John Breunig (opinion): Oh, the things this CT telescope has seen
The open panel on the dome of the Stamford Observatory made it resemble a massive mailbox, so when the crane pulled out the telescope, it may as well have been picking up a 2,000-pound package to deliver to its future home in a telescope museum in Magdalena, N.M.
It was intended as a farewell. For me, it was a reveal, as it was the first time I’d seen the 22-inch Gregory-Maksutov telescope, even though it was anchored at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center for 57 years. The observatory will soon be demolished, with a new Planetarium & Astronomy Center slated to make its debut in fall 2024. And while the old telescope is gone, the museum will be able to access its images from New Mexico.
I walked over to a conveniently balanced quartet of Democrats and Republicans and posed one question: Did any of you see the telescope when you were kids?
“I’m not sure,” state Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, replied.
State Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich/Stamford, shook his head
“I can’t remember,” Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons said, though she doubted it.
Blumenthal, Fazio and Simmons are Millennials. They were joined by former Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, a Baby Boomer.
“I was there when they installed it (in 1965),” Fedele cracked.
His wife, Carol, was the only person able to summon memories of the telescope in use, back when they took their children to see the stars.
“The first few times they didn’t know what they were seeing,” she recalled. “We took them in the evening. It was a bit of a challenge because it was bedtime.”
The observatory was once a beacon of the space age, but for decades has seemed like a structure lost in time, akin to something on the edge of town that Shaggy and Scooby-Doo would sneak into while investigating one of their mysteries.
The center’s CEO, Melissa Mulrooney, saw the telescope for the first time when she was interviewing for the job 17 years ago. She walked out on the viewing deck and considered how the site included a working farm in a city, a fine arts museum in a historical mansion, a preschool and an observatory.
“I’ve got to have this job,” she recalls thinking.
She also had one question to ask. It was one she shared with most other visitors to the site: Why is the planetarium in the mansion and the observatory all the way across the farm?
So the second phase of the site’s re-imagination is the planned 10,000 square foot Planetarium & Astronomy Center “to make sense of the campus” and bring programs under the same roof for the first time in the museum’s 86-year history.
Let’s peek through the other end of the telescope to look back at the museum’s early days. Back then, it consisted of three rooms in a bank at 300 Main St.
On the night of Dec. 8, 1941 — yes, the day after the “date which will live in infamy” — about 500 people gathered in Stamford for the dedication of a different landmark telescope at the museum. This 10-inch reflector telescope allowed guests to peek at several moons as well as Saturn. Their eyes were on the heavens, but their thoughts were earthbound.
“In these days of war it is a good thing for us to direct our minds and thoughts to celestial objects and so provide ourselves with a rallying point in a world of uncertainty,” Stamford Schools Superintendent Leon Staples commented at the event.
A couple years later, the same telescope was mounted at Hope Street and Glenbrook Road, where it was used to photograph a lunar eclipse on Aug. 26, 1942 between 12:35 and 1:35 a.m. The photographer was Robert Cox, who chaired the Stamford Astronomical Society and had worked at Hayden Planetarium in New York.
Stamford was striving to look deeper into space even before President John F. Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 to park a man on the moon.
It took vision to make the observatory a reality. Plans for the new telescope were announced in 1959, deeming it the largest one in the United States with public access. The architect’s drawings of the 1960 observatory look like a tracing of the one now poised for demolition.
It would be another six years until the telescope was completed, with parts reportedly coming from 150 different companies and individuals. Perkin-Elmer in Norwalk made lenses, mirrors and the primary tube. CBS Laboratories donated monitors.
About 400 people turned out for the dedication of the telescope on June 13, 1965. CBS News reporter Richard C. Hottelet, who lived in Wilton, wryly observed from the podium that “we are dragging our political differences into outer space.”
Other memorable public gatherings included the 1969 moon landing, when astronomer Charles Scovil controlled the telescope but cautioned that Apollo 11 “would likely not be visible.”
Scovil, who was curator of the observatory for more than 50 years, would use the telescope to study variable stars from about dusk to 5 a.m. The open dome meant he toiled in some pretty frosty temperatures in winter months. He sometimes sought warmth downstairs, where he would catch up on “X-Files” episodes on a VCR. His vigilance invited him to visions of supernovas, comets and meteors (but no UFOs).
Every time I took my son to the farm, he would inevitably settle on the steps leading to the observatory. The Kid also had just one question.
“Can we go in?”
I always had to say no. It was typically open to the public for a few hours on Friday nights, and was eventually shuttered in 2018 as a result of deterioration.
So while Mulrooney, Simmons, Fedele, Blumenthal, Fazio and others posed with the grounded telescope, I asked if I could go into the empty observatory. The OK came with a warning about the mold.
I climbed the stairs, past work spaces, posters and tools. All were in the past. It was hard not to laugh at my horrible timing. I’d finally made it to the dome and its main attraction had just left after 57 years.
Still, I looked up, through the slit and toward the sky framed by perfect New England foliage.
Even veiled by light, the stars reliably tug us to ponder the future.