Holiday Telescope Gift-Giving Advice 2020

This year has been rough. Before I give any advice on telescopes, please consider inspiring those who were hardest hit. A donation to Astronomers Without Borders is a powerful gift since hope, inspired by a cosmic perspective, can be the most important gift of all.


1) Telescopes are for skywatching. That means you should think beyond the glass and metal telescope and think about what it represents!

Subscribe to a great sky-watching podcast, like Sky Tour.  At home, point your computer to www.heavens-above.com. On the go? Use your mobile device and dial up Heavens Above or download the android app: Heavens Above. On your Apple device, perhaps Star Chart is what you’ve needed all your life.

Really have the cosmic itch? See a star show at your local planetarium! (Make sure to ask which one is about constellations, though.) Go to your local skywatching sessions. Planetarium staff and telescope owners are friendly, polite, and love answering questions about the heavens.

NOTE: If you aren’t very interested in #1, you shouldn’t buy anything yet.

2) Want to buy something? What is your budget?

If a telescope is new and costs less than $200, it is likely plastic junk that will be hard to aim, hard to see through, and it will frustrate you into never using it again. If this is your budget, you have two options: binoculars or Craig’s List (or estate sales or other informal sales markets).

Ready to spend more? $400 is likely to get you a solid, satisfying piece of equipment along with good eyepieces and a case. Most will have a hand-paddle with buttons that will allow you to point the scope and align it to the sky easily. So which kind to buy?

I like this guide:  http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/types-of-telescopes/   

3) Now think about logistics, like telescope weight and bulk.

(The Celestron CPC-8 and the author hoping you aren’t thinking “weight” and “bulk”)

In that picture, I look really happy, right? But that 85-lb telescope plus eyepieces case, stepstool, and power pack to keep it running…it means I can’t just grab this all the time. And taking it camping? Only if my vehicle can pull right up to the observing site.

The scope I’ve had for 20 years, however, is the one below and I take it out ten times as often. It’s just easy, light, and while it doesn’t collect as much light or give me as many heavenly bodies to look at, it’s more than enough to see the Moon and planets and a few things I really want to show my friends. (You can’t see the smile in this photo, but it’s there.)

Meade ETX90

(The Meade ETX-90 projecting the Sun just before the August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse)

4) Where can you get your scope and eyepieces, tripod, and other accessories?

Pick up a copy of Astronomy Magazine or Sky & Telescope from your local bookstore’s magazine stands and flip through the ads. There are a lot of choices.

I own a device from each of the “big three” telescope manufacturers and I love them all. Don’t make me choose!

Celestron          Meade         Orion

…but, High Point Scientific has always given me balanced perspective regardless of the label on the telescope.

4) Want a more comprehensive guide of equipment? A thorough overview of how to select a telescope or set of binoculars, as well as what to do once you own it is written by a man who owns dozens of telescopes and reviews them professionally: Ed Ting. Check out his site http://www.scopereviews.com/begin.html

5) Last words of advice that might seem random, but you can thank me for them later:

  • Bug spray can destroy your optics. Don’t spray bug repellent near your eyepieces, telescope, finder scope, or filter sets. Don’t wipe your hands (or allow others to) on your telescopic equipment if you have bug spray oil on them.
  • Have kids and adults hold the footstool handle when looking through the eyepiece. If not, they a) could lose balance, and b) could grab your telescope and misalign it (or worse).
  • Fall, Winter, or Spring: Layers. And fingerless gloves. And hats. And blankets. And hot chocolate or coffee (off to the side, of course).
  • Cut off the mouth of a red balloon and put the remaining balloon snugly over your flashlights. Red light doesn’t harm your night vision, but other colors will!

and most importantly…

  • Skywatching is best done with friends and family. Sharing this experience means, among other things, not being terrified of accidentally falling upward into the sky and floating away into lonely and empty space by yourself. But it mostly means enjoying time pondering philosophy, science, art, and folklore with your own special community.

Good luck, Happy Holidays, and may all your skies be filled with stars!

To find out how 62 astronauts learned about the stars at Morehead Planetarium and the man who made that training program happen, check out Tony Jenzano, Astronaut Trainer.

Charlie Duke’s Return to Chapel Hill

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(Photos Courtesy of UNC Wilson Library’s Durham Herald-Sun Photographic Collection)

From 1968 to 1972, humans repeatedly went to the Moon, venturing there nine times and landing on it successfully six times.  In practical terms, it means that 2018 to 2022 is a period of celebration and reflection for all of us as we look back fifty years to that powerful period of our human development. For space enthusiasts right now, there are hundreds of celebrations to attend, meet and greet photo opportunities with astronauts to seek out, documentaries to watch at film festivals (or via Netflix), and dozens of new books to read.

For one of these fifty-year celebrations, Brigadier General Charlie Duke—one of twenty-four men to travel to the Moon and one of twelve who walked on its surface—made his return to Chapel Hill, North Carolina on February 22, 2019.

Apollo 16 astronaut Duke regaled an audience of hundreds with his tales of astronaut training, some of which took place at UNC’s Morehead Planetarium, plus his adventures helping other astronauts get to the Moon, and then finally walking on its surface himself. It was surreal and otherworldly, listening to one of four living moon-walkers speak with humility about never thinking he would be picked from his peers to make one of these grand voyages.

The video that Charlie Duke live-narrated showed him comically attempting to fight against his bulky spacesuit to pick up a moon rock and, after several attempts, triumphantly catching it off an accidental toss only to realize he’d dropped the sample bag that it was to go into. He discussed a few of the scientific experiments he and John Young placed so that scientists back on Earth could learn more about the Moon’s history and physical structure.

Duke showed Young driving an electric car, the lunar rover, on the surface of the Moon and showed what the ride looked like for them using footage gathered by a rover-mounted camera. The rover kicked up quite a bit of moon dust that fell eerily back to the surface. The absence of air to interfere with dust falling highlighted the otherworldliness as that dust refused to make small clouds or puff out in a breeze that simply wasn’t there.

Duke brought us back to Earth as he quipped, “If you ever want a million dollar car with a dead battery, I can tell you where to find it.”

He recalled being Capcom during Apollo 11’s landing in 1969. As chief communicator for Mission Control, his voice was heard by over a billion people as he spoke with Neil Armstrong during and after that landing. Duke said that in spite of the tension of those most-watched minutes of any Apollo flight, it was gratifying that all his friends and neighbors from the Carolinas were happy he was doing a lot of the talking. Duke recounted, “They told me, ‘I only understood the parts when you were talking.’ I guess it was because of my southern accent.”

As one of Charlie Duke’s assistants for his recent visit, I not only heard his talk but also had the good fortune to drive him and his wife, Dotty Duke (UNC ’62), to and from the venue. I stood nearby and took photos of him warmly engaging with people during a meet and greet. I was able to listen in during his small press conference.

By the end of the evening, what struck me was not that he was an amazing hero who took big risks to help our country pioneer a new frontier. While that is certainly true, what struck me was his genuine attempt at connection with me—with anyone he met that evening—and the love for his fellow human beings that was evident in each interaction.

Out of over 100 billion people who have ever lived or the 7.6 billion currently living, only twenty-four people have ever gone to the Moon and only twelve walked upon it. If anyone could brag, be arrogant, or act like an angel who has just come here for a visit, it’s these men. They’ve literally touched the Moon. Charlie Duke, however, speaks of his time on the Moon with words like “an honor” and “humbling.”

Perhaps it is because he went to the Moon that we admire him. His warmth, humility, and love of his neighbors is, however, an even better reason to do so.

General Duke, thanks to you and Mrs. Duke for the visit. Come back soon!

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Tonight at The Frontier

Update: Check out the replay here: https://video.unctv.org/video/rtp-180-outer-space-michael-neece-5xtrqn/

Update: Thanks to everyone who showed up or who streamed this live. A replay link will be provided soon for anyone who missed it or who wants to hear about it again.


Previous: Tune in to stream my five-minute version of what happened when astronauts came to Chapel Hill.

Stream it (starting at 6 PM): http://www.ncchannel.org/stream/

(photo courtesy of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center archives)

Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean has died

Chapel Hill, NC
May 26, 2018
by Michael G. Neece

The fourth man to walk on the surface of the moon, Alan Bean, took ill on May 11 and today has died. It was widely misreported that he died yesterday, and as much as this writer wishes this were a continuation of misreporting, it sadly seems to be accurate this time that he has left us.

Bean was one of 62 astronauts to train at Morehead Planetarium during Morehead’s astronaut training era from 1960 – 1975.

In this photo, he is posing with then planetarium director Tony Jenzano, the third director of Morehead Planetarium from 1952 – 1981, with the 2.5-ton Zeiss Model VI planetarium star projector.

Alan Bean, born March 15, 1932, was selected to NASA’s third group of astronauts and first visited and trained at Morehead Planetarium in March of 1964. He next trained with us in April 1966 as backup commander for Gemini 10. He walked on the moon with Pete Conrad during the Apollo 12 mission in November 1969, becoming the fourth human to do so. Alan Bean returned to Morehead in February 1970 as he trained for his Skylab 3 mission which took place in 1973.

Group of 14 (NASA Astronaut Group 3) signed portrait, courtesy of the Carol CJ Jenzano collection, copyright 2018.
Group of 14 (NASA Astronaut Group 3) signed portrait, courtesy of the Carol CJ Jenzano collection, copyright 2018. Alan Bean is 4th from the left, front row.

My first exposure to Alan Bean’s story was through Andrew Chaikin’s amazing book about Apollo astronaut stories, A Man on the Moon. I next found a copy of Alan Bean’s artwork and his further stories in this magnificent book co-authored by Andrew Chaikin, Apollo: An Eyewitness Account by Astronaut/Explorer Artist/Moonwalker.

Like everyone at Morehead Planetarium & Science Center, my heart is heavy with loss at the news of Alan Bean’s passing. Thank you for gracing us with your adventures and your artwork that captured them and made us feel we’d lived them with you.

Unsung Heroes get to Sing out

While writing a book about astronaut heroes coming to Chapel Hill to train at Morehead Planetarium, it would be easy to overlook contributions of some hidden heroes, like Dr. Jocelyn Gill (fourth figure from the left in the photo above, between Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard).

With her experience at MIT and her PhD from Yale in 1959, Dr. Gill became the Chief of In-flight Sciences for the Gemini missions in the mid-1960s. She visited Morehead Planetarium on several occasions in order to help astronauts and astronaut trainers integrate training with science goals for various missions.

I will surely uncover more of her story as I dig through archives, but if you know her stories, or any others I should know, please reach out to me at info@michaelgneece.com.