John Haynes: A Guidestar Interview

Original article appears in GuideStar May, 2012.
Interview by Clayton Jeter

Clayton JeterJohn Haynes is one of those guys that you wished all club members were like. ‘Key Word’ describing John Haynes: Dedicated. He’s our very own H.A.S. society’s keeper of the loaner telescopes. Believe me when I tell of all the work and time that goes into this job. I had that task for seven (7) years in the past. Whew…what a job! I really admire John for all of this work. But wait… there’s more. This guy works out at the Columbus site on a regular basis, attends all board meetings, and is visible at almost all of the clubs star parties. Another ‘Key Word’ describing John: Busy!

In this month’s interview, we are going to take a peek at one of our very own and figure out where he gets all of his energy and passion. Here’s Johnny…

The John Haynes bio…

I developed an interest in astronomy from a very early age. Some of my fondest early memories are spending time with my father in our back yard in the High Desert of California where we had nearly pristine dark skies. When I was six, I remember sitting down on the couch with my father on nine or so successive Tuesday nights and watching the original PBS airing of Carl Sagan's Cosmos series.

Though I didn't pursue a career in astronomy, I did take a college course in the subject. At the end of the course I was shocked when the professor asked me "Did you actually learn anything in this course? It seems to me you could have taught it yourself!" I actually did learn quite a bit from the course, but it made me realize then that astronomy was more than just a casual interest of mine: it was something of a passion.

Unfortunately, I never really found or made the time to be more active in my interest until a few years ago. Shortly after my father's death, I purchased my first telescope - a cheap 114mm Meade I found on Craigslist. I then decided to join the Houston Astronomical Society to join others that share my interests and passion.

Since joining, I have become a very active member and enjoy the benefits of our Columbus dark site where I am trying to teach myself the complex art of astrophotography. On cloudy nights I spend time working on the loaner scope equipment I manage for the club, cleaning, repairing, upgrading, and generally tweaking the scopes that members are welcome to check out.

The John Haynes interview interview…

Clayton: John, it’s really great to have you take the time and tell us about your love of astronomy and this driving passion that you have for observing the night skies. Why the interest in astronomy in the first place?

John: I blame it on my dad. My dad always had an interest in astronomy. He got me started. Where I grew up in the desert of California, the skies were usually clear and pretty dark (darker than Columbus when we originally moved there in the 70’s). By the time I left in the early 90’s, the skies were noticeably more light polluted, but still better than a lot of places. I can’t tell you how many nights I spent in the back yard laying on a blanket with a pair of binoculars.

John Haynes

I really think it was when I accidentally found M4 for the first time, just looking around the sky with binoculars, that I realized just how much was out there to see.

Clayton: Do you think that by becoming involved in astronomy, it has somehow changed a direction in your life?

John: Yes. Not that I was living a rudderless existence before, but it's given me something that I can really pour my interest into. It never gets boring. It also merges several of my interests: astronomy, computers, and tinkering with and fixing things.

Clayton: Tell us all about the equipment that you use. Are you a die-hard visual observer, astrophotographer, or a little of both?

John: I’m slowly trying to learn the arcane art of astrophotography, but I do both. My main telescope is an old Meade 2080 tube (the one you cleaned up for me rather nicely, I might add) that I got off Craigslist for $100. I pulled it off the old fork mount it came with and mated it up with a CG-5 I got off Astromart. I’ve added to that an 80mm Vernonscope that I bought off another club member, which gives me a wide-field view (and really replaces the mediocre finder the 2080 came with).

You’ll find a lot of my stuff is heavily modified, often rather crudely, by me. I’m an astronomer on a budget. Unfortunately, there’s no Scope Depot, so I have to make do with stuff I get at Home Depot or Lowes and hack to make it work. So far, rather successfully. I’m particularly proud of the mounting rings I made for the 80mm. They cost me about $15 total… as opposed to $50 to $75 for some cheaper rings on Astromart or Cloudy Nights. As for my imaging… I’ve been using that scope, but at F/10, getting good images is a challenge. Same thing with the C14 at Columbus. I’m looking to pick up either a good focal reducer or just get a dedicated scope for photography. Astro-Tech makes a great 8” Newtonian astrograph for under $500. It’s on my wish list. My camera is a Nikon D5000. I was using a D3000, but it doesn’t have the live view and extended control capability, so I upgraded. Now I need good software to control it… but that’s another problem.With all this stuff, a trip out to Columbus really loads me down (I actually traded in my old car, which was near the end of its life anyway, on a small SUV so I’d have space to carry my equipment!). One club member at Columbus one night asked if I was retaking satellites and threatened (jokingly) to notify the NSA about my nefarious activities!Of course, being the loaner scope guy gives me access to all sorts of other toys as well… and that’s not to mention the stuff in the observatory in Columbus. All told, I’m pretty happy with the toys I get to play with… but I always crave more!

Clayton: When planning an observing session for an upcoming evening, what atlas or electronic program do you use? Do you use more than one?

John: I use a few things. First off, I like the online interactive star chart (and other tools) that you can view on Sky and Telescope’s website. Free is always good! I also have Google SkyMap on my android phone and tablet, which is pretty useful. For more serious planning, I use Sky Tools. I bought the pro version when we had the club discount a couple years back and love it. And, sometimes, I just use a good old handy copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Stars and Planets.

Clayton: Curious… how did you find H.A.S.? Are you a member of another club also?

John: I’m HAS only. One club is enough for me, though I’m sure those other clubs are great. I found HAS by doing a web search, of course -- anyone who knows me knows I’m an real computer geek. When I bought my 114mm scope, I figured it would be a good idea to connect with others who share my interests. So I did a quick search and HAS is what came up. When I saw the loaner program and the observatory in Columbus, I knew this was the group for me!

Clayton: When I was the HAS telescope loaner chairperson a decade ago, I was always busy receiving and checking out the scopes from our inventory. I learned a lot about scope repair because many times the scopes were returned broken or not in a working order. Do you find this to be true now? How about storing returned scopes? Is your garage full?

John: I hate to say it, but there really isn’t a lot of loaner activity these days. Sometimes I’ll go two or three months or so without someone checking out or returning a scope. And sometimes it’s a challenge to connect with people to loan out or take in equipment. I hope that this will change as we grow. As for repair and storage… wow… yeah… I’ve spent a lot of time tweaking things. Especially with donated equipment. Right now I’m working on mating up a donated 8” Newtonian with a CG-5 that was donated separately. Tthe mount the 8” came with was fine, but the CG-5 is GoTo, which will give the loaner program a second GoTo scope, which I think we need. The tweaking and modifying and all that is a lot of fun, and I learn a lot from it.

As for storage… yeah… that’s an issue too. I’m working on it though. First off, I need to sell off some of this stuff that’s really not loaner material. I have a C-11 with a Losmandy G-11 (doesn’t have the Gemini GoTo, but does have digital setting circles) Its great equipment… but the loaner program is more focused on beginners and really needs to be more portable equipment. This is neither easily portable, nor a beginner’s instrument. The club will be better served when I can sell this off and use the funds to buy a couple of those nice GoTo dobs that Orion makes, or a couple decent 6” or 8” GoTo SCT’s from Celestron and Meade. I’d really like to completely overhaul the entire inventory… but finding buyers for a lot of this stuff is tricky. Not a lot of people are interested in the 14” Juno that I put on Astromart… not for $4,000… and probably not even for $3,000… but I’m very hesitant to reduce it more than that and squander the resource. I think that this will change when the economy picks up, but for now, I need to find homes for some of these scopes… or to add members to the Loaner Scope Committee (of which I’m the chairman and only member currently!) to help out with storage. Dilemmas, dilemmas…

Clayton: Have you ever completed an Astronomical League observing program and received an award? Got a favorite object when looking up?

John: I’m sad to say that I haven’t actually completed any yet. I’m about halfway through my Messiers and Binocular Messiers. But photography takes up a lot of my time these days, endlessly tweaking and testing my setup. I hope to actually finish them this year, maybe in March or April when they’re all visible in a single night. I also have preliminary plans for a pet-project to get images of all of the Messier objects… but I need to really get my technique down first. Favorite object? Hmm… I have a few. M4… I was blown away the first time I saw it and figured out what it was. I love globulars… they’re just so fascinating… thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands of ancient stars in a tight knot… they’re fascinating to me. I also love M31 and M42… they’re always fun to view when they’re up. But my absolute favorite is probably M51. One of these days I’ll get my imaging down and get a good picture of the Whirlpool!

Clayton: How would you like to see your own astronomy grow? What’s new on your horizon?

John: Imagery… and more imagery. I’m playing around with autoguinding now. I think I’ve got it figured out, but haven’t quite gotten a chance to test my setup. It’s a real challenge, balancing the scopes, the cameras, the mounts, and the software (not to mention getting it to run on Vista or XP or 7 or whatever… ugh!). I’m hoping to get out to Columbus really soon to see what happens when I put this all together!

Clayton: Ever been to the Texas Star Party or any of the other large star parties in the U.S.? Any plans to make one this year?

John: No, but I really want to!. Work keeps me extremely busy and doesn’t offer a lot of extended vacation time or funds to travel to these events. I am, unfortunately, in a very pivotal position where I work… it’s very hard to get away. But we’ve done some reorganization recently and I’m hoping that I’ll get a chance to hit TSP in 2013. I’d really also love to go to Stellafane in Vermont. I lived in Vermont for 8 years and miss the state terribly (sorry, Texas!), and hitting Stellafane would be great – spend time with friends and the stars. Perhaps that’s another thing for 2013.

Clayton: It seems in recent years that the younger people are not that interested in amateur astronomy, or any of the sciences. How can we turn this around?

John: I ponder this all the time. I worry as well. As wonderful as Hubble has been for science, and some of the other big scopes like the LBT and Keck, the images they produce are simply not what you see in the eyepiece. I think that a lot of younger people look through the eyepiece at a fuzzy smudge and say ‘so what?’ They don’t quite grasp what they’re really seeing and, quite frankly, I’m not sure they have the attention span to stick with it. I don’t mean to sound down on ALL young people… there definitely are some who have the patience and focus and interest. But I don’t think nearly as many young people do anymore. Even people my own age group don’t seem to have the interest. If people in my age range, who are having and raising kids, don’t have the interest to pass on to their kids like my dad did with me, then where are they going to get it from? How do we change this? More education! I’m a firm believer that education is the answer to most, if not all, the world’s problems. For HAS, this means more star parties, more talking to kids. That’s all I’ve got.

Clayton: Do you have any helpful advice to pass on to observers just starting out in astronomy?

John: Learn your constellations and bright stars… learn your way around the sky. And learn to star-hop. If you can’t star hop, at least a little, you can get easily frustrated. Besides, some of the more interesting things I’ve seen I’ve found while star hopping. And don’t worry about the equipment… get a good pair of binoculars! And borrow a loaner scope!

Clayton: Is there an email address that you have that another Houston Astronomical Society member could contact you for an additional question or two?

John: Well, since I’m the loaner guy, its [email protected], or you can get me on one of my personal addresses. I’ve got so many (I did mention I’m a computer geek right?), but the easiest is probably my Gmail: (see PDF newsletter)

Clayton: Thanks John for taking the time to share your interest and thoughts within our newsletter, the GuideStar. We wish you luck with all of your astronomy interests. Keep up the great services that you provide for our membership.

John: I’m honored you’d consider me for the interview… you’ve interviewed some pretty big movers and shakers in the past, so I was a bit blown away when you asked me! Thank you!

Clayton: Clear skies always,

John: Clear skies to you as well!

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