope!  

That was a great read!  Thanks for posting this.

 

Best,

Rick

    • Ray Cash likes this

What a great second career.

Thank you for your service

Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading your post.

 

Best Regards 

Carl

Awesome story. You drew me right in, felt like I was standing right there in your awkward moments with the propeller heads. Thanks for your service to our country and to astronomy.

Photo
john nichol
Apr 08 2019 07:41 AM

Wonderful story thanks for sharing. I would love to visit the mirror lab one day!

 

John

Wow! Hard to imagine the arrogance that would result in your firing when you're improving the process. However, I've seen this over and over in my job as a computer engineer working on computer graphics architecture and now autonomous cars - employees work for themselves and make decisions that are good for them (as in the example above - you were threatening their job security) not for the project. Good managers can see this and see up incentives to have people work for the project instead of themselves.

    • RickV likes this

Actually, I didn't get fired.  I got to do what just about all of us would like to do at one time or another.  We got a new Manager that was "oil" and I was "water".  We never agreed on anything.  One day I decided that my "dream job" had turned into a "nightmare job".  I had planned to stay on at the Lab until I was 70 (not uncommon).  Instead, when I turned 62 I informed him that I was going to retire but I'd give him 90 days to find a replacement that I could train.  His response was that I had a high opinion of myself and he had no intention of replacing me.  I jumped into my big yellow dodge truck, drove over to the Arizona Retirement Office and retired.  I came back to his office and told him that I decided to move my retirement date up some.  "Yeah, when?" he said.  "Today", I responded.  He went ballistic.  For not valuing my presence he sure got mad at me leaving with no notice and banned me from ever coming in to the Lab ever again!  I waited my whole life to say to a deserving boss, "Take this job and shove it", to quote Johnny Paycheck.  I live about four blocks from the Lab and stop by and say "Hi" to the folks now and then.  Oh, that's because he got fired shortly after.

    • cuzimthedad, Starman81, Waldemar and 11 others like this

Thank you so much for sharing! So much good--and bad--here; but mostly: inspiring!

Really great story... enjoyed reading it. Appreciate you sharing it.

I'm so glad to read that you cared to document the processes in the mirror lab. It's  been my experience that much  institutional knowledge is not being saved in out country.  Other societies have an apprentice program or  similar process for passing on undocumented information.  As a materials engineer with experience in electrodeposition and thick film processing,  it took over a year to find a replacement when I announced my retirement.  No one in our company had been assigned to work with me at all.  Our universities and technical schools cannot train specialists to the degree we need.  And so many of our processes are not documented as well as mil-specs or as required by  older corporate document control systems.

    • stubeeef likes this

My desire to document procedures was not all together altruistic.  Given a two year processing cycle I was afraid I would forget my job by the next time around!  I did it as much for myself as posterity.

    • dUbeni, stubeeef and ericthemantis like this

Very interesting article--thanks so much for sharing your experience.  I just toured the Mirror Lab in February, on my first trip to southern Arizona.  Absolutely fascinating!

Very thought provoking article.  Thanks for writing it.



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