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What I Did On My Spring Break

Posted by SXN on May 21, 2013 - 7:42pm

Last year, during my trip to the southwest and California to relocate AAVSOnet assets from Tom Krajci’s residence, I stayed with Tom Smith and his wife Donna for two nights. We talked at some length about the status of the Morgan 24” telescope and what it would take to get it commissioned and taking data. It seemed to me that there were several phases of the commissioning process that were going to require extra hands, eyes, muscles and brains for Tom to get them done. I told him I would be happy to come spend a week with him in the spring to help with some of the physical plant work as long as Arne approved the related travel expenses.

In January we began to make plans and set up an itinerary for my trip to New Mexico to help Tom work on the telescope and shelter. 

Tom had a fairly long and detailed spreadsheet with all the various steps and components listed in more or less the order needed to bring the telescope online, which he shared with Arne and me. 

The first order of business was to install a new track system for the roll off shed roof. The previous system had been altered twice but ultimately failed to support the roof structure as it moved from closed to open and back. Replacing this system with a beefier steel track system, new wheels and bearings was to be our priority project for my visit in April.

My flight left Detroit Metro Airport Monday, April 22. I arrived in El Paso an hour later than expected due to a ‘critical armrest failure’ on my connecting flight from Chicago. I texted back to the office from Chicago O’Hare about how ridiculous it seemed to delay a flight for an armrest malfunction. Our webmaster, Will McMain, texted back some much needed comic relief saying, “You don’t want an armrest to fail when you’re in the air!”

Tom and Donna met me at the airport and drove me back to Alamogordo, west of their home, where we stopped and had dinner, then spent some time at the local grocery store to re-supply before heading up to their residence east of Cloudcroft.

The Smith’s driveway is a narrow affair. Two legs of a gravel road cut into the side of a mountain, each with I’d guess a 35-degree pitch. At the top of the first run you are required to make a nearly 180-degree left turn to head up the second leg to the house and surrounding gardens and observatory structures. As many times as I have made the trip, I still consider it a bit of a thrill ride.

We worked from 8AM until 5 or 6PM Tuesday through Friday fabricating four 20’ sections of steel rails, support posts and reinforcements. It was hard heavy work, cutting, drilling, hammering and welding steel stock for four days. Both Tom and I were very sore by the time dinner came each evening.

There were some exciting moments in the process. The most exciting being when we had to jack up each side of the roof structure to unbolt and remove the old track system, install the new tracks and adjust or relocate the wheel assemblies. We tied off the roof as well as we could with chains and rope, but the high winds blowing the roof and us around while we were 12’ in the air was a little more adventure than I had planned for.

The other unexpected excitement came when I realized we were going to have to weld the rail sections, support piers and cross members on site. The weather had been extremely dry and it was windy most days and there was no hose bib within 200 feet of the work site. We would take 5 gallon buckets out to the shelter and wet the ground around the work area. Then I would stand watch with another bucket of water while sparks flew all over the place from Tom’s arc welder. I was very relieved when we finally packed away the welding equipment on Friday without having starting a brush fire. 

Saturday they drove me back to El Paso International and my return trip home was uneventful and on time. When I got home I found spring had finally sprung in Michigan. The grass was so high I had to cut it twice to knock it down to a manageable height. Inspired by the success at Dark Ridge Observatory I also decided to dive right in to painting the front deck and other household maintenance chores.

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