Unbeknownst to many, along a winding road off of State Road 67 between Martinsville and Mooresville sits the country’s largest wooden observatory dome. Under 34 tons of well-preserved Indiana hardwood is a 5,000 pound telescope that was once the primary research scope for Indiana University.
IU has since left the upkeep of the 75 year old facility to the Indiana Astronomical Society, and now, three members of that group want to transform the observatory into an interactive space science center.
History of Observatory
Completed in 1939, the Goethe Link Observatory was built by a prominent Indianapolis surgeon who donated the facility to IU in 1948. When light pollution began to degrade the 36-inch telescope’s ability to see far into the night, IU opted to move its research deeper into rural southern Indiana. Though the Link Observatory has not been used for research since the 1980’s, it still remains an effective tool for seeing what lies beyond our thin atmosphere.
Former NASA employee Greg McCauley, along with Astronomer John Shepherd and aviator Danny Kirby have formed the Link Observatory Space Science Center Corporation, a non-profit organization with a vision to modernize the observatory, and make it a place kids can interact with.
Shepherd is the Chief Astronomer of the center, and Kirby the Director of Engineering Facilities. It will be Kirby’s job to begin retrofitting the Observatory with modern technology.
“The technology today is way surpassed what it was in 1939 or 40’s,” he says. “For instance, the scope, we can bring it up and down and left and right, but we can’t take the monitor and put the cursor on Saturn, and it go to it.”
Shepherd says automating the scope is one of the first things that needs to be done at the center.
“If it’s manual, it takes a lot of time. If you have a lot of folks up here at one time, you don’t want to spend time just moving things back and forth,” he says.
McCauley says the passion the three men have for creating the science center revolves around the fact that American science and technology education lags behind that of many other nations.
Inspiring Today’s Youth
“Young people need to be inspired, they need to be inspired enough that they get away from their X-Boxes and get behind the eyepiece of a telescope,” he says.
According to McCauley, it was the Apollo missions of the 1960s that sparked his passion for space exploration.
“For me personally, I was a senior in high school, or just graduated, when Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder at the Tranquility Basin on the Moon,” he says.” That was such a game changer, I think, for America, and for me. Within a year, year and a half of that, I was employed at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.”
Giving kids a close-up view of what lies far away, McCauley says, can ignite that spark of curious exploration.
“One thing always leads to another,” he says. “Someday, there will be some kid suiting up, going to Mars, and that turning point, that catalyst long ago, was when he stood here with us, and we would have accomplished our goal.”
An interactive feature in the works is the ability for young people to speak directly with an astronaut already in space.
“One of the things we want to do is be able to Skype, live Skype to the International Space Station, have young people, middle school kids, be down in our auditorium, talking to the astronauts on the big screen live,” he says. “How cool would that be?”
Creating State-of-the-Art Technological Exhibits
Kirby says the abandoned buildings on the site could also be equipped with new technology to give kids a view of the space during the day, when it’s too bright to use a telescope.
“Wouldn’t it be neat to just walk through a dark room in 3D through the solar system, and see it from any direction? That’s very possible today,” he says.
The Link Observatory Space Science Center is still years from completion, but that won’t stop the men from starting the program. They have already hosted local educators and community leaders at the observatory, and word is spreading about their mission. They’re working to secure partnerships with the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, NASA, and local groups; and soon the observatory will begin hosting a few events per month.
As more money trickles into the science center, more of what McCauley, Shepherd, and Kirby have envisioned can be built.