Monday, January 2, 2012

How can this be a job when I love it so much? Sunriver Observatory

It's a 45 mile drive to Sunriver Nature Center Observatory from here.  Sadly, I don't do it enough anymore in the evenings and that's certainly my loss since what I do there is a part of what I live for.

Sunriver Nature Center Observatory

Arriving at the observatory at around 8 or 9 pm (depending upon the time of the year), there are already people there and waiting.  The doors to the observatory are open and folks are milling around the buildings, many looking at all the instruments with a little bit of awe.  They realize, especially when they see the telescope in the dome, that this isn't exactly what they expected.  This place IS serious. Indeed, it is one of the largest public observatories in the United States

Going to the observatory isn't about the telescopes.  It's about the people:  about the curious, the dreamers, and the questioners.  As a staff member, I've been told often that this isn't about science, it's about entertainment.  Sunriver Resort is a high-end destination and in the evenings it rolls the sidewalks up and shuts down except for the restaurants.  There's nothing for the visitors to do.  Sure, folks can drive 15 miles to Bend and find movie theaters, bowling alleys, bars and nightlife but the resort is quiet....the observatory is the only thing happening in the evenings. So, yes, in a way, the observatory is entertainment.  But it's so much more. 

The observatory staff is made up of a mix of paid employees and volunteers.  Many of us are 50 or 60 somethings.  But there are a couple of young guys and, during the busy season, young women who are a part of the working group, too.  All of us are there for one thing, really, and that's to interact with the public guests who have come to see....  Most of us have at least a little bit of knowledge and none of us are true professional astronomers.  We love to share what we know and most are very animated when sharing.

 Orion Nebula through Hubble Space Telescope (top)
Orion Nebula through 14 inch reflecting telescope (bottom)

Looking through the eyepiece of a telescope opens up untold wonders and beauty.   What we see isn't what the news reports show us very often---those are photos and to be frank, human eyes aren't very good in the dark--cameras are so much better (like the top photo, above).  But what we do see is magnificent and LIVE.  The images we see have traveled untold millions and millions of miles and sometimes over many centuries and millenia (and beyond) to reach our eyes (light only travels about 6 trillion miles in one year.  The closest star to us is more than 30 trillion miles away!).  As staff members, we try to instill that awe in our guests if it hasn't already touched them.

One of our favorite things is to share a fellow solar system planet, Saturn--ahh, Saturn, the Queen of Planets.  We hear often from our young guests (and we never tire of it) the question or comment, "That must be a picture stuck on the telescope!"  Saturn just looks THAT good! We try very hard to give the public a good time.  Hopefully, most do.


My favorite part of being in the observatory other than sharing views through the telescopes is answering questions and those question run the gamut from very serious, scientific questions to silly questions about aliens or conspiracy theories.   We deal with the public and that means we deal with people from all facets of life and experience.  It's great fun.  I also love to teach and sometimes my answers to those questions can get a bit long-winded.  Usually the questioner is polite and listens...sometimes with rapt attention.  I know deep down inside, if I can touch just one person and ignite a love for the night sky and what it has to offer, all is worth it-especially if that one person is a youth with a whole life ahead of them.

Part of the experience at the observatory is a multimedia presentation by one of the staff.  I get to do these sometimes and I love them.  The talks are all designed by the speaker and it's a chance to entertain, teach, inform and just plain share the love we all have of the universe.  By far our best speaker is our observatory manager but then, that's the way it should be--he does them most often and he also teaches Astronomy courses at our local college.  He's a clown but a knowledgeable one (he's also likely my best male friend).

If this all sounds a bit like a sales presentation, well it is.  But that's because Sunriver Observatory is such a wonderful place.  As I said at the outset, I don't get to go there often enough at night anymore. Until we buy a vehicle that gets fantastic gas mileage, that's going to remain the case because I'm a volunteer in the evenings (I do other work for the organization I am paid for).  It's a 90+ mile round trip.  But as I also said, it's what I do and what I live for.  There are some people who work and then there's THIS.   Come and visit if you can, it'll be well worth the trip.

Sunriver Observatory is part of the Sunriver Nature Center and Observatory, a non-profit educational facility


  1. What a lovely place indeed, your enthusiasm is great!

  2. Whenever the weather guy mentions something about a constellation of an upcoming event in the night sky, I always think of you. :O)

  3. Oh, I will definitely have to take a journey to the observatory... I love celestial bodies :-)

    Thank you for such an informative post, and I can see why you love your work!

  4. It may have been a sales presentation but your enthusiasm is contagious and you make me want to check and see if there isn't an obvservatory near me.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this - wish I lived there and could go.

  6. Hi all and thank you for the kind comments. First off, I'm glad to be back blogging and secondly look forward to reading your work. For Michael and Steven, let me know where you live. I have a pretty complete listing of public observatories around the US. Just message me on my google account, LarryCminiv. :D

  7. I can feel your passion!

  8. I have fond memories of Observatories and Planetariums.

    At home we used to lay in the snow and chart the stars. Mom even found Native American names for the constellations.

    Thanks for bringing it all back.

  9. isn't it great to simply love the job you do...

  10. Wonderful post and great pictures. Thanks for reminding that there is also an observatory near me and I should be visiting it. Thanks.

  11. Such a wonderful post Larry! I have always been fascinated with Astronomy and what is beyond space and time. I am actually writing a time travel series and poems about the wonders of these celestial bodies. I totally can relate to your enthusiasm and joy you feel towards your work.Sunriver Nature Center Observatory must be heaven on earth :D

  12. My father ignited my interest in the stars, taking my sister and I up onto the roof (much to my mother's concern, but we never did fall off) and pointing out constellations and individual stars of note.
    Later, when I started college and was required to take a science sequence, I chose astronomy. Wow! Never knew so much math was involved! Passed it, tho. And I loved the few hours I had in the U of I observatory. Yeah, Saturn really does just look that good. : - )

  13. A fascinating job! Such a wonderful chance to teach and yet have the best time whilst working! Really interesting post (and the idea of a picture stuck on the end of the telescope really made me giggle!)

  14. I really enjoyed this piece. I would love to be a part of an observatory--but not aware of any with a telescope nearby. I have always dreamed of going to Alaska and finding one there--and just getting some great views of space.

    I think I would love to report for that job if I had it!! Cheers, Jenn


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