Astro Works began as a part time
business in 1978 while I was employed at Los Alamos National
Laboratory in Northern New Mexico and was centered around my
imagination and abilities as an amateur telescope maker of 18
years experience. I had already made a cast aluminum fork and
tube assembly for a 4" Cassegrain reflector and 6",
8", 9", 10", 14" Newtonians, Convertible
Cassegrains, Dobs, and refractors. My main scope at that time
was a 14 1/4" f/5 Newtonian on a large German equatorial
steel mount. It had a rotatable upper focuser/secondary drum
(done in the mid 70's before they were in vogue). I recall having
to purchase then an expensive compact HeNe laser and make a bore
sighted collar in order to finally get the rotating drum aligned
and stay collimated when rotated.
Having many prior telescopes
and liking astrophotography as a hobby, I always wanted a good
deep sky astrographic reflector and decided on making a fork
mounted 10" f/4 Newtonian with a 2" focuser. I ground
and figured the Pyrex mirror and purchased commercial parts from
Parks, Novak, etc. I decided on making an aluminum fork from
Heli-arc welded 3/8" aluminum plate, but after testing,
it proved to be just too flimsy, so I set out to make a wood
pattern for a 40 pound cast aluminum fork. As it turned out there
were not any foundries in the state that could cast a piece that
size and at an affordable price, so a work friend who had previously
managed a big foundry helped me make a back yard foundry and
my own furnace with dual burners. We sized it to handle up to
large 90 lb. per pour crucibles and soon things started happening.
The fork(s) came out so well that I decided to cast and sell
them as a product at $200 each. Later they were sold fully machined,
painted and with ball bearings. Up until that time, I figured
that anyone who wanted such a mount would already have his own
lathe and mill as I did to finish it, but I was wrong. Not only
did customers want their forks machined, they wanted the rest
of the mount cast and built.
anyone can buy a fiberglass tube from Willard Parks,
cell and spider parts from Novak, a focuser Telescopics,
and mirrors from Coulter or others and do their
own optical tube assembly. Wrong again. They wanted a completed
turnkey telescope. So I geared up for that, buying out the easy
parts as well as optics. The other serious amateur telescope
businesses such as Optical Craftsmen and Cave Optical
were already closed or on the way out by then, leaving just Star-Liner.
Criterion and Celestron were heavily into the Schmidt
Cassegrain market. Meade was importing small refractors
and offering components for up to 8" Newtonian tube assemblies
per their S&T ad of 2/78.
Incidentally, that 10" f/4
Newtonian (above and right) evolved into a fine product that
took great 35 mm images of galaxies . This was just before Jack
Marling's Lumicon and the age of off-axis guiders/ film
hypering added a huge gain to amateur astrophotography.
Kodak's grainy 103aF was the hot-setup film to use then
and acceptable deepsky color work was reserved for more complex
dry ice or Schmidt camera users.
In the summer of 79 I left my
then 60% time lab job after receiving enough telescope orders.
A little later Astro Works was discovered by the government contractors
such as Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia Labs, National
Bureau of Standards, and NOAA, etc. There was a lot of solar
energy research money floating around back then thanks to President
Carter. Soon, I had built
up a complete machine shop with new machines replacing the old
and had a two man aluminum foundry necessary to make up to 24"
telescopes and big solar trackers. New wooden patterns were being
built monthly. We even made a large cast fork mount for NASA
to use to qualify their spacesuits in vacuum chamber testing.
The government R&D work was invaluable for growing the business
and my pursuit toward building larger and more complex telescopes
such as large folded refractors, big Schmidt Cassegrains and
later Maksutov Cassegrains. Since it was necessary to use and
test everything I built, I was learning at a very fast rate,
some good and some not. Opticians were probably the biggest limitation
on our ability to deliver product. Some projects spanned over
two years in length like the two 24 1/2" f/6.2 SCTs that
we built. After 8 years of custom, "you name it, I build
it", I got wary of slow dancing with customers while I worked
between their dreams and the always slow and late custom opticians.
A standard product needed to be found.
Astromak was to be it. In 1983 I was befriended by Mike
Simmons then of Tucson AZ while I was still in Northern New
Mexico and after a trip to his place decided to purchase his
one of a kind 11 1/2" f/5.6 Simak parts project.
He had designed and started the sexiest telescope I ever laid
my eyes on. It offered tremendous astrographic image quality
over a 2 degree plus field. I took on his project and found an
specialized optician to finish the system. The optics were null
figured (aspherized) and coated. It fit perfectly in our smaller
10" size fork mount shown below. By then I was making cast
aluminum fork mounts for up to 17 1/2" Newtonians and also
large German equatorial mounts. The astrophoto work with this
prototype Simak required moving up to 120 roll film backs
and later developing a custom 4X5 back
with matched vacuum film holders, integral off-axis guider and
field flattener lens. Everything clicked and the prototype images
were a sensation since prime focus 8 &14 inch Schmidt cameras
were the only other game in town then. Based on this success,
I contracted Mike to design a faster, larger system with more
back focus and tooled up to make a quantity of these using new
patterns for castings, glass moldings etc. I was put in contact
with the optical house that did Questar optics and they agreed
to make the Astromak optics. Later, we moved up to Cloudcroft,
New Mexico (elev. 8800 feet) to allow me to better exploit the
Astromak's imaging potential which followed with years
of magazine quality deep sky images on 4X5 film. After making
17 of the 12" f/5 Astromaks over a 7 year period
I closed shop. About 12 years ago, I got my first taste of CCD
imaging with the Astromak when Sena Sajadi of Astrolink
brought out one of his costly Cryocams and computer with
frame grabber. I was astounded by where astro-imaging was going,
but still kept my darkroom since CCD cameras and computer technology
were outside amateur astronomy for me.
The Astromak produced
a 3 1/3 degree field equaling a 3.3 inch diameter circle on the
negative. Image left is 90 minutes on 2415 Techpan. A 10x enlargement
print had a 3 foot wide image. November 1986 image from Cloudcroft,
N.M.Toward the end of the Astromaks
production I had developed a good relationship with Alan Hale
of Celestron working as a consultant on new product development
and also optimizing current products for that company. The original
f/6.3 Reducer Corrector and Radial Guider for SCTs
were my first big products for them and after about 8 years culminated
with the Fastar series convertible prime focus telescope
and the PixCel 237 CCD camera in its conception through
marketing. During my period with Celestron we had moved Astro
Works from the southern New Mexico mountains to Scottsdale, Arizona
to allow for an easier fly-in commute. The Fastar 14 was
a most gratifying project and a great place to end that relationship.
Business wise, nothing happened
for a couple of years except consulting and working on an awesome
50" at Kitt Peak and consulting for
another telescope company.During this time my CCD imaging results
were "topping out" using my Fastar 14. I wanted
to see it evolve further than using the little PixCel 237
it was limited to and obtain a larger field of view with more
image scale from self guiding ST-8 imager. As Mike Simmons
had taught me, I sat down considering all things and listed my
goals and thought of all the telescopes I had owned and used.
Both my Lichtenknecker FFC Flat Field Camera, a modified
form of concentric Schmidt Cassegrain and the Takahashi Epsilon
, a hyperbolic Newtonian I had used were at the front of the
performance list, but too small and costly to scale up further
for optimal deep sky CCD use.
My best Fastar 14 CCD image of
M51. Looks great if you just don't enlarge
it. This image quality still easily beats the film image above
done 20 years earlier.
Previous work on the 50"
made me realize just how much great technology was available
for total rethink of a new telescope. A prime focus 18"
f/2.8 was decided upon and done. The prototype was success except
for a flawed mirror blank due to stresses in machining away half
the weight from a solid Pyrex disk rather that paying
the high initial tooling cost required to make more stable molded
light weight blanks (which was later done for all the production
with this flawed mirror, the resulting new images (left) were
breaking ground in amateur CCD imaging. Now, after learning from
the 18", developing it into a product, and optimizing it
to its current level, my desire is to build a 28" f/3.1
version Centurion. For many people, bigger is not always better
in telescopes. Already the 18's are usually seeing limited at
their customer's locations most nights. A 28" would have
to be especially well sited for optimal performance.
a side note, I later had my personal Centurion prototype
mirror reworked back to 100% once it had produced enough CCD
images for the website. See
recent image to left.
I have been asked where I gained
the experience needed to build these telescopes. My university
of life started with a father who was a mechanical engineer
and taught me how to design and make the things I wanted that
I couldn't find or afford to pay for. Hence, I was into amateur
telescope making and Sky & Telescope magazine since 12 years
old. Besides my father there were a few other men that served
as telescope building mentors helping me to build various telescopes
during my school years. After some college and Navy time I worked
as a surveying instrument repairman for Kueffel and Esser and
learned that craft quickly, progressing to arc second reading
engineering theodolite, auto level, and optical metrology/tooling
repair and calibration. Working on maintaining and optimizing
the performance of fine Swiss and German instrumentation focused
my perfectionist tendency. Later I worked at Brunson Instrument
Company doing similar instrument repair work. My big break came
when I was shown an ad from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory seeking
mechanical technicians to work on laser fusion projects. I interviewed
and once they found out I had a lathe and mill in my garage I
was in. Livermore was great for learning in terms of designing
and building experimental equipment and performing the experiments.
Evening college courses in optics and laser electro-optics helped
advancement in skills. My main hobby, astronomy, wasn't that
fulfilling observationally from the San Francisco Bay Area. My
10" f/6 Cave Astrola dream scope and later 14 1/4"
f/5 never worked well from there despite new levels of tweaking
and tuning. I learned of a transfer opportunity with advancement
to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. They even had
5 weeks instead of Livermore's 3 weeks paid vacation, not to
mention dark sky at a 6600 ft. locale! That was an easy decision,
again working on laser fusion projects. Within 2 years after
moving there, my astronomical interests again flourished and
Astro Works was started on the side. This work at the National
Labs had shown me that with an approach through experimentation,
it is possible to learn how to solve technical problems in new
frontiers. I apply this technical philosophy to the Centurion
telescopes as well as my personal projects.
24 1/2 f/6.2 SCT modernized
12 years later, after building
the 24 1/2" SCTs, many Astromaks, tons of you name it
instrumentation, the lights of both Santa Fe and distant Albuquerque
and finally, 6 newly lit ball fields a few miles away rendered
our acreage in northern N.M. unsatisfactory for astrophotography,
my passion. I began searching for a new homesite and decided
to concentrate on the Cloudcroft area about 300 miles south.
At that time there were no other amateurs up there and Sunspot
observatory was only doing solar work. I was able to find a site
survey done many years prior for an Air Force 48" secret
telescope. I learned that the seeing could be very good at times.
After working through topo and land use maps I located a private
mountain top near by the 48" site at 8800 foot elevation.
I had a realtor locate the owner who was willing to sell at a
fair price and within a year we were on the mountain top. Building
a 400 foot rise/mile long road and moving a machine shop worth
of equipment up the mountain was an experience. Winters were
long and spring /fall were about a week duration if that. Summers
were short with rain, but when it was clear, it was outstanding
and worth it. I got some of the best AstroMak images ever from
that mountain top. We lasted 4 years up there and then moved
for a better high school system for our daughter, an easier consulting
commute for me, and to milder winters and some civilization for
my wife .
Astro Work's credit also needs
to be given to my wife of 30 years, Janet, who has been very
supportive by working with me to operate and grow our business.
In many ways it is still a home business since I now have an
ideal commute of about 100 feet. Using a Centurion 18
under dark sky any clear night is an added bonus. When I started
out over 40 years ago in amateur astronomy, I could never imagine
that I would be making and using such a telescope now!
May 2001 (rev. Jan 2002 & Jan 2004 & Jan 2008)
there are many "stories
within a story" in this writing, I want to go to just one
that has affected me and Astro Works and which has made a product
like the Centurion 18 viable. Just as Jack Marling's Lumicon
products had advanced astrophotography, over 10 years ago Richard
Schwartz and his associates started Santa Barbara Instrument
Group by offering the ST-4 autoguider. This innovation became
instantly coveted by all astro-imagers for use in autoguiding
their telescopes during long exposure film images. Then someone
listened to Richard after he displayed his laptop computer deep
sky images taken with the modest 192 X 164 array ST-4 CCD. The
rest is history. Richard really did something great for astronomy
and his company SBIG is currently the leading player in shaping
digital imaging in amateur astronomy.
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