History

The seeds for Badlands Observatory were firmly planted when Ron Dyvig left employment as a research technician at the University of Arizona in 1972. While residing there, Ron had the opportunity to work on projects relating to the new electro-optical cameras that were coming into use on the large telescopes located on Kitt Peak, the largest assemblage of telescopes in the world at the time. He vowed to himself that he would, some day, have an observatory of his very own that would contain a research-grade telescope to be used both for private and public observations.

Ron had been involved in telescope making for many years and, therefore, decided to design his own instrument and fabricate his own optics. He decided to incorporate a 26" f/4.8 Newtonian reflector design. It was decided this would be the largest mirror he could comfortably fabricate and test in his basement optical shop in Rapid City, SD. This design would also be compatible with his research interests as well as public use. The optics were successfully completed, and then finally star-tested in a temporary portable telescope in 1995. He designed the permanent equatorial fork-type mounting, but because of its size, decided to have the heavy welding and machine work performed at a local machine shop. The finished 26" telescope and mount weighs over 3000 lb., and is one of the largest fully computerized instruments within the surrounding states.

During this period of time, Ron was examining many sites (43 in all) around the Black Hills area in order to find a possible location for his observatory. To be sure, a site with nice dark skies would be a prerequisite. In early 1998, he discovered a piece of property for sale in Quinn, South Dakota.  Present on that property was an old former hospital building that had been virtually unoccupied for several years. The property was being offered for sale by a private individual who had acquired it from a tax sale. At first, this idea seemed a very bizarre proposition! However, this substantial old building, with about 4,500 sq. ft. of floor space, was divided into 3 sections that could be used for: a) the observatory, b) several dormitory-style guest rooms plus meeting room, and c) Ron’s living quarters. The asking price was very low because of the general run down condition of the property, coupled with very few interested buyers. The deal was solidified when the Quinn City Council was receptive to shielding the street lights. They felt the observatory could be an asset to the community as well as occupy a vacant building and local landmark for the Quinn area.

The project progressed very nicely during 1998 when many members of the Black Hills Astronomical Society (BHAS) pitched in and offered tremendous assistance in the construction phase of the observatory. By November 1998, the basic dome portion of the observatory had been constructed and Ron had moved into the living quarters section. THEN DISASTER STRUCK! On the early morning of Dec. 30, 1998, the chimney in an old wood-burning stove malfunctioned. The horror story that followed involved Ron rescuing Mandy, the observatory cat, and escaping the blaze at 3:00 a.m. The local volunteer fire departments responded very quickly and, initially it was thought the fire had been extinguished with only the living quarters being burned. However, shortly after sunrise the freezing wind kicked up to over 40mph and re-kindled some embers within the attic area. It was now virtually unstoppable! All in all, 10 volunteer fire departments from towns as far away as 80 miles responded in the attempt to save the structure. Fortunately, the mechanical parts of telescope were still under construction back in Rapid City when the fire occurred. Thanks to an individual initiative by a friend and neighbor Frank Slater, the 26" primary mirror was saved and the observatory section was spared, except for severe smoke and water damage! It had been thought the entire structure would be lost, but when Frank found out from Ron that the primary mirror was being stored beneath the observatory floor, he notified the county fire coordinator and they decided to see if maybe, at least something could be saved. As a result, two crack firemen from the fire unit at Ellsworth Air Force Base, as well as another from the Philip, SD Fire Dept. decided to give it a try. Wearing their fire retardant suits and donning oxygen gear, they entered the opaque smoke. The result was not only that the mirror was rescued, but that the observatory section of the building could also be saved. In spite of the fact that Ron lost nearly all his personal possessions, he will be forever grateful to everyone involved, because without their combined efforts, nothing would have been saved, and Badlands Observatory would not exist today.

In the weeks that followed, the trauma of this event began to gradually subside. Ron and his friends from the BHAS decided to attempt completion of the observatory, albeit on a greatly reduced scale. This would be necessary because there had been insufficient insurance coverage to rebuild the structure as before, or much less, replace the contents. The observatory section of the building would now have to accommodate Ron’s living quarters as well as the observatory itself. The extra dormitory and meeting rooms would have to be forgone. Future options might eventually include use of the large, burned-out center section of the building as an open air observation deck for meetings and public star parties.

The happy end of this tale involves Ron moving into his new living quarters in February 2000, with the telescope following on March 4th. Work over the next several weeks involved completion of the computer room and doing final finishing of the telescope. FIRST LIGHT was achieved on May 27, 2000.  This was an event that was by no means guaranteed even a few months earlier. The July 3, 2000 edition of the Rapid City Journal carried a front page, feature article about the successful completion of Badlands Observatory titled "Observing a Dream". Needless to say, this was far more satisfying than the nightmarish article that had appeared in the December 30, 1998 edition.

 

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