Ross Sackett's amateur telescope making
Me, me, me!
Me (on left) with my smart friend, at the Griffith Observatory, 2006
The Moon Coming to Bounce Off the
Sun (c.1961). Medical tape and india
ink on plywood drawer bottom.
Sidewalk astronomy with dad and a Tasco
40mm, Los Angeles, Christmas 1962
One of my earliest memories is astronomical. On February 15, 1961
a total solar eclipse passed over southern France, where we lived
while my father wrote his dissertation on Paleolithic archeology. I
think I saw the eclipse--I certainly remember it--though the family
history is a little vague. The excitement had a big impact on me. I
made the drawing on the left linking the eclipse to my growing interest
in space travel. I remember drafting it in the corner lab of the Les
Eyzies archeological museum, with my dad measuring Aurignacian
stone tools beside me.
I was hooked--everything was space and stars to me after that. I went
everywhere in my "space helmet," which my cousins tell me looked
suspiciously like a beat-up aluminum collander.
I got my first telescope the Christmas after we moved to Los
Angeles. It was a variable-power Tasco achromatic refractor on a
low tripod. I remember wedging it at an angle on the hood of the
family Buick to get a look at the moon. I still have that scope.
This was followed by a 60mm refractor on an alt-az mounting, then
an equatorially-mounted 60mm borrowed from my grandfather which
became my main instrument through my school years. Along the
way I tried to make a 6" mirror.
Around the age of 10 I made a solar spectroscope out of disposable
coffee cups and a perfectly good pair of Zeiss 50mm binoculars. At
least they were perfectly good before I got my hands on them. After
that they were just lenses and prisms taped to foam cups. But with a
razor blade slit and a shaving mirror heliostat they became a
table-top spectroscope that showed lots of beautiful Fraunhofer lines.
I applied to UCLA intending to major in astronomy, but my family
background in prehistory and the exotic allure of primitive cultures
beckoned (ok, so did the pretty girls, especially my future wife
Ruthbeth) and I put my skywatching on hold while I worked on my
anthropology B.A., then M.A., then Ph.D.
I learned to make stone tools and worked on digs in France and
California, then shifted focus to ethnographic research with living
South American Indians in Venezuela and Ecuador.
In Yu'pa Indian territory near the
Venezuela-Colombia border, 1981
I filed my dissertation in 1996, bringing me the free time and
income to get back into astronomy in a big way. Starting with
several pairs of binoculars and small commercial telescopes, I
progressed to making increasingly large scopes in my garage
shop. Soon I was competing in telescope making competitions at
star parties in Vermont and California.
During the academic year I teach evolutionary anthropology,
prehistory, and anthropological statistics at the University of
Memphis. Every other summer Ruthbeth and I return to the
Ecuadorean Andes to continue our long-term research with the
Saraguro Indians (and sneak in some equatorial skywatching).
At Stellafane 2007 with 18" Moonsilver IV
But I never completely gave up my interest in the sky. Student
archeological fieldwork far from the light bubble of urban Los
Angeles brought me under spectacular dark desert skies, and I
knew that once I was done with my degrees I would be back in the
Graduate ethnographic research in Venezuela and Ecuador
introduced me to the incredible astronomical sights of the Southern
With two Yu'pa pipintu, Yurmutu 1982