A visit to the Whipple Observatory Visitors Center brought the first major disappointment of our Southwestern Sojourn. The observatory is a facility of the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. We knew before our visit that we would not be able to go to the top of Mt. Hopkins where the major telescopes are placed. Tours start mid-March and run until late fall. At 8500+ feet in elevation winter conditions are unpredictable. Reservations for tours are essential, the daily limited number of positions frequently fill weeks in advance.
We drive eight miles from the I-19 frontage road to the visitors center. Displays are minimal with several sporting “Out of Order” signs. The best exhibit in the facility is one by the Coronado National Forest of wildlife and nature features in the area. There is a well marked nature trail beginning just before the visitor center parking lot.
A video was started because there was one visitor getting VIP treatment. We saw three segments, all amateurish and dated. One discussing new changes was dated 1990 and another had to be at least ten years earlier than that. The third had little narration. A avid amateur or professional astronomer might find something to gleam but for most of us it went right over our heads.
From observing other visitors I sense we weren’t the only ones disappointed in the lack of information available. I think we all expected more from Harvard and the Smithsonian, we understand the primary mission is research; however, this is a lost opportunity to connect with an interested public.
Trying to elicit information about the tours was fruitless from the elderly lady behind the counter. They are approximately six-hours long and you need to bring your own lunch. But I was unsuccessful in finding out what they cover. If they are no better than the visitors center I wouldn’t bother. But, they do book up so there must be something worthwhile.
2009 is the International Year of Astronomy and the 400th anniversary of astronomical telescopes. From our experience we’ll head to Kitt Peak or Lowell Observatory for an astronomy fix.
The best I can say is that someone is doing a good job keeping the restrooms clean.