Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

California Stargazer Turns City Streets into Outdoor Observatories. Seeing Stars: Astronomer Brings Planets to the People

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

California Stargazer Turns City Streets into Outdoor Observatories. Seeing Stars: Astronomer Brings Planets to the People

Article excerpt

Saturday night at 8 is community crunch time in Old Pasadena, Calif. Streets and sidewalks are jammed. Restaurants are crammed. It's SRO in bookstores, cafes, and movie theaters.

Into the humanity jam comes a T-shirted man in shorts and sandals. Next to a parking meter in front of Boulevard Footwear and Bootery, he unfolds what could be a grenade launcher or a bazooka and aims it at the eastern sky. Amid quizzical looks from startled shoppers, he drapes a sign over his ominous contraption that at once signals his mission and evokes a sigh of collective relief: "Telescope viewing. It's free! JPL Astronomy Club."

Known as the "Sidewalk Astronomer," Dave Doody, an engineer at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has made it his personal quest to bring planets to the people. Wielding a 200-millimeter Tinsley telescope on loan from JPL's Telescopes in Education project, Mr. Doody focuses the enormous instrument on a flash of white light about 30 degrees up and 20 degrees south of due east.

Tonight's feature: Jupiter, complete with streaks of red and brown on the planet's surface and four of its 18 moons. Immediately, a line forms halfway around the block. One by one, people of all ages peer through an eyepiece that juts out of the scope's lower end.

Sharing the sky

"Why are you doing this?" asks a reporter from local Channel 9 who has stopped to do a feature for the 10 p.m. news.

"Because this is where the people are," says Doody.

He is not the first stargazer to share his heavenward visions with those who can't make it to the mountains, where most high-powered astronomy scopes peer through the slits of observatory domes. A San Francisco group has long taken telescopes to Death Valley, Yosemite, and other spots for people to view, and there are accounts of $1, "buck-a-peek" setups from New Orleans to Maine. There was also amateur astronomer John Dobson, from whom Doody got his idea a decade ago.

But by most accounts, Doody has been one of the most successful. His sheer audacity in setting up in the midst of crowds and city lights attracts about 1,000 people a night - each willing to wait in lines stretching a city block and farther. …

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