Breakfast before 14,000 Feet

Base cradle of the telescope (inside the observatory dome)

Up early again for a seven AM departure for Mauna Kea, breakfast and acclimatizing at Halepohaku (the stone house). Grant Matsushige, ever-smiling Senior Instrumentation Specialist (engineer) was the driver for the team: Instrumentation Manager (engineer) Kevin Ho and Detector (engineer) Jeff Ward.

The conversation in the vehicle on the ride up was illuminating. I asked them about whether or not they’d always wanted to be engineers. They all recall having the same need, as children, to pull apart their toys to see how they worked. And they all claim to still have that ‘let’s solve the puzzle’ feeling about their work. The mood became somewhat hilarious as they spoke of making things ‘astronomer proof’ referring to world-class astronomers in much the same way you’d speak of over-sugared two year olds. Grant had just made a switch, which was completely idiot proof and much safer to use, and Jeff was both impressed and grateful at this new innovation. Grant himself is Hawaiian and spoke about growing up without the benefit of anyone suggesting he could be an engineer. So now he is committed to visiting schools and asking little Hawaiian kids things like: ‘so you like computer games — do you know who designs them and makes them?’ He likes to get them on their own home ground and talks with them, planting seeds of ‘maybe someday when you grow up you might want to be an engineer.’ Kevin was quite busy dealing with a conference call meeting on his phone during the car trip up — this was to prove problematic later in the day.

Kevin and Jeff sort out the optics

Bolstered with safety advice from Sharon, I chugged water, coffee and tea like no tomorrow and also had some chocolate. It was a very important day for the telescope as all the final arrangements for going from day observing to night observation had to be sorted out  — different imaging equipment had to be installed and other stuff detached. It was all go and I got all of it on camera. As well, I went up in the blue cage to the very roof of the dome and got a bird’s eye view of something not a lot of people ever see — the heart of an internationally famous telescope. Jeff was my designated ‘keeper’ for the day and he was very friendly and explained everything as things unfolded. He was a roofer and sort of shuffled his way into being an electrical engineer. He is from New Orleans and played in a blues band as a professional musician. His partner, Nadine is an astronomer working at the telescope as well.

Man in Machine

With more liquids and sugar, I did fairly well, although I was certainly feeling the altitude once again as I roved around with the camera. I had to take rest breaks from time to time so as not to be too dizzy on the internal catwalk as I moved around the telescope. On one of my breaks in the kitchen/lounge area, I ran into a very green Kevin, who had been up in the two- man cage with Jeff, working on optics when he suddenly got hit with nausea and had to come down. He took some oxygen, aspirin and strong coffee and rested for a short time before getting back to work. Kevin has been up to the summit hundreds of times — it just goes to show you — you never know when the altitude is going to hit you. On consideration, Kevin thought it was the conference call in the bumpy four-wheel drive ride up the mountain, constantly reading and looking at a small screen, which was the precursor for the incident up in the cage when he felt ill.

World famous Mega Cam up close

The day was fairly challenging for the team in that several technical problems HAD to be solved before nightfall when the astronomer observers do their work. Time on the telescope is carefully meted out to various scientific teams from around the world. Even a half hour of telescope time costs thousands and thousands of dollars and if the technology isn’t working, that time isn’t recoverable, either in terms of optimal celestial observation or money. If a specific heavenly body is only going to be in range for a short period of time, that time must not be wasted. It is an amazing feat to keep everything working properly — mechanics, electrical systems, software, optics etc. And doing it with about half as much oxygen as the brain needs. Yes, all these people, who started out as curious children, pulling apart their toys, are the heroes of the ‘scope. Generally, we don’t often think of the support people who keep a telescope going — we think of astronomers gazing up at the night sky. But the people who keep everything chugging are heroic and amazing. It was quite moving to be there on a hard day and watch as everyone solved everything. Way to go, CFHT!

Kevin and Greg during an engineering crisis


~ by Colleen McLaughlin Barlow on November 11, 2011.

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