John Love — Tinkerer: A GuideStar Interview

Original article appears in GuideStar March, 2014.

Clayton Jeter

It’s funny how you tend to run into astronomy folks from year to year at various star parties around the country and befriend them. One of those friends is John Love who I always enjoy seeing at various star gatherings.

John years ago, worked for Meade Instruments in Texas. In 1987, I purchased a new Meade 10” f6 Research Series from Gordon Gower, a Houston Astronomical Society member who ran his Meade telescope business out of his home in Texas City. Turns out that John and Gordon were good friends and business acquaintances. Is it a small world or what?

In more recent times, John has devised his own astronomy product by fabricating a portable light-block system that he calls “SkyBox” to be used during an observing session. He will discuss this product below, but for now, let’s find out more about John. Here’s Johnny…

The John Love bio…

As far back as I can remember I have been intrigued by the night sky. When I was a forth grader in Corsicana, Texas I asked for a telescope at Christmas. My parents found a small 2" reflector with a cardboard tube and very shaky plastic tripod. It was so bad they returned it and I got some other toy that year but it did not dampen my interest in the sky. Some years later after we had moved to Denton, Texas I went over to a friend's house around dusk and when I went into the back yard there was his older brother with a 60mm Unitron refractor. It was about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen! We looked at the first quarter moon and Saturn and I was again lusting for a telescope. After pestering my parents for a couple more years a large package appeared under the Christmas tree in 1966. When Christmas finally arrived I un-wrapped a Sears 60mm equatorial refractor and I about blew a gasket waiting for a clear night to try it out. The telescope had pretty good optics and I saw many things with it. I was happy until I met a friend who had a Criterion RV6. At 6" I soon developed a severe case of “aperture envy"...I just had to get a bigger scope!

I worked at a Worth Ranch Boy Scout camp the summer of 1970 where one of my duties was teaching Astronomy Merit Badge. While working around the camp I found the remains of an 8" reflector on a trash pile behind a storage shed. The ranger told me to keep it since he was about to throw it away. The tube had the spider and secondary mirror and a mirror cell but no mirror or focuser. I started building in my spare time and made a counterweight from bullets dug out of the hill of the rifle range which I melted and cast in a coffee can over a raging campfire. I used the money I earned that summer to by a 8" f/7 mirror from Coulter which, back then, cost $69.95. I built a mount from pipe fittings and a focuser from drain pipe. When I got my first look at M42 through that scope I was blown away. I was hooked and started building scopes out of anything I could find. My friend Rod Fleming who was a later HAS member came up with a 12.5" f/8 mirror that I built into a huge equatorial mounted scope which was painted with some left over green paint. We called it the "HULK" because it was big, mean and green.

My scope building addiction continued for several more years. To me Ace did not sell hardware...they sold telescope parts! After I finished school I worked in electronics and continued building scopes. During early years at TSP I gave several "Scavenging Scope-Maker" talks. About this time a rep from Meade Instruments asked some Dallas / Ft Worth amateur astronomers "who is the biggest telescope nut you know?" Well apparently my name came up and I was soon working for Meade as the southwest region sales and tech rep. I was getting "paid to play"! I spent several years in the telescope business during all the Halley's Comet hype. When the Meade gig wound down I took a job in public safety communications running a large radio system during which time I was very busy and did not get to spend much time building telescopes. At TSP 1995 I picked up a copy of the "CCD camera Cook Book" which turned out to be a "game changer" for me as I spent what little spare time I had building my first CCD camera. When I took my first 30 second image of M42 with it I was yet again "blown away" and I have not taken a film astrophoto since. My focus has shifted to CCD imaging and I have been happily building and modifying my equipment. My lust for imaging under remote dark skies has led me to build portable observatories which I call “SkyBoxes”. I retired, bought a Casita travel trailer that I call the "Moonlight Manor" and now spend as much time as I can attending star parties and imaging under dark skies...."Life is Good!"

The John Love interview…

Clayton: Great to have you here for this interview. I know we met at a star party some time, somewhere…was it Okie Tex? Ready to kick start this interview? Here’s the first question…Where is most of your astronomy done now that you’re retired? Is your wife supportive in your astronomy? Or….how often do you receive an “Astronomy Pass” from her?

John: My wife, Jenny, is a "keeper". I can go imaging pretty much whenever I want within reason. (birthdays, holidays and anniversaries not included) . We have been together for 19 years and she understands my need for "sky time" so I am a lucky man. She even bought me an autoguider for Christmas a few years back.

Clayton: How long did you work for Meade Instruments? Did you get to test the latest and greatest products from Meade back in the mid 1980’s?

John: I worked for Meade about 4 years. At the time Meade was introducing the LX-200 GoTo telescopes and the Series 4000 eyepieces. I liked my 14mm Ultra Wide so much I bought my sample and I still have it. It was one of the first 10 made. I showed the 8" LX-200 at TSP when it first came out. A small group and I looked at over 100 objects in a single night. We joked "at that rate we would have looked at everything in the sky in a few weeks and would have to find a new hobby". I also had one of the 6" APO refractors which I showed at TSP. That was a "fine piece of glass".

John Love

Clayton: I really like your design and craftsmanship of your “SkyBox” observatory. It’s an extremely portable roll-off roof observatory without a roof! It’s so simple, yet so useful when observing or shooting astrophotos out in the field. Tell us (the readers) how you came up with this clever design. I noticed at Eldorado, you and your observing buddy, Wes, simply connected two “SkyBoxes” together for using his and your scope. Did this work well for you two? And….what are the main advantages of using a “SkyBox”?

John: The SkyBox was born from desperation. As you know star parties in the southwest are notoriously windy and my friend Wes and I decided we needed to do something after being blown around at Okie-Tex in 2006 and 2007. We talked about it for a while to figure out the size and such and the first SkyBox was born. The first one was 8' x 16' and houses both our scopes. The 6' tall walls shield us and the scopes from the wind which keeps the imaging scope from bouncing around and as an added bonus it also you feel so much warmer on a cold night. When set up with Moonlight Manor it makes a complete portable observatory. I have solar panels and batteries which allow me to go to remote off grid dark sky observing sites and still be very comfortable.

SkyBox

Clayton: Have you ever thought about selling your “SkyBox” as plans or as a complete kit ready to go? This could easily become a big hit among observers.

John: I have had many people ask if I sell them. I have not set up a full time business as yet but I make a few extra 8' x 8' shelters which I have sold at starparty swap meets for $400 and I have a DIY kit I sell for $300. I'm not trying to get rich here but I think many imagers and visual observer might find a SkyBox helpful. Clayton...This seems like a commercial! LOL

Clayton: You were hooked with the astronomy bug as a kid….why aren’t more children interested and involved in astronomy today?

Young John Love

John: I grew up during the space race and if I remember correctly this picture was taken the summer of 1969 and we all know what happened then. Space was very much on people’s minds as NASA put astronauts on the moon. I think kids now have way more distractions with smart phones, social media, the internet and TV just to name a few. Sadly in the culture of today I feel it is not cool to be a science nerd and have astronomy as a hobby. Fortunately there are some kids that do it anyway. Many kids interested in science and astronomy may take up the hobby as young adults or even when they reach middle age.

The Hulk

Clayton: Tell me about your 12 ½” f8 “Hulk” truss telescope? Still have it? This looks like an old photo….I didn’t see truss design scopes years ago. I bet this scope was great on viewing planets.

John: Ahhh the Hulk. What a beast! I built it in 1977 and as the name implied it was BIG weighing around 300 pounds with a 2" solid steel Dec shaft and 3.5" solid steel RA shaft with huge bearings to support a truss framework that was 8' long. It took at least two people to move it. It was MEAN because it has a great mirror and at f8 it was a real "planet killer" I remember looking at Jupiter with one of it's moons casting a shadow on it.....well it looked like Jupiter had a hole in it. What a view! It was a great deep sky scope too, and.....it was GREEN. The Hulk was eventually disassembled because it was just too big and heavy to move around. I still have the mirror and I plan to build a new scope with it in the near future.

Clayton: What telescope equipment and camera are you using currently?

John: Can one have too many scopes? I have a CGE GoTo mount that typically use mostly for imaging. and a CI-700 that I use mostly for visual. I have a "whole pile of OTAs “which I pick from depending what I want to do. The list includes an Astro Tech 8" f/8 RC, an Explore Scientific 127mm EDT refractor, an Orion 110 f/7 ED refractor, a Williams Optics 80mm ED refractor, a Celestron 9.25 SCT, a Meade 10" SCT and a new carbon fiber 8" f/3.8 astrograph I am working on. I image with a Starlight Xpress SXVF-M25C and an Atik 383L+OSC cameras. I like OSC (one shot color) cameras since it is difficult to get all the necessary images and calibration images for LRGB or HaRGB or narrowband images while operating in a portable mode. I get good images with less work. Someday I may build another observatory and go back to mono LRGB and narrow band imaging.

Clayton: I meet you usually at Okie Tex and Eldorado for a splendid week of dark skies. Have you decided on another star party that you might attend this year?

John: Now that I am retired I have way more time for star parties. This year I plan to attend Ft McKavett Star Party, TSP, RMSS, Okie-Tex and ESP. I am also working up a trip to the new Cosmic Campground being developed in New Mexico https://sites.google.com/site/cosmiccampgroundinformation/home and I often go to Fort Griffin SHS for imaging. I just can't get enough DARK sky!

Clayton: How would you like to see your own astronomy grow?

John: I am improving my imaging setups by constantly buying and selling equipment. One day I hope to upgrade to and AP1200 mount. I am working to make my system controllable from inside the Moonlight Manor so I can stay warm and cozy while imaging in cold weather. One tends to think more about comfort as we age.

Clayton: Are you currently building a scope or camera? I’m guessing that you’re still an ATM’er.

John: I am always tinkering with something. I am currently working on a single arm mount for imaging...I hate doing meridian flips and this mount will allow tracking from horizon to horizon.

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

John: 1. Find yourself an "observing buddy". It makes it more fun when you have someone along to keep you company. 2. Find a club if you can which will provide friends and a pool of knowledge to help you along. 3. Don't be afraid to ask questions. 4. Don't let the weather drive you crazy.

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

John: I can be reached at (see March 2014 GuideStar); I check my e-mail several time a day.

Clayton: Thanks John for taking the time to share your interest and thoughts within our HAS newsletter, ‘The Guide Star’. We wish you luck with all of your astronomy interests. Please come visit our society when in the Houston area, we’d love to see you.

John: Thanks for having me. See ya’ll at TSP.

Clear skies always

Clayton is an avid SCT visual observer and a longtime member of the Houston Astronomical Society. Contact him at [email protected].

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