Texas Exes Alcalde
Texas Exes Alcalde

Big and Bright

Life under the stars at UT's McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory

By Rose Cahalan
Photos by Anna Donlan

An hour before sunset,the cars start to arrive. Whole caravans of them crawl up the narrow, winding mountain road that leads to the McDonald Observatory. In the parking lot, people unload blankets, jackets, and snacks. Toddlers get buckled into strollers, elderly couples walk hand in hand, and somebody yells, “Kelly, where’d you put the dang tickets?” Lizards scuttle across the red rock wall of the visitors’ center, soaking up the last of the day’s heat. In the StarDate Café, you can buy a Milky Way bar or a hot cocoa. When the sun sinks below the horizon, there’s an instant chill in the air, and the Davis Mountains are backlit in shades of orange and pink.

By now more than 200 people are gathered in and around the visitors’ center—not bad for a weeknight and a long-haul drive (seven hours from Austin and Dallas, six from San Antonio, eight and a half from Houston). A few more minutes pass and the night unfurls like a cat waking up from a nap. Everyone lines up on the sidewalk that leads to an outdoor amphitheater, and aside from a few tiny red lights, the darkness is total. Classical music—The Cosmos soundtrack, of course—starts playing, and now people are speaking in hushed voices and craning their necks to look up at the kaleidoscope of stars overhead. The reverential atmosphere is not unlike that of a congregation filing into church, and indeed, we will all soon ponder big questions about our place in the universe. It’s a Tuesday night in October, and the Star Party is about to begin.

Star Party

The Frank Bash Visitors Center just before a Tuesday night Star Party.

The McDonald Observatorywas born from a death. William Johnson McDonald was a soft-spoken, wealthy banker who was fond of bow ties. He never married or had children, and he eschewed the busy social calendar expected of a man of his stature. His modest home in Paris, Texas, was unremarkable except for its collection of books on astronomy, botany, zoology, and geology. Other financiers summered in France; McDonald signed himself up for summer school at Harvard, where he took botany courses for fun. He published a scientific paper on the behavior of moths and spent ample time stargazing with his small telescope.

William J. McDonald

William Johnson McDonald

Each constellation he spotted bolstered his belief that the future would bring ever more impressive astronomical discoveries. “One day,” McDonald is said to have remarked to his barber during a haircut, “a telescope will be constructed that will enable astronomers to see the gold-paved streets of heaven.” When he died at age 81, he left the bulk of his estate—over $1 million, about $13 million today—to build an astronomical observatory at the University of Texas.

Several problems arose. McDonald’s nieces and nephews sued, arguing that their uncle was of unsound mind when he wrote his will. The dreamy comment he made to his barber was even used against him in court as evidence of his alleged insanity. After a prolonged legal battle, the university settled with the heirs, leaving $850,000 for the observatory, but this was when another minor roadblock emerged: UT had no astronomy department. Who would staff this observatory? Where would it go? The observatory could easily have ended up in Austin, where several sites along West Austin’s hilltops were proposed. In hindsight, this would have been a terrible choice; today the area is home to mansions and substantial light pollution from the ever-growing skyline. Luckily, two prominent families donated some 400 acres of ranchland near the tiny town of Fort Davis, in far West Texas. This was the happiest of accidents: The region still boasts the darkest skies in the continental United States. Also key are the many clear, cloudless nights and the observatory’s perch atop two mountains, at the highest point on Texas highways.

As for staff, the University of Chicago came to the rescue. Its astronomers had outgrown their aging telescope and were looking for new equipment. So in 1932 the two universities signed an agreement: UT would help construct the observatory, while Chicago would operate it for the next 30 years (Texas took back the reins in 1963).

The lodge is outfitted with room-darkening curtains and stern signs: 'Please be quiet. Astronomers are sleeping at all hours of the day!'

If you’ll forgive the pun, things at McDonald have been looking up ever since. The discoveries made there read like a greatest-hits list for the entire field of astronomy, including the first detection of an atmosphere for any moon in the solar system, the first planet orbiting a close binary star, the first Earth-based discovery of the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system, the most powerful supernovae ever found, and the most massive black hole ever found, just to name a few. Today, the observatory is a partner on the construction of a new telescope in Chile that will allow scientists to look farther into the night sky than ever before, and it’s also leading the world’s biggest experiment on dark energy. All this while also welcoming thousands of visitors per year for a busy schedule of educational programs.

Most of those visitors will get only a quick tour. Those who attend the Star Parties, held three times per week, will spend two hours marveling at the Milky Way and taking in a presentation with some astronomy basics. But the observatory, with its 120 employees who do everything from cook meals to keep the telescopes running, is so much more. It’s a self-sufficient community, a gathering place for astronomy fans, and a rugged desert outpost miles from nowhere.

Telescopes at dusk

The Otto Struve and Harlan J. Smith telescopes at dusk.

Harlan J. Smith Telescope

Superintendent Craig Nance looks at the Harlan J. Smith Telescope.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

View of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope from the Astronomer's Lodge.

Around 9 p.m., the Star Party is wrapping up. All 200 visitors have gotten the chance to peer through a few telescopes and watch a constellation tour led by staffer Frank Cianciolo and his laser pointer. But as most of us end our days, the visiting scientists are just starting theirs. In the Astronomer’s Lodge, the spartan dormitory-style building that hosts the many researchers who come from all over the world to use the observatory’s three telescopes, I meet professor Nick Sterling and his student Nathan Morgenstern, astronomers at the University of West Georgia. They list the tricks they use to stay awake for a full night’s research inside the Harlan J. Smith Telescope: Red Bull, music, and forcing themselves to stay up the night before to get their bodies on a nocturnal schedule. “It’s exhausting,” Sterling admits. “And then half the time the weather messes with you anyway. You learn to be patient.” Rain, clouds, high winds, hail—for 55 percent of 2015, astronomers couldn’t use the telescopes due to inclement weather, despite planning their trips a year or more in advance and often traveling thousands of miles. So when they do get precious viewing time, they take it seriously. The lodge is outfitted with room-darkening curtains and stern signs tacked up on the walls: “Please be quiet. Astronomers are sleeping at all hours of the day!”

Dave Doss

Dave Doss mans the Otto Struve Telescope's control console.

Modern astronomers rarely look through telescopes. In fact, there are quite a few who have never put their eyes to one. These days, they sit behind a bank of computer monitors in a control room, crunching numbers with software. At the McDonald Observatory, a bevy of support staff—from telescope operators to engineers and IT professionals—works around the clock to make sure the researchers get the data they need. “What makes me the happiest is when I can help someone else do really good science,” Coyne Gibson says as he leads me on a tour of the Harlan J. Smith telescope at dusk. Gibson, 55, spent the bulk of his career in the tech industry. After selling his company, he officially retired in 2008—but, as he puts it, “I failed at retiring.”

The lifelong amateur astronomer is now living his dream as McDonald’s manager of observing support. “This view never gets old,” Gibson says as we stand on the catwalk outside the telescope. “I count myself lucky to be here.” Tonight, Gibson has already helped the researchers from Georgia fix a problem with the telescope’s alignment; he’s also preparing to host guests for a Special Viewing Night, a kind of VIP stargazing experience for those who want to look through the largest telescopes at especially distant and beautiful star clusters, galaxies, nebulae, and other eye-catching phenomena.

Now we look out at the mountains in the distance, all of which Gibson can identify by name: Chinati Peak, Sawtooth Mountain, Baldy Peak. A great groaning and creaking, like the sound of a ship changing course, comes from above our heads. The immense, 435-ton dome of the telescope is rotating so the astronomers can see another slice of sky. We head inside to the telescope floor. In the dark, and with a domed ceiling rising above my head, I feel a weird thrill, as though I’ve snuck into an opera house or a theater after hours. The telescope is kept at the same temperature as the outdoors for best results, and occasionally gusts of cold wind whip through the open door.

Leaving the researchers to their work, Gibson hops on a golf cart for the two-minute commute to his home at the base of the telescope. He’s one of 40 employees who live at the observatory on streets with names like Nova Bluff and Lunar Circle. About 30 others drive in from nearby Fort Davis, Alpine, or Marfa, while 50 additional staff are based in Austin. The observatory even has its own school bus for the kids who live on-site (as a public service, it also picks up ranchers’ kids along the way). “It really is like a small town, a close-knit environment,” he says. “Everybody knows everybody out here, and we like it that way.”

“This is still the darkest place in the continental U.S., and arguably in the world. That's worth protecting.”

If the observatory is a small town, then Craig Nance is its mayor. As superintendent, he oversees McDonald’s day-to-day operations. His office inside the Otto Struve Telescope is decorated with framed photos of observatories in Arizona and Hawaii, where he’s also worked. On his desk is a handheld radio—the primary means of communication at the observatory, where cell phone reception is scarce—and a blue journal embossed with a celestial pattern. He flips through it to show the pages and pages of notes he’s taken in recent meetings. It’s late October, and he’s been busy preparing the observatory for winter weather, some of which has already arrived. “We had a hailstorm a few weeks ago,” Nance says. “There was some damage to our housing, so I’m dealing with insurance and all of that.”

The observatory has its own utilities, sewage plant, and repair shop. With the small town of Fort Davis (pop. 1,201) a half-hour away, workers can’t simply run out to the hardware store. “You have to have a high level of ingenuity to succeed here,” Nance explains. “When something breaks, we fix it ourselves.”

Residents master the art of list-making and scheduling. Groceries must be planned carefully; the same goes for prescriptions and other household items. The closest Target is 200 miles away. “I have a list for things I can get in Fort Davis, another for the things that are El Paso or Midland, and another for things I’ll mail-order,” Nance says. “If you run out, you run out.”

Despite the remote location, more people are coming to the McDonald Observatory than ever before. More than 130,000 visitors stopped by last year, setting a new record; Star Parties during spring break have drawn up to 1,100 guests in a single night. Nance and his team are still trying to figure out why. “One of the things we’ve posited is that people want to get out from behind these,” he says, holding up his cell phone. “Phones don’t work here. I think that increasingly, people want to go off the grid to experience things. They want to show their kids the night sky. And this is one of the few places left where you can still do that.”

Researchers in the control room Air-mass chart in the control room

Researchers from the University of West Georgia at the Harlan J. Smith Telescope's control room; an air-mass chart at the control room.

Bill Wren is working to keep it that way. Wren is a soft-spoken, affable man with a white mustache and a denim button-down. Before coming to the observatory, he ran a crisis counseling center in Austin, and he still has a psychologist’s gentle nature. Wren, BA ’80, MEd ’86, is not someone you would expect to be nicknamed the Angel of Darkness, but he bears it proudly. He is on a one-man campaign against light pollution in West Texas.

At his computer, Wren shows me a satellite photo of the region surrounding the observatory. It’s almost completely dark, with just a few pinpricks of light at each town. “This was taken in 2010,” he explains. He clicks his mouse and the photo gets brighter; another click, and it glows. “That second photo was 2012, and this is last year. So you can see we have a problem.”

The culprit is the oil and gas industry. From 2009-14, the state granted just under 5,000 drilling permits, and with each rig comes lots of lighting. The boom has also brought hotels, offices, and big-box stores—and although none are close to Fort Davis, they do affect the night sky. Wren isn’t trying to stem the tide of development; he’s pushing for small changes. “We are not against outdoor lighting at night,” he says. “We’re in favor of good outdoor lighting at night.” In practice, that’s often as easy as angling a light downward, switching to more efficient bulbs, or installing a shade. Wren is taking his presentation on the road, visiting drill sites, energy companies’ headquarters, and government offices to show how minor adjustments can go a long way. Companies including Pioneer Energy, Cimarex, and Chevron have already adopted his recommendations. Wren is also in the process of securing the region’s status as an international dark sky preserve, a designation that will lead to further protections.

“This is still the darkest place in the continental U.S., and arguably one of the darkest in the world,” Wren says. “That’s worth protecting.”

Click for words from observatory staff and visitors.

  • Emma Cantwell
    Emma Cantwell
    Senior food service supervisor

    “I was born in Fort Davis and I have lived here all my life. I’ve been working here about 15 years, cooking for the astronomers and overseeing the lodge. I get to meet so many interesting people.

    When I first started here, there was an astronomer from Belgium—he didn’t speak much English, but we could get by just with signs and smiles. Now he’s learned English, and he’s become a friend. There’s a group of Korean researchers who come, and they’re always saying thank you and bowing to me, so I bow right back.”

  • Coyne Gibson
    Coyne Gibson
    Manager of observing support

    “These views never get old. We have seasonal monsoon weather here, so the monsoon is really beautiful, and we get 20 inches of snow a year. When all this is snow-covered, it’s breathtaking. It is a really phenomenal place to live.

    My main role here is scientific support. We try to provide the astronomers with the highest level of customer service we can possibly provide, making sure the telescope systems are ready to go for them. I take pride in my work. We may not have done the science, but we had a hand in it.”

  • Danny Spencer
    Danny Spencer
    Physical plant manager

    “We're a crew of 14 people who take care of all the infrastructure. Houses, plumbing, painting, custodial, groundskeeping...if it's on the hill, we're working on it. We've got a mechanic shop, a welding shop, a machine shop, a carpenter shop, and we do our own wastewater and chlorination. It's 15 miles to Fort Davis and they don't have much as far as a hardware store, so that's a big challenge.

    The view from up here is perfect. I like that I don't have to fight traffic or crowds. I ride my motorcycle a lot, and I'm into bow-hunting and archery.”

  • Katie Smither
    Katie Smither
    BFA '11 | Opto-mechanical technician

    “I just got the urge to move out to Marfa on a whim. I had taken a road trip and it reminded me how much I love seeing the Milky Way. I wanted to live where that kind of night sky would be a part of my life.

    I got a telescope for Christmas around age 6, and looking through it at a star, seeing it magnified even a little bit—that kind of terrified me. It jolted me in the sense of, 'That's startling and amazing.'”

  • Danny Farrow
    Danny Farrow
    Postdoctoral researcher, Max Planck Institute for Physics, Munich, Germany

    “I’m helping to develop software to reduce data for the HETDEX survey. Dark energy is something we hardly know anything about. It's a large fraction of the universe, but we don't even know what it is. It's driving the acceleration and expansion of the universe, and we've barely scratched the surface.”

  • Bill Wren
    Bill Wren
    BA '80, MEd '86 | Special assistant to the superintendent, "Angel of Darkess"

    “The places you can go to see a night sky are going away. I've been out here 25 years, and for the longest time the brightest thing in our sky, apart from the sun and the moon, was El Paso. But in the last few years, we started seeing a glow encroaching from all the drilling, exploration, and production going on. Fortunately we've had some luck partnering with them and making changes.”

With just four weeks on the job, Katie Smither, BFA ’11, is one of the observatory’s newest and youngest employees. In her 27 years, Smither has worked as a sculptor, an archivist, a welder, an art teacher, and now as an opto-mechanical technician on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the third-largest optical telescope in the world. She keeps the telescope’s 91 hexagonal mirrors clean—a delicate task involving dry ice, an aluminum coating process, and a cleanroom that must be kept free of even the smallest particle of dust or dirt. Smither uses a joystick to deftly maneuver the 100-ton telescope. When she’s working, a lift raises her up to 100 feet into the air. “It’s challenging, and I love how hands-on it is,” she says. “I’m having a blast.”

In November, the observatory announced that the Hobby-Eberly Telescope had been successfully upgraded with new optics, mechanical systems, and software. Its resolution is so sharp that it can now take a mile-long photo of the surface of the moon. Early this year, it’ll allow researchers to begin a milestone experiment on dark energy. Dark energy is a mind-boggling concept: The stuff makes up 70 percent of the known universe, but no one knows what it’s made of or, really, anything else about it. Over the next three years, this telescope will study galaxies as far as 11 billion light years away in hopes of expanding our knowledge of dark energy. Smither says she’s proud to support such an ambitious project. “I’ve loved astronomy since I was 6 years old and got a telescope for Christmas,” she says, “and then my first job was at the Ransom Center, where I got to see works by Newton and Galileo. So now, to be here …” She gestures in front of us to the gleaming silver dome in the mountains. “It’s an amazing place.”


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