Scoping Out the Sky | Science | Smithsonian
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Scoping Out the Sky

For everyday folks and presidents, too, the Naval Observatory is a fascinating place to study the stars

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Telescopes are like boats: as soon as you own one, you want a bigger one.

But if you just want to look at the stars, there is plenty to see at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Monday nights at 8:30, public tours are given for the the first 90 people who arrive. Depending on the weather, they either look through or at some of the telescopes there.

And the Smithsonian Associates have been taking people there for years. In fact the observatory holds classes four times a year for 60 lucky Associates. I was even luckier: I had a private tour with Geoff Chester, a physicist who worked for years at the National Air and Space Museum before coming to the observatory, where his great-grandfather, Colby M. Chester, was once the superintendent.

The Naval Observatory is set on a knoll on the west side of Washington and has a mansion on its grounds that has become the Vice President's residence.

The observatory is a wonderful old building with the original 15-foot ceilings, broad staircases and 19th-century air-conditioning, which mainly consists of large doorways and windows. At one end stands one of the finest astronomical libraries in the Western Hemisphere, with a fountain, a balcony and 80,000 volumes dating as far back as 1482.

The rest of the building houses astronomers and the Navy oceanography staff, evidently on the theory that the earth's blanket of air is a sea, too. The observatory, designed by Richard Morris Hunt (who also created the base of the Statue of Liberty), and the mansion, designed by Leon Dessez, were completed in 1893. For years the superintendent of the observatory lived in the house.

Unfortunately for him, in 1928 the Chief of Naval Operations happened to go to a party there and liked the place a lot. Since the chief had four stars and the superintendent was a mere captain, the latter soon found himself moving out while the former moved in.

Not until 1977 did the Vice President actually reside at the mansion, in the person of Walter Mondale. The telescopes fascinated him, too. One night when Chester was studying Jupiter on a 5-inch scope in one of the outer buildings, he heard a knock on the door. And a voice. "What you looking at? Can I have a look?"

He let the visitor in. It was Mondale.

 That's nothing. Once many years ago when the observatory was located in Foggy Bottom, the great astronomer Asaph Hall was up on the roof peering through a 9.6-inch scope. Suddenly the trapdoor opened and a certain familiar visage came into view: President Abraham Lincoln, wandering the town by night, had stopped in for a look.

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