Day 22: Tourist

McDonald Observatory to Marathon, TX
Date: 01/23/2013
Distance traveled: 71.36 miles (1251.73 miles total)
GPS tracks:

Me and John on the catwalk of the 107″. The 82″ (the first telescope built here in 1938) can be seen in the background. At the time they were built, these telescopes were amongst the biggest in the world. Now they’re tiny by comparison, but still quite useful. Research is actively going on using these telescopes on a daily basis.

Today I put the tourist back into bicycle touring.

Starting off first thing in the morning, I trekked up the hill to go visit the McDonald Observatory’s telescopes up close and personal. John gives an excellent tour – we talked for at least 2 hours about his work ranging from the computing and control systems that guide the telescopes to the maintenance required to keep them functional. John is wicked smart and clearly enjoys the tinkering he gets to do at his job – he has to be a relative jack of all trades. We started our tour at ‘the 107’, which is what the Harlan J. Smith telescope is called due to its 107 inch diameter mirror. It was built in the late 1960’s. The thing weighs 160 tons, but moves with grace and precision. We went out on the dome’s catwalk to get a view of the Davis Mountains which surround the observatory. From there, we went over to the telescope control room, and then to check out ‘the 82’ which was built in 1938. You can imagine it takes quite a bit of work to keep a precision instrument from the 1930’s running well. :)

View of the mountains from the telescope’s catwalk.

Standing in front of the 107″.

John explaining how the 82″works while filling it up with liquid nitrogen to keep it cool. Focused light can really heat things up.

Motors, gears.

Built to last.

I personally don’t know much about astronomy so a bunch of the actual research done on these telescopes went over my head. For example, we talked for a while about how astronomy helped to prove the theory of plate tectonics. The rest of it went in one ear and out the other. What did stick was the odd conglomeration of ancient and new tools that keep these telescopes useful. I found it interesting that the problems they were having were pretty common computing problems. The X server keeps crashing on this Linux box. This bus interface doesn’t have a USB translator, so we need to keep this ancient Sun Spark workstation up and running so we can use this particular camera. We can’t upgrade this machine with RedHat version whatever because the controller drivers don’t work on newer kernels. The hodgepodge of Linux, Mac, Windows, and Solaris would drive me nuts!

Many thanks go to John and Deb for hosting me for the night and the awesome tour!

John at work at ‘mission control’.

This old NOVA computer from Data General used to control one of the telescopes. If you’re a computer geek and you’ve never read The Soul of a New Machine, you should.

The domes as seen from the road.

Fast and fun road down to Fort Davis.

I finally got on the bike at 11am and rolled downhill rather quickly to Fort Davis. The scenery was magnificent. The wind was favorable until I got into Fort Davis where it started blasting me head on. I took this as a sign that it was time for lunch, and to do some more touring. I spent an hour or so at the old fort. It was pretty interesting. The only reason it existed was to protect travelers on the road between El Paso and San Antonio. One of the more interesting things about the court-martial of Second Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point who served at the fort. Later on (in 1976) the army gave him a posthumous honorable discharge, and 1999 he received a full presidential pardon.

The officer’s houses are in the background, the barracks to the right.

Inside the barracks.

Lt. Henry O. Flipper

And then I finally, really, started biking. The weather has finally turned warm – high 70’s, low 80’s – and I’m loving it.

Lots of ranch land out in these parts.

Somewhere along the route I got stopped by crazy lady who expected $25/night to stay at her house. She wanted to know where to advertise her house to other cyclists. I told her she should try “the internet”. Mostly I was just pissed at her for stopping me mid-climb. Don’t ever stop a bicyclist who’s going uphill. It’s rude.

So sad.

Lovely sunset.

The best part of the day was getting into Marathon. I rolled up and immediately met Ed, Uriel, and Meredith who were out in the hotel/campground courtyard enjoying a beer. After I got showered and my camp site set up they came over and asked if they could buy me dinner. So nice! So unexpected. They are on vacation biking around these parts. Uriel and Meredith are recently married. Uriel has biked across the US at least once and done several other bicycle tours in other parts of the world. We had a great dinner together at the 12 Gage Restaurant, adjacent to the Gage Hotel which was just up the street from our hotel. What a great way to end the day!

Uriel, Meredith & Ed (picture taken the next morning).

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