A new plan to keep the Lake Afton Public Observatory open is expected to be presented to the Sedgwick County Commissioners on Wednesday morning.
A group of astronomy enthusiasts wants the county’s approval to take over operation of the Observatory after Wichita State University steps aside next week.
The plan to save stargazing at Lake Afton can’t come soon enough: People have been rushing to get in a visit to the Observatory before the Aug. 22 closing.
The 16-inch reflecting telescope is slowly moving from an upright position into a specific angle. It’s aimed toward the sliver of the dome-shaped roof that’s open to the southern night sky.
At the controls of the telescope is Robert Henry, the program manager for the Lake Afton Public Observatory. He’s done the calibrations, entered coordinates and focused the telescope.
This night, visitors to the Observatory will get to see the planet Saturn.
"Oh, that’s lovely," Henry says. "You can see several of the bands of clouds on Saturn’s surface. And you can see the Cassini gap in the rings of Saturn."
It’s not the first time Henry has seen Saturn, of course, but he says each time is still a special experience because Saturn is only visible about four to five months out of the year.
If the past few weeks are any indication, it will be a very busy evening. Hundreds of people have been coming out to the Observatory each Friday and Saturday night, ever since Wichita State announced it was closing the 34-year-old facility.
With the Observatory prepped and ready, Henry does a final pep talk with four volunteers before they open the doors to the line of people waiting to come in.
"Try to keep things moving," Henry says. "So when you come out, you go on ticket duty and the person on ticket duty can mill around tabs on the person inside so that you know when to bring their group in."
The small admission fee gets you into the Observatory and the building’s exhibits.
Two small rooms are filled with pictures and interactive displays about space, planets, star charts and the like. A colorful mural of the Orion Nebula covers an entire wall.
Groups of 30 enter the Observatory and line up along the perimeter ramps to take a turn looking through the telescope.
Within a half-hour of opening, 120 tickets were sold. By the end of the night, there were 170 visitors to the Observatory.
Over the years, attendance has dropped off to about half of what they had when the Observatory first opened.
It was built in 1979 as a cooperative effort between the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County, Wichita State University and Wichita Public Schools. The university and school district operated the Observatory until 1995, when the school district pulled out due to budget issues. WSU created the Fairmount Center and continued operations.
Observatory director Greg Novacek says the recent crowds are double the number of visitors they see on a typical night.
"It depends on what the weather is like," Novacek says. "Of course, you can’t see stars if it’s cloudy. So on cloudy nights, and if it’s raining, we might just have a handful of people. On a clear night, we might have 75 people. ... That’s kind of normal, 50 to 75. We’ve been averaging the last couple of weeks about 150 people a night."
The Observatory’s operating budget is about $85,000 a year, mostly in salaries.
Sedgwick County owns the building and property while WSU owns the telescope and exhibits and runs the operation.
Novacek says the university’s decision to close the Observatory was a cost-cutting move.
"They were looking at finances and what it costs to operate the observatory, and they were looking for some ways to save some money," Novacek says. "They looked at what it was costing, the number of people coming out and does it make economic sense. Someone decided no."
That decision last month shocked many of the longtime Observatory volunteers and local astronomers.
Members of the Kansas Astronomical Observers, or KAO, have served as an unofficial partner with the Observatory for decades. Their stargazing takes place outside, on a concrete telescope pad behind the Observatory building. About a dozen astronomers have set up their own telescopes, each a little bit different in size and style.
Many nights the KAO astronomers spend time educating Observatory visitors about how to set up a telescope, or answering astronomy questions.
Harold Henderson has been doing outreach with the group for 12 years.
"The typical observing program at Lake Afton Public Observatory would typically show you four maybe five objects in a special event," Henderson says. "If you come out to the pad where the KAO Wichita members are using our own telescopes, we will show you something completely different off the schedule as a bonus."
The KAO group doesn’t want to see the Observatory close, so it came up with a business plan to continue operations once WSU pulls out.
KAO President Fred Gassert says the group will provide its own insurance and expand marketing and fundraising efforts.
"The business plan basically says we have qualified members committed to volunteer to do the programs that are necessary to keep the Observatory open," Gassert says. "We have the technology available to us to be able to update and create new and interesting educational exhibits at the Observatory so we can keep the public wanting to come back for more."
The KAO group is pitching its plan to county commissioners hoping to get approval.
Then, the group needs WSU to make a decision about the telescope.
Observatory director Greg Novacek says he’d like to see the equipment stay in use, rather than end up in storage.
"I would recommend that the telescope would stay and the exhibits, for the most part, would stay," Novacek says. "There are a few things out there that belong to the university and those would come back. But the vast majority of the stuff, I would recommend [it] stays."
The Observatory is part of WSU’s Fairmount Center for Science and Mathematics Education. Once WSU no longer operates the Observatory, Novacek will continue to serve as the Fairmount Center’s director. The Fairmount Center will continue to make astronomy a part of the outreach programs they currently offer, such as the Science Olympiad and the Kansas Junior Academy of Science.
It might take some time before there’s a final answer on the KAO plan.
The local astronomers say the Observatory is a real asset to the county, and they hope to keep it from going dark--forever.
The final program for the closing weekend of Aug. 21 and 22 will feature the moon. The Observatory is open from 9:00-11:00 p.m.
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