Atop Mt. Wilson, retired engineers keep alive astronomy’s ‘Sistine Chapel’

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Dressed in parkas and knit caps, the three volunteers lug crates of power tools and spooled wire into the gleaming mountaintop edifice that some have called astronomy’s “Sistine Chapel” and immediately start tinkering.

In 1904, workers installed the first telescope at the still uncompleted Mt. Wilson Observatory. For much of the 20th century, astronomers with names like Hale and Hubble used it and the new telescopes it sprouted — the 100-inch reflector and three solar telescopes followed the initial 60-incher — as a figurative launch pad for exploration that changed our understanding of the cosmos.

Gradually, though, financial support waned along with the observatory’s cutting-edge status, and for the last 20 years its telescopes, still impressive by any standard, rely on the kind attention of a small volunteer team of retired space industry electrical engineers, most now in their 70s and 80s.

So it is that on a morning when parts of the San Gabriels are topped with snow, Kenneth Evans is on a ladder, his head lamp fixed on a new sensor switch for a 100-inch reflecting telescope that dominated the world of astronomy for more than three decades.

Nearby, William Leflang and Gale Gant test the wiring of a control console.

Dusting off his hands, Evans tells Leflang to “give it some power.”

He pivots to eyeball the sensor, which will improve the scope’s ability to track the movement of celestial objects, and with a grand wave of his grease-covered hands, says, “Works great.”

 

 

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