by Gene Allen, in shame
I have only been involved in astronomy for the past few years. I have often felt an utter noob and totally unworthy to hold an office in this hallowed organization. Last night on Baldpate Mountain my inexperience reared its ugly head and resulted in my failure to contribute. My fancy computerized mount was acting up, and there is no manual backup.
I spent my entire working life as a heavy equipment operator, a bit of it as an actual bus driver. It just so happens that the equipment I operated was made by Lockheed, Boeing, and – you guessed it – Airbus. I have spent literally decades pondering accidents and the myriad what-if-right-nows that could adversely impact my workday. I have frequently remarked that the pilot is always the first to arrive at the scene of the accident, and on more than one occasion have told an anxious flight attendant, “Yes, we are all going to die, but it’s not going to be tonight.”
In aviation, some things just cannot be fixed and there is simply nothing that can be done to enable you to survive. Nothing constructive to be gained by pondering those, or anticipating them. Most accidents, however, are the result of a series of events and decisions. Take one event out of the chain, or change one decision, and the crash doesn’t happen. You can usually get away with a mistake, but not if you start putting them together.
My mount aligned itself fine, and I centered carefully on Venus to complete the process. Swapped to a high power eyepiece and described to observers how it looks flat on top because it is only partly illuminated by the Sun, having phases like the Moon. All of a sudden the mount up and moves – a bunch. I grabbed the hand control, and it’s offering me the alignment wizard, some dude I cannot remember ever having met.
For the next half hour I was turning folks away with apologies as I watched my expensive hardware have fits. Figuring it was the cold, I put the hand controller inside several layers as I shared my exasperation with my far more experienced compadres. It wasn’t until Tom said, “Oh, you’ve got a power problem!” that my lightbulb finally lit. Of course! It was winking out, presenting me with the opening logo screen, and beginning another cold start alignment. The battery was providing insufficient voltage. It was literally turning itself off and on.
I could have just retrieved the extension cord from my truck, plugged in the charger, and done another alignment. In less than five minutes I would have been up and running. Did I do that? Nope. I am ashamed to report that by the time I had gathered all this wise, experienced counsel, I had already thrown in the towel and broken everything down. I was packed up and ready to go home.
So, do you see the chain? My first mistake was not recharging the mount battery before the event. I have always done so, but this time I was worrying about creating unnecessary charging cycles. And hey, it’s always worked great. My second mistake was not reporting that neglected action when attempting to troubleshoot the problem. My third mistake was shutting down in angry frustration before troubleshooting was complete. Change any of those actions, and I could have been a contributing participant.
Ah, well, nobody died, and that won’t happen to me again!