Michael A. Stecker
As my interest grew, my parents took note and bought a toy-store refractor as my first telescope. As is often the case this kind of gift tends to act as a litmus test for a child's burgeoning interest. I obviously survived the frustrations of this telescope and continued to express my excitement about astronomy. When I was around 9 years old, my parents researched a bit more and discovered the company Edmund Scientific from which I would request many more "toys" over the years. From ES they purchased an 4.5in Astroscan (rich field reflector) and a small number of eyepieces. This was a wonderful first telescope from which I saw the rings of Saturn, the belts of Jupiter, star clusters, nebulae, comets (Halley), and even a few bright galaxies. A couple of years later they surprised me by getting an 8" Celestron telescope with a good selection of accessories. I would spend many cold hours painstakingly setting up this equipment on my driveway and learning the night sky. It was also at this time that I made my first attempts at astrophotography using film. The Astroscan and 8-inch Celestron telescopes are the only ones I own to this day.
In school I qualified for and participated in special programs that emphasized science. It was at this time that I became involved in the activities of Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta which has a very large planetarium and a 36in telescope from which public programs are offered. Unlike my lonely driveway sessions, I found that I enjoyed sharing the night sky with others and I found that volunteering at Fernbank was a lot of fun. This marks the beginnings of my work in public outreach.
After graduating from high school, I decided to attend the University of Arizona and continue studying astronomy (and physics). As a freshman I volunteered at Flandrau Planetarium and ran their 16in telescope for the public a couple of nights each week. Later I was hired to be a telescope operator for the 20in campus telescope at Steward Observatory. At this observatory 100 level students (non-majors) would sign up to observe at the telescope. It was our job to point at objects and explain what they were looking at; and the students, not always the most motivated, would sketch their views as part of the assignment. During this time I began to hone my ability to explain astronomical concepts at a variety of knowledge levels. I would eventually become the lead telescope operator at the observatory and administer special programs for the astronomy department.
One professor noted that I, and a few of my friends, were especially interested in using the telescope. For many months we had tried to capture images of deep sky objects using an ST4 CCD camera. I believe my first "successful" image with a CCD camera was of M57- even though it didn't look like much, I was incredibly impressed! The professor decided to purchase an ST6 camera and so began my imaging career.
Also during this time I was Vice President of the University Astronomy Club and President of the Table Tennis Club (to this day I am a competitive and rated player). Eventually I became President of the Astronomy club and (with Jason Harris) refurbished an old observatory on Tumamoc Hill in the middle of Tucson. We installed a 16in newtonian reflector and finally the club had an official telescope which survives to this day! While in college I also received the departmental teaching award and eventually graduated with a B.S. in Astronomy and Physics. I decided not to pursue the PhD road and wound up working at a hardware store for 8 months after I graduated. After work I would drive out to Benson, Arizona and work with guests of Skywatcher's Inn for Dr. Ed Vega. His 20in Maksutov telescope was a wonderful instrument that I never tired of using.
In November of 1996 I found out that Kitt Peak National Observatory was looking for someone to help run a new public observing program. I interviewed for the job and was hired on the spot. :) For the next nine years I would develop and craft the nightly observing programs (NOP) and create the successful ideology and proven approach to outreach that they enjoy today. While in this forum I am most well-known for my work in CCD imagery, my other less known forte is in the public speaking I did during that time.
all-night observing program and CCD imaging was a natural extension of
the public presentations I was already giving. I developed the "Advanced
Observing Program" and began learning the intricacies of CCD imagery
with guests looking over my shoulder. From "Track and Accumulate" with
the nearly blind early ABG ST7 to the ST10XME with an AO-7 through a
20in RCOS telescope, the journey was an exciting foray into
instrumentation and astronomy. I have been lucky to observe under some
of the best conditions on Earth and process the data to
Today I am trying to continue a career in this field by building an observatory and offering my own public programs (please see my website). It is only with support of family and friends that I will ultimately succeed. My beautiful wife, Miwa, continues to be the reason I am able pursue my second most personal passion, astronomy- as my first is her.
Areas of interest