A Twinkle in their Eyes
Anna G. Edmonds
Was it a twinkle in their eyes eleven years ago? Of a hoped-for offspring, a star, a dream, or all of these? Knowing the sparks of imagination that were touched off whenever John Rudolph, Ed Ritchie, and Mac Gardiner met together, probably the twinkle was a mixture of all, compounded with a liberal gleaming of excitement. Out of a breakfast meeting in November 1993 of these three founders, the Battle Point Astronomical Association came into being. Battle Point Park was an appropriate place for BPAA activities for several reasons. The lighting within the park could be controlled. By its very nature, amateur astronomy, needing quiet and darkness, was unobtrusive.
The Helix House (now the Edwin E. Ritchie Observatory) was a solid building; it provided a good base for a large telescope mounting, and could be made secure from casual vandalism. In addition to those features, the roof of the Observatory provided a 360° view of the sky.
John Rudolph in the Dome. photo by Greg Gilbert, courtesy The Seattle Times.
Besides the litter from years of disuse, two large cement blocks in the center of the building had to be removed with the help of 56 sticks of dynamite and hours of jack hammer labor. In their place a column reaching from rock bottom to the roof but totally free of the building was constructed to support the telescope. Then the dome was made, rib by rib, secured to a revolving ring, and covered with waterproofing. The building, thanks to John Rudolph’s architectural skills, now accommodates meeting rooms, a workshop, and a basic astronomical instrument. This instrument comprises three holes in the walls that focus so that the image of the Sun appears on the north wall of the meeting room during the winter solstice. Its only required maintenance is clearing out cobwebs in the holes; thus it’s in keeping with John’s devotion to archaeoastronomy as he studied it in places like Susanville, CA.
John was meticulous in reporting the names and contributions of those who helped with the construction of the Observatory and its dome. They, plus the many groups who have used the Observatory and the many speakers who have given their time over the years, have been reported in the bi-monthly BPAA Newsletter. Likewise, the early donors’ names are on plaques in the entrance to the building. Ed Ritchie was the telescope builder; he wrote in the November 1994 Newsletter: “After seventy-one years of being free to discover and learn about the universe I live in, I can say with certainty one thing. I don’t really know a lot about it. I find it beautiful and awesome, but I think I understand little of how it operates. ‘In WWII I was a navigator and the stars and the Sun became operating tools for me. Shortly after, I began to study electronics and telescopes. The fascination of these two subjects has never left me. I have built many electronic devices and many telescopes and now have in my back yard a 17 1/2 inch Newtonian refl ector telescope and observatory electronically controlled. Hundreds of moms and dads and kids have looked through its eyepiece. So it’s not surprising I’m one of three people instrumental in getting the Battle Point Astronomical Association going.”
Five months later, on April 17, 1995, the Boeing Defense and Space Group announced that they had donated two high-quality mirrors to BPAA. These were the glass used by Boeing in the Hubble Mirror. With them in hand, Ed began building the mount, and inventing and crafting the electronic grinding machine in order to shape the 27 1/2 inch mirror to a parabolic surface that would gather and focus starlight through a lens. On December 11, 1997 the telescope was lifted to the roof and settled into place on its support column inside the dome. Regrettably, Ed Ritchie had died before his ’scope was operational.
The third member of the group of founders, Mac Gardiner, had throughout this time kept BPAA focused on the dream of providing an educational facility specializing in astronomy that would encourage people to develop their curiosity. “With the first-class equipment that we have available,” he wrote, “we can explore, and 99% of what we hope to be able to see has never been seen before. We also can redo certain wonderful experiments of the past that changed the thinking of the educated world of that time. Mac’s dream was that the tools of this facility and the encouragement of its mentors would enable students of all ages to discover, hypothesize, interpret, analyze, generate, review critically, and publish work that could be the stuff of science awards, or the discovery of comets, super novae, and even unforeseen worlds.
In addition to keeping the fledgling Association on an even keel and to challenging others to volunteer their talents, Mac concentrated on establishing a sound financial basis for BPAA. He wanted BPAA to start slowly and to keep within the bounds of what Bainbridge Island would support. Within the first year he secured the tax-free status from the State, and then enrolled BPAA in the yearly Bainbridge Foundation financial drive. The contributions collected by the Foundation, he believed, would enable BPAA to cover its operating expenses so that whatever physical development was needed could be taken care of with specific funding campaigns.
The excitement of that morning breakfast meeting in 1993 resulted in a gift to Bainbridge. It was free in that most of the money and the labor were given without conditions. It is free in that the Observatory is for the use of the public on demand (and on the cooperation of the weather). The continued twinkle of this star—or dream—depends on keeping the night sky around the Observatory dark.