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Gary Emerson helped the Hubble telescope "see."

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2008


Star Trek

Astronomy has taken Gary Emerson from inner-city Chicago to Silver City. In between, he helped give the Hubble Space Telescope its "eyes."

By Jim Kelly

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Before the word "aerospace" had even been coined, Silver City's Gary Emerson knew what he wanted to do with his life.

Gary Emerson and observatory
Gary Emerson in the doorway to his Silver City observatory.

"Three days after Sputnik was launched, I was able to observe the rocket body going over Chicago. By the end of the next year I had joined the Chicago Astronomical Society and was tracking satellites for the Smithsonian. I was hooked!" Emerson recalls. "And I was only in the seventh and eighth grades."

That youthful enthusiasm for satellites would eventually lead to a key role in one of astronomical history's most important satellites — the Hubble Space Telescope. While working for Ball Aerospace in Colorado, Emerson helped give this eye in the sky its power to see into the deepest reaches of space. Launched on April 24,1990, by the space shuttle Discovery, the 24,500-pound, $1.5 billion Hubble took its first picture on May 20, 1990, of the Star Cluster NGC 3532. Nearly two decades later, the cameras and sensors that Emerson helped design continue to transmit about 120 gigabytes of scientific data every week — the equivalent of about 3,600 feet of books on a shelf.

Before Sputnik, however, Emerson had just been looking forward to turning 16, so he could legally quit school and get a job driving a beer truck. But the start of the space race and the intervention of a dedicated inner-city science teacher, who ignited Emerson's imagination with field trips to the Chicago Planetarium and nearby observatories, raised his sights — literally. Soon, what Emerson wanted do was explore outer space.

"That science teacher was always looking for a spark in a kid," Emerson remembers. "I can honestly say that my seventh-grade teacher shaped my entire life."

As his interest developed, Emerson found that astronomy transported him light years from his inner-city neighborhood. "Here I was with this little telescope, out on this third-floor landing, in this raunchy Chicago neighborhood, and I was able to explore the universe. I was really motivated to get out of there."

Out of high school, Emerson joined the Marine Corps. There he gained important electronics skills that would come to serve him well in his career in aerospace.

Emerson's first job out of the Marines was with a small instrument company in Colorado. Because of his progressive astronomy experience and his electronics background, however, he wasn't being challenged in that first job, so it was off to Las Cruces and his first taste of Silver City.

"We would take a few side trips from time to time, and I was always impressed with the particularly dark skies in the Silver City area," he recalls.

While attending New Mexico State University in 1966, Emerson hooked up with a Northwestern University NASA contract job at a field site nearby.

"This was just prior to the Apollo missions, and at the time, very little was known about the surface of the moon. This was a unique assignment dealing with lunar observations, and one of the best jobs I've ever had," Emerson says, with a twinkle of fun in his eye.

The job's objective was to observe the moon, looking for short-lived transient activities like volcanic eruptions, moon quakes and an exotic phenomenon called outgassing. The latter refers to a slow release of gasses trapped, frozen, absorbed or adsorbed in material such as rock and/or soil.

"NASA was afraid that they might set the astronauts down in a dangerous area," Emerson says, "and there had been flashes and brightenings reported on the moon's surface. To this day, we don't know what those phenomena were."

The years following Emerson's lunar-astronomy experience found him continuing his education at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There he signed on with the National Center for Atmospheric Research as a solar observer. Solar observation is a very particular science, and most laypersons would never even think of astronomers exploring the skies during daylight hours. But for Emerson this was a dream job.

"Any day that was nice, I was out recording solar observations," he says, "and they even asked me to make a couple of site surveys looking for prospective solar observatory locations on Colorado mountain peaks."

During these years Emerson's electronics background came into play once again with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, where he was involved with flying experiments on NASA aircraft, specifically with spacecraft instruments. He also ran the Mt. Evans Observatory for two summers. Mt. Evans is the world's highest observatory.

"The sky up there is just unbelievable. It's so dark!" he says.

Emerson's experience and skills in aerospace, astronomy and electronics led him down some pretty exotic roads, to places like India, Kenya and Antarctica. But perhaps none was more unusual than a treasure-hunting expedition to Madagascar.

"I signed on with the expedition to operate a particularly exotic metal detector," he said. "It was quite an adventure."

Of course, high-end exotic equipment was commonplace in Emerson's career as well as his work history. Even back in his first job as a lunar observer he worked with very high-tech experimental telescopes and instruments.

By 1978, Emerson had gone to work for Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colo., and his projects had become more exotic than ever. His work in advanced technologies at Ball gave life to the most advanced telescope ever conceived and constructed, the Hubble.

"Essentially I was working in 'science fiction,'" Emerson says, "Our team designed nearly all the cameras and diagnostic science instruments on the Hubble.

"Back in those years, the government and NASA were fully into space exploration, but now NASA has practically been gutted," he goes on. "There has practically been a war on science over the past eight years, and Hubble II is sitting in a clean room up at Ball. It probably won't be launched until at least 2015, if we're lucky."

The images we see coming from the Hubble today, as well as the data recorded by many scientific instruments in other parts of the galaxy, are a direct result of Emerson's work.

But the Hubble project hasn't been Emerson's only passion over the past 30 years or so. He designed, built and used a fully functional observatory at his home in Boulder. From work done there he has not only published results in a wide variety of journals and periodicals, but discovered the only asteroid ever recorded from the state of Colorado.

The equipment in that first "homemade" observatory rivaled even that of Ball Aerospace itself. A feature in the company newsletter said, "His cameras are impressive. He has two 10-inch reflector telescopes, a 12-inch Schmidt camera, which is a high-performance astronomical camera, and is building a 17-inch telescope. He makes a lot of observations of comets and variable stars, which is what many of Ball's instruments are designed to do. He uses three high-quality CCD cameras...which can detect objects fainter than astronomers using photographic plates on the California Institute of Technology's 200-inch Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain."

As a result of the work cited in the Ball newsletter, Emerson's first book, Doing Astronomy with CCD Cameras, was published.

In addition to presenting his personal research in a number of professional papers delivered at a variety of astronomical societies, Emerson has been published in Smithsonian Air and Space magazine, as well as other publications. His images have also been used in documentary films, astronomy calendars and even postcards.

Besides his constant efforts to track satellites, Emerson has completed assignments from such prestigious agencies as the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Rockwell International and the United States Air Force, all from his home observatory. He also taught aerospace engineering at Colorado State, and consulted on a variety of professional projects.

Throughout his career, Emerson never lost the memory of those dark skies that so impressed him when he visited Silver City back in the late 1960s. So when time came to retire, he returned to that little town on the edge of the Gila.

"I've retired to astronomy now. It's my full-time passion, and there is still so much to discover," he says. "I guess I'm just a very inquisitive person. It all still wows me."

After selling his home in Boulder and dismantling his observatory there, Emerson turned to the construction of a new observatory here in Grant County. Construction was completed in September, and most of his telescopes, cameras and scientific instruments are up and running.

He says, "I'm an amateur now, and a lot of really important work has been done by amateurs. Nearly all the supernovas were found by amateurs. I'm still interested in challenging conventional wisdom in the field of astronomy, and look forward to taking on projects the big telescopes just can't get around to doing because of limited funding."

As if Emerson's life in outer space weren't exciting enough, he also has a few things going on down here on terra firma. He's produced a couple of award-winning documentary films, on the history of wind power in America ("Windsong") and the environmentally sensitive reclamation of a mine in Colorado ("Sand and Gravel Is for the Birds"). Besides taking three gold medals at major film festivals, the wind-power documentary was chosen as one of only 10 films of its kind to be shown at Cannes, and has aired on PBS many times.

Emerson's world travels have left him with thousands of photographs of foreign lands and exotic peoples. Some of those images can be seen from time to time on the walls of local business establishments in the Silver City area.

In the coming year, Emerson will be teaching some short astronomy courses for the Western Institute for Lifelong Learning (WILL), at WNMU. See www.will-learning.com for course information.

In retirement, years after that initial burst of enthusiasm as Sputnik orbited overhead, Gary Emerson remains cautiously optimistic about the future of space exploration. "There are still some great minds in the world, doing great work," he says. "It's all harder to do now, but we need to keep asking the big questions like 'Who are we?' and 'Where did we come from?' instead of just making statements. We need to do science for the sake of science itself."

To learn more about the Hubble Space Telescope, see hubblesite.org




Jim Kelly is a retired journalist who's also
relocated to Silver City, in his case from California.

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