Smithsonian's NASM Collaborates with HCO to Open Public Observatory in Washington
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
News Feature

In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy, Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum recently collaborated with Harvard College Observatory to open its first Public Observatory on the Mall. The inspiration for this initiative came from NASM's Senior Curator of Space History, David DeVorkin, who had long wanted NASM to have a publicly-accessible telescope that fitted the dawning space age ethos of the Museum. Considering that NASM would also need a telescope robust enough to withstand public use, the obvious instrument of choice was the 16" Boller & Chivens reflector lying dormant at the Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, MA. This telescope, purchased by HCO in 1966, had been used primarily for undergraduate and graduate instruction through photographic and photoelectric research projects. It was also used by Oak Ridge on public nights where its sleek design inspired many youthful astronomers. DeVorkin, on a visit to Oak Ridge, described his discovery this way:

"But there was one telescope, a lovely blue and white Boller & Chivens 16-inch telescope from 1966, sitting in a secure dome and 100 percent intact, still operating, but without portfolio. Kept running, clean and shiny, by the observatory technician (Engineer), Joe Zajac, it stood there ready to be used. All one had to do was open the dome, throw a few switches, and kick out the animals."

Charles Alcock was enthusiastic about DeVorkin's Public Observatory Project and decided to loan the Boller & Chivens to NASM. With only three months remaining before the start of IYA 2009, he needed to summon HCO people quickly to collaborate with NASM in realizing the telescope transfer. Fortunately, Joe Zajac had operated the telescopes at Oak Ridge for many years and was familiar with the design of the Boller & Chivens, and was able to advise NASM about the telescope disassembly, and also advised them on the renovations and software they would need. Alison Doane negotiated the loan, disassembly and shipping agreements. After a snowy winter in Harvard, MA, by March 2009 all the contracts and negotiations were in place and the driveways were clear enough to welcome a crane. NASM engineer Frank Florentine arrived from Washington to oversee the deinstallation. In one afternoon, the mirrors were removed and crated, as well as the telescope tube, finder scope and electronics.

The following day the crane arrived and lifted the crated pedestal, tubes and optics through the dome. Once the Boller & Chivens arrived in Washington, NASM's technicians began work on removing the declination axis to correct declination readout errors, making a sole plate and cleaning the mirrors. By July 2009, a new dome had been installed, and it was time to install the polar axis. You can see this on Youtube (note that the sole plate is mounted at an angle to correct for the new latitude)

The National Air and Space Museum's Public Observatory opened October 1, 2009 and is open for observing year-round, Tuesday through Sunday.