Here’s a way to test the depths of how interesting Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory can be: Go when it’s daylight. And completely overcast.
I’d like to say this was scientific method on my part, but a barrage of post-New Year’s presidential tweets had put me in an existential mood, and the usual spot for recalibrating my perspective on life—perched at the window seat of the Monte Vista Hotel’s coffee lounge, reading and watching hippies go by—was failing me. So, I grabbed my teenager by the arm and off we went to nearby Mars Hill, on a blustery Tuesday afternoon.
“This is so random,” she protested. “Why don’t we just go tonight, so we can see the stars?”
“I like random,” I said. “It’s why we’re all here, after all.”
There was also the matter of this being our last day of vacation and the clouds showing no sign of clearing. Ultimately, for a 14-year-old, she didn’t mind too much. She’d recently started collecting space pins and patches for her school backpack, and she bought a retro space-shuttle shirt with her Christmas money. Why? She couldn’t say, and I couldn’t guess. Maybe science was cool again, as an open act of national middle-school rebellion.
Either way, with random space appreciation as our joint mission, we drove up the steep and winding Mars Hill Road through misty forest to the Lowell campus, where I hoped to find an antidote for my neuro funk.
I hadn’t been to the observatory since I lived in Flagstaff a couple of decades ago, but I remembered it was famous for helping map the moon in the 1960s, the discovery of Pluto in 1930s, and Percival Lowell’s fanatical search for life on Mars, dating back to the late 1800s. It is also why, beyond the myriad craft-beer taps, espresso machines, cheap motels and outdoorsy tourists, this eclectic mountain town has long been a hotbed of astro-geological studies at its core. A quick Googling confirmed that it is not only historic but peaking in relevance today. In fact, the collection of about 30 buildings, 20 doctors of astronomy and six telescopes was named one of the “100 Most Important Places in the World,” according to Time magazine in 2011.
That, of course, was before news became fake.
Atop the hill we checked into the Steele Visitor Center and paid our fare: $23 total. The young man behind the desk unfolded a big brochure and began checking available items of interest with his pen faster than I could process them, but the main takeaways were that many activities were “weather dependent” and the 3 o’clock “Lowell Tour” was about to start.
I extracted my daughter from the gift shop and we joined the group in the auditorium for the introductory slide show. A young woman named Lisa was our guide, and she filled us in on the observatory’s timeline, from how a wealthy Boston astronomer picked a little railroad/lumber town in Arizona as the spot to his set up his big telescope (high elevation, normally clear skies) to its rise to a bonafide important place that had branched out (Lowell viewing outposts include the amazing galaxy-hunting Discovery telescope 40 miles out of town) and earned a long list of credits (the New Horizons Pluto flyby project, finding evidence of dark matter and universe expansion, discovering Uranus’ rings). We walked by some of the offices where astronomers are engaged in a wide range of studies, including the hunt for earth-threatening asteroids and the search for life-bearing planets in other solar systems.
Lisa pointed out the newly renovated Pluto telescope dome, whose grand reopening will be March 10, and someday soon it’ll have a new observing plaza with several smaller telescopes for easy public viewing. We stopped at the Mausoleum where, after some time spent in a shallow grave nearby, Dr. Lowell was entombed with dignity and a lot of granite a century ago.
Dr. Lowell, it seems, was an interesting fit in Flagstaff—he was the world-traveling, Harvard-educated, “horseless carriage”-driving aristocrat up on the hill amid the largely blue-collar citizenry below, and while they respected him, they were “not over-awed” by his presence, according to Mountain Town (1994, Northland Publishing). When Lowell wasn’t mapping the canals of Mars, he would occasionally engage the community (which had given him land for his observatory), serving on the board of trade, giving Fourth of July speeches and even playing Santa on Christmas for local children. An old-fashioned polymath, he also tackled topics beyond science on the national stage, such as in a 1916 speech that, according to Mountain Town, proposed “immigration be stringently limited to protect the American workingman” from the inevitable onslaught of foreign competition after World War I. This was such a popular opinion that county Republicans wanted Lowell to run for the Senate. Some things never change in Arizona.
Lisa led us into the place where Lowell did his most-remembered work: the Clark Telescope Dome, named for the instrument that he had built in 1896, then sent by rail to Flagstaff and hauled up the hill by donkeys. A couple of local bicycle repairmen built the structure out of native Ponderosa pine, and thanks to a recent refurbishing, it looks today like Lowell might walk in any second, slide onto his old elevated desk chair and peer into the lens of the six-ton instrument, looking for those little green men.
“He wanted to find the martians who were building those canals,” Lisa told us. “And he spent 16 years looking for them.”
That idea was also a popular in America at the time, partly due to Lowell. While the telescope let him down on that quest, it often came through in the ensuing century. Both eras make it worth staring at now, especially as your tour guide dispenses various fun facts and anecdotes. My favorite was how the telescope was used to draw the first maps of moon in preparation of the Apollo landing, and that Neil Armstrong eyed the lunar soil through this very telescope before becoming first human to step on it.
My daughter heard Lisa say that the Clark telescope is used for public viewing of the moon, just as Armstrong did, as well as the Orion Nebula, the massive cloud some 1,300 light years away, where stars are born. Yes, I promised her, we would have to come back at night. Just not tonight—too overcast. But soon. It would be too mind-blowing to miss.
The public can pick from a litany of other nightly events, too: telescope viewings around campus (depending what’s in season celestially), presentations on the solar system and galaxies by Lowell astronomers, an outdoor “Constellation Tour” with a laser pointer, and an auditorium talk on “Life in the Universe.”
On the way back to the visitor center, we took a few minutes to admire what Lisa called the best terrestrial view in Flagstaff, an overlook showcasing the city below and the volcanic terrain in the distance. It’s also a popular spot to watch the moonrise on the horizon. At night.
We walked by Rotunda Museum, a portion of which is devoted to displays about the observatory’s discoveries and history. Like the Putnam Collection Center, which houses an array of artifacts such as young Percival’s first telescope, his touring car, and hand-drawn Mars globes replete with canals, you can only get in for an hour once a day starting at 1 p.m.
Back at the visitor center, we caught part one of the Space Theater’s two films, “Life of an Astronomer,” and roamed the interactive Space Guard Academy exhibit, where kids can pretend to be cadets training to become asteroid experts. Then as my daughter headed back to the gift shop to peruse the potential backpack adornments, I sneaked into the tail end of the “Solar Program,” a show that apparently goes on when you can’t see the sun.
As I stood in the doorway, noncommittal, Lowell educator Jim Cole talked passionately to small group about our closest star, that constant force whose sublimity is too easy to overlook. I mean, who stops and thinks about the sun? How many people even think of it as a star? Via a slide show, he explained how the sun works and how gigantically it lords over our solar system. It was enough to draw me into the dark room and take a seat.
Cole showed us what amounted to the day’s weather report from the sun, and how scientists like him study solar wind patterns. Then he showed short video taken by telescope of the sun’s massive ejections and flares. It was the most moving art show I’d seen in a while.
“The sun,” Cole said, “is actually the best thing you can see through a telescope because it’s constantly changing.”
I believed him, which meant I’d have to come back for that, too, on a sunny day. I’m sure by then I’d need another cosmic kick in the pants. Especially butt-kicking was the part near the end about The End. You’ve heard it before, no doubt, but if you follow contemporary politics, it bears repeating:
“Over time our sun is going to be getting bigger and warmer,” Cole said. “It will head toward the red-giant phase and become very unstable. Then, eventually, we will become part of the sun.”
Lowell Observatory:
1400 West Mars Hill Road, Flagstaff, Arizona, 86001
Monday through Saturday: 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission Fees:
Adults: $15
Seniors, AAA, college students: $14
Ages 5 – 17 $8
Under 5: Free
Special thanks to Molly Baker of the Lowell Observatory for use of images.
Apologies for image sizes but we thought they were exceptional.