My First Trip To The University of Texas McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory
McDonald Observatory

In October 1974, I made my first trip to the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. It was 500 miles one-way from the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington to Fort Davis, Texas. The purpose of the trip was to do the required astronomical labs for my physics class in astronomy.

The trip was a caravan from the UT Arlington campus to far west Texas. We departed about 2 PM on Friday, October 4, 1974. We headed from Arlington west on Interstate 20 (yes it was built way back then). We drove to Lake Colorado City State Park about 3 miles south of Interstate 20 just southwest of Colorado City, Texas. I pitched my tent. I shared the tent with 4 young women and one young man that were fellow cadets in the UT Arlington ROTC program. Three of them were prior service (US military veterans).

The next morning we got up early and headed west. We stopped at a Stuckey’s (remember them?) getting two scrambled eggs with toast and bacon or sausage plus coffee for under a dollar. The journey continued to Pecos, Texas. There we left Interstate 20 and headed south on Texas Highway 17. We crossed Interstate 10 at Balmorhea, Texas and head south to Fort Davis. We camped at the Davis Mountains State Park.

That weekend the park also hosted a retreat for the Odessa, Texas Jaycees. Some of them were concerned that we had males and females cohabitating the same tent. I go a strong morals lecture from a Baptist deacon. It mattered not we were all of legal age.

That Saturday, October 5, 1974 a very good top five ranked Texas A & M football team was upset by Kansas University loosing 28 to 10. We listened to the game on the radio as we explored the city of Alpine, Texas and toured the Fort Davis National Historic site. I’ve actually been there more times than any national park or historic site with the exception of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Why? My brother-in-law is a retired Great Smoky Mountain Park Ranger.

We drove to the McDonald’s Observatory in the early afternoon to check-in and get ready for the night’s observations. Returned that night for one of the most memorable evenings of my life.

I’ll use my narrator voice and tell you about the observatory. An astronomical observatory located just northwest of Fort Davis, Texas, on Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains of West Texas is the McDonald Observatory. It has additional facilities on the adjacent Mount Fowlkes. It is the property of the University of Texas at Austin.

The philanthropy of Texas banker William Johnson McDonald (1844–1926) created it. He left his fortune to the University of Texas to endow an astronomical observatory.

It began operation in 1939. At that time,it was the second largest telescope in the world. The University of Chicago operated the observatory until 1960s, when control was transferred to the University of Texas at Austin.

The McDonald Observatory was the first location on earth to bounce a laser off a reflector left on the moon by Apollo astronauts. I learned this as an astronomy student on my 1974 road trip.

The McDonald Observatory is equipped with a wide range of instrumentation for imaging and spectroscopy in the optical and infrared spectra and operates the first lunar laser ranging station. It works closely with the astronomy department of the University of Texas at Austin while maintaining administrative autonomy.

The high and dry peaks of the Davis Mountains make for some of the darkest and clearest night skies in the region and provide excellent conditions for astronomical research. It is one of the darkest places on earth at night.

UT McDonald Observatory

The Otto Struve Telescope, dedicated in 1939, was the first large telescope built at the observatory. It is located on Mt. Locke at an altitude of 6,790 feet. The summit of Mt. Locke, accessed by Spur 78, is the highest point on Texas highways. The Harlan J. Smith Telescope, also on Mt. Locke, was completed in 1968.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), dedicated in late 1997, is located on the summit of Mt. Fowlkes at 6,660 ft above sea level. It is operated jointly by the University of Texas at Austin, Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University, the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, and the Georg-August University of Göttingen.

As of 2012, the HET is tied with the similar Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) as the fifth largest telescope in the world. However, its cost was about 20% that of other similarly-sized telescopes in use today due to its optimization for spectrography.

Currently, the observatory operates four research telescopes at its West Texas site:

  • 9.2 m (360 in) Hobby-Eberly Telescope on Mt. Fowlkes
  • 2.7 m (110 in) Harlan J. Smith Telescope on Mt. Locke
  • 2.1 m (83 in) Otto Struve Telescope on Mt. Locke
  • 0.8 m (31 in) large format imaging telescope on Mt. Locke

The two peaks also host a number of other instruments:

  • The 1.2 m (47 in) Monitoring Network of Telescopes (MONET) North Telescope on Mt. Locke is a companion to one at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland, and was built by Halfmann Teleskoptechnik.
  • The McDonald Laser Ranging System (MLRS) operates a 0.76 m (30 in) telescope on Mt. Fowlkes to perform satellite laser ranging and lunar laser ranging.
  • A 0.5 m (20 in) Ritchey-Chretien reflector owned by Boston University on Mt. Locke is used for optical aeronomy.
  • The 0.4 m (16 in) Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment (ROTSE) reflector on Mt. Fowlkes is used to search for the optical signature of gamma-ray bursts.

McDonald ObservatoryI have been back many times since that first trip in 1974. I took my two sons there on dad-son vacation when they were 13 and 10 years old. Since then they have built an excellent visitor center. The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center, located between Mt. Locke and Mt. Fowlkes, includes a café, gift shop, and interactive exhibit hall. The Visitors Center conducts daily live solar viewings in a large theater and tours of the observatory’s largest telescopes. It also hosts evening star parties, every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night which allow visitors to look through numerous telescopes of various sizes in the Telescope Park, and enjoy an indoor program.

Special viewing nights, during which visitors can stay on-site (not required for the programs) and view directly through eyepieces on the 0.9 m, Struve (2.1m), or Smith (2.7m) telescopes, are held on a reservation-only basis. Although not available for many years, as of June 2013, the 2.1m has returned to occasional public access.

The trip back to the University of Texas at Arlington was a long one. We drove back on US 67. It was 500 miles on a two lane highway. On the return trip I stopped and visited my parents at their ranch northwest of Brownwood, Texas.

It was on the 1974 trip I decided to ask Benita Breeding to marry me. I proposed the next week and we married on December 28, 1974.

Photo Credits: Jimmie A. Kepler took the photographs in May 2007. The photographs are available for use under the Creative Commons License listed below.

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