The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Jim Fisher
For The Sentinel 

Carpenter puts new face on Observatory



New at the observatory: Troy Carpenter has been making changes in his short time at the Goldendale Observatory.

On Oct. 25 the Goldendale Observatory will celebrate its 40th year of bringing the cosmos before the eyes of the masses. Built in 1973 to house one of the nation’s largest public telescopes, it was purchased by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission in 1980. It has since hosted tens of thousands of visitors wanting a closer look at what the night sky has to offer. When Steve Stout retired from his interpretive specialist position at the Observatory in June, a man who had signed on as his assistant only two months prior found himself filling some unexpectedly vacated shoes.

Troy Carpenter, a native of upstate New York, worked in the wind energy industry and taught as a professor of renewable energy sciences before coming to the Gorge area to visit a friend who teaches at CGCC. He was unaware that the big silver dome on a hill in Goldendale even existed before his friend suggested he make the trip to see it. Carpenter, a man whose interest in astronomy cannot be described as casual, has chosen the very places he has lived based on the average amount of cloud cover that could potentially obscure his lens.

Overcast and stormy, the night of his first visit to the Observatory was hardly a good one for stargazing. He arrived in a downpour and met Stout in the dark parking lot. After having the park fee explained to him and introducing himself, Carpenter was invited inside. Shortly thereafter he found himself in the interpretive center with 50 kids on a fieldtrip from out of town. Spirits were low, as the children had come hoping to see amazing things through a giant telescope. Mother Nature had decided that this was not in the cards, so instead the fifth-grade school group was treated to Stout’s recital of the history and details of the facility and equipment. Carpenter felt that the restless group of youths weren’t really connecting with the oral presentation, and having been a young person himself not so long ago, began asking Stout questions he already knew the answers to, about things he thought the kids would enjoy. Interests were piqued, and enthusiasm started to trickle into the crowd. Even though the big telescope was useless through the rainclouds, Carpenter urged Stout to show off its robotic aspects to the young group. Stout indulged him, moving the telescope back and forth, up and down. The kids loved it. Next, Carpenter suggested that he rotate the giant silver dome that houses the scope. Things clunked, the electric motor purred, and the school-children were amazed to see the entire roof spin 360 degrees.

Once the satisfied group had boarded their bus and headed home, Stout, impressed by what he had seen, offered Carpenter an assistant position on the spot. After some consideration, he found himself unable to pass up the opportunity to do something he truly loves for a living. Carpenter quit his job and moved from the east coast to Goldendale and began learning the ins and outs of the facility under Stout’s guidance. Little did he know at the time that Stout would retire within two short months, and he would be left manning the helm alone.

Judging by positive visitor reviews and stellar endorsements from his State Park supervisors, this is something that Carpenter has had no trouble doing. Washington State Parks area manager Lem Pratt spoke at a recent Chamber of Commerce luncheon about his new man up on the hill: “We literally have an entire stack of comment cards about Troy’s presentation with nothing but great, excellent comments. I am seeing him actually engage teenagers, and most adults know that is nearly impossible!”

Goldendale resident Jessica Daniel recently took the tour and says, “If you haven’t been up to the Observatory recently, you need to go. There is an awesome new guy up there who really knows his stuff, and he makes the whole trip fun and interesting. I got to see the sun and Venus during the day and then that night looked at Saturn and one of its moons, our moon, and even saw three awesome shooting stars and the space station go overhead. Visiting is a definite must!”

A recent online review of the tour posted by a woman named Patti Wall states, “Troy will take you on an extraordinary imaginary trip through the universe. His enthusiasm and knowledge are contagious. I’ve been reciting heavenly facts for days since my visit; before that I could only recognize the big dipper.”

This last Saturday there were about 40 people in attendance for Carpenter’s nighttime presentation. Many had come from as far as the Puget Sound specifically to visit the Observatory. One signature in the guest book that night was of a person who hailed from Florida. Carpenter zeroed the big telescope in on ring nebulae and star clusters to the audible delight of those that climbed the stairs to the eyepiece. He had smaller telescopes and gigantic binoculars set up outside for visitors to use as well, and pointed out this and that with a dazzlingly powerful green laser pointer that appeared to shine on out through the galaxy itself.

Carpenter presents as a powerful and entertaining speaker who is able to break down complicated celestial situations into easily understood layman’s terms. He sprinkles interesting tales from history into his oration, explaining at one point that astronomy got a big boost from a king of old who bought into a common superstition that the appearance of a comet was a harbinger of a ruler’s demise and employed early astronomers to search the skies for these threats of doom. In the process they discovered many things that were not comets, but were very interesting to the newly developing pool of scientific minds.

Avid astronomers and casual observers alike chatted comfortably with Carpenter throughout the show, and he fielded each of their questions with enthusiasm and confidence. He did, in fact, engage most everyone there, teenagers included. Finding a little extra time before the park closed, he moved the big telescope again one more time for what he called “a bonus peek at the color of Uranus.” Even after the clock had struck closing-time he remained in the hallway accepting thank-yous from visitors and exchanging contact info with a few that had a more in-depth interest in astronomy.

Carpenter explained to The Sentinel that he has many big plans in to works to modify the facilities and encourage more visits by the public. He has already re-written the program that viewers are shown in the interpretive center and made changes under the dome. On his first day in charge he removed the barricades from inside the telescope room, which he felt gave the area too much of a “cattle-chute” feel. He is working on developing a new system to display the telescope images on HD televisions throughout the visitor’s center for those that may be unable to climb the steps up to the telescope. There have been talks of hosting “Star Parties,” and during his presentation at a recent Chamber of Commerce business lunch, Pratt mentioned that something may be in the works involving the Observatory and next year’s bluegrass festival. There could possibly even be a Halloween haunted house this year. There is also talk of tearing down the intimidating chain link fence that encircles the grounds and gives it what Pratt described as “the appearance of a military compound,” though there are many who still view the fence as a necessary safeguard against vandalism.

Pratt and Carpenter are excited about the future of the Observatory facilities and they have grand plans for building and equipment modifications over time. The winds of change are blowing through many other state parks right now as well, but not necessarily in a good way. The park system has been struggling financially for quite a while, and without some major appropriations the Observatory park will have to remain mostly as-is for now. With threats of park closures state-wide, Pratt is hoping to turn the Goldendale Observatory into a crown-jewel of the region’s park systems with potential to bring some heavy tourist dollars to town. Of the 20 or so signatures in the guest book Saturday night, only one was from the Goldendale area. Some were in town seeing friends and relatives, but most of them had come specifically to visit the Observatory and would be leaving money in the cash boxes of local restaurants and places of lodging before they returned home.

Pratt remains optimistic. He urges the community to renew their interest in the unique opportunity under the dome on the hill. “If you haven’t been up there recently to see what Troy is doing, you’ve just got to go. When he comes in up there, sparks fly.”

For more information on hours and available programming call the park office at 773-3141.


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