Sky's the limit at Morgan Co. observatory

September 20, 2005|by TRISH RUDDER

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - A child who began stargazing with his first telescope at age 8, Kevin Boles, the Morgan County Observatory Foundation president, has had an interest in astronomy and space his whole life.

In the ninth grade in a Prince George's County, Md., school, Boles joined the Astronomy Club and got to run the planetarium machine that projects the sky, he said.

"We put on a show that brings the night sky out any time of the day, and you can teach people how to stargaze," he said. "I had fun running the machine."


His ninth-grade civics teacher was Christa MacAuliffe, who later moved to Concord, N.H., and was part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) teacher-astronaut program. She was on board the space shuttle, Challenger, which blew apart during liftoff in 1986. She and six other astronauts died.

Boles, who has an electrical engineering degree, said, "the observatory is a perfect project for me to do. I can build new things with a lot of detail."

It began with a gift

In 1993, a research-grade, 12-foot-high Cassegrain telescope that weighs more than two tons and is worth about $500,000 was given to the Morgan County Board of Education. It was donated by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Tom Collins, who was the maintenance engineer with the academy and who had a summer home in Berkeley Springs, learned the telescope was being "decommissioned," Boles said, and Collins was told by the academy that it wanted the telescope to be used as an educational tool in the schools.

Boles said former Morgan County school superintendent Jerry Jones liked the idea and got in touch with U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to help secure it for Morgan County.

A few people started raising money to build a dome and a basic building for the telescope, Boles said, and a $30,000 grant was written but the funding was not received. The telescope was held in storage for six years because there was no place to mount it, he said.

Boles said the telescopic foundation to the Morgan County Observatory formed in December 1998, elected board members and achieved nonprofit status. About 30 people met to talk about building an observatory, he said.

Collins told Boles that repairs to the telescope would cost about $7,000 and take six months. The estimated building cost was $130,000, Boles said.

Getting it going

Stargazing parties were held to raise funds to repair the telescope and build an observatory. Grants were written, Boles said, and a video was made of the telescope to show its capabilities and let people know how valuable it was. Boles said he showed this video to local officials to get their support.

Del. Charles S. Trump, R-Morgan, got W.Va. Legislative funding of about $60,000, which was given to Morgan County Schools, and $20,000 came from the Morgan County Commission, Boles said.

The observatory site property next to Greenwood Elementary School on W.Va. 13 was donated by the Morgan County School Board.

With more than half of the funds in hand, officials started building in December 2000.

On Aug. 1, 2001, the telescope was placed by a crane and the building's dome was installed over it.

"First light," the first time anyone looks through the telescope in its new home or when the first light touches the telescopic mirror, was in the winter of 2002. "I remember it was very cold," he said.

"Individual donations and grants from charitable organizations helped us and pay for the observatory's operation. They have been the main source of support," Boles said.

Available for school use

This is the first year the building is available to schools. Classroom presentations will be offered and conducted by Boles and other foundation members, Boles said, and surrounding counties have expressed interest.

Field trips are also available during the day. Boles said even though they cannot observe the night sky, he can teach the students about the sun, moon and stars.

Berkeley Springs High School will offer the first course in astronomy starting in January, said Boles.

George Ward, principal of the high school, said, "I think it is a wonderful opportunity for the school, and several students have already signed up for the class. We will continue to offer this course if students are interested."

The rocketry classes offered this past summer were the hook that got a lot of students interested in stargazing and astronomy, he said. Three students are interested in doing science fair projects. "They really responded and were excited about the class," Boles said.

Boles said "the happiest part about the observatory is watching people come together to bring it about and now watching kids learn about the universe."

Boles said his dream for the observatory is that it will become an astronomical learning center and be open all the time with a computer lab available for everyone's use.

The Morgan County Observatory Foundation holds monthly stargazing parties for its members and for the public to generate interest, educate and raise funds, said Boles.

It will hold its next public star party at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7, on the observatory grounds at Greenwood Elementary School.

The observatory's Web site is

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