This story originally aired on November 9, 2019.
The Manastash Ridge Observatory, or the MRO, sits on top of a huge stretch of earth that pops out of the surrounding landscape of flat timothy hay fields.The ridge is actually an earthquake fault line, one of several in this part of the state.
Getting to the observatory involves a white-knuckle drive on a road full of rocks, a creek and at least one washout. Luckily, we are in an old Jeep Cherokee with high clearance. Parker Miles Blohm, KNKX’s photographer (who also knows how to change a tire), is in the passenger seat.
“Wow, there’s a truck down there that hit a tree,” Blohm says, looking down a steep slope. “It looked like an old 80s pickup. It had been smashed into a tree. The doors, windows and everything are gone. Hopefully, that won’t be us."
It’s early evening. We arrive at the top in one piece. We’re almost 4,000 feet up. We enter the whitewashed building. Most of it feels like a bunker.
Megan Kokoris, 21, and 26-year-old Mercedes Thompson, who are both studying physics and astronomy, give us a quick tour.
“Don’t drink the tap water, it's collected outside," Kokorkis says. "And a word of advice, don’t go in that room, it smells really bad."
When we ask what the source of the smell is Kokorkis says: “Mice.”
We head upstairs to the living room and kitchen area. Parker and I bring up two pizzas to share with the four students.
One wall is mostly windows. It’s truly a bird’s eye view. Mount Stewart is off to the left, Ellensburg down to the right. Sleeping bags are spread out on the big sofa. There’s a TV and a record player.
This is like overnight camp, or a fancy treehouse for astronomy students.
Except the food is much better. Twenty-year-old Sonia del Casal, another dual physics and astronomy major, goes over the menu.
“Right now we’re making wontons with tofu, carrots, napa cabbage and mushrooms," del Casal says. "I’ve made this cucumber dish that my grandma makes a lot. It has chili oil, garlic and vinegar."
There are also spring rolls with shrimp, stir fried green beans covered in scrambled eggs that taste like chicken, peanut sauce made from scratch and fried tofu triangles. Clearly, the pizzas we brought are not needed.
Kokoris and Thompson continue the tour and save the best for last. They lead the way into the cavernous room that holds the telescope. It’s a large white cylinder hanging from the ceiling.
Back in 1972, when this place was first built, everything here was state of the art. Today, it’s a bit obsolete. Over the decades, telescopes went from being operated in person to being manipulated remotely by computers. The observatory is now mostly used to teach astronomy students.
“It’s cool going from remotely using a telescope to to actually be hands on controlling it here,” Kokoris says.
Just because this telescope is old doesn’t mean it hasn’t had any updates. Megan holds up what looks like an Xbox controller. This is what opens the enormous dome and moves the telescope.
As the sun gets lower in the sky, the telescope is pointing at Zenith.
“Zenith means it’s pointing straight above us,” Kokorkis explains. If the telescope is not pointed at Zenith, it doesn’t know where to go.
We make our way out onto the roof and again; the view from here is vast.
The students get really excited talking about space and how they’re able to learn so much about space by using instruments such as this telescope, which is essentially a giant light catcher.
“You are literally collecting light and to be able to find the distance, the temperature, what is in the atmosphere, the type of the star, how old it is, how long it’s going to live and if there are planets around it. So many things,” Kokorkis says, excitedly.
On this night, the students will collect images of stars to learn if their light varies.
As we wait for the sun to set, we eat the delicious meal and Thompson shares more about the culture of this place. Things can get pretty silly here.
“If you’re on a trip with another group coming after you, we always try and prank each other," Thompson says. "So the group before us made all of these butt drawings. There’s a drawing in the control room right now that’s MRO with human legs and a butt."
Cleaning up after dinner, someone asks Thompson about a new ring on her left hand. Thompson shares the news that her longtime partner proposed; she said yes. Everyone squeals with surprise and shares their congratulations.
When the students aren’t gathering data and working with the telescope, they’re sharing moments like this — moments that are the building blocks for an adult life. However, youth still has a strong hold. Keeping in tune with the whole sleepaway camp vibe here, the students have deep conversations tucked in their sleeping bags.
“We have great conversations as we go to sleep,” del Casal says.
Thompson adds: “As astronomers, some of the questions you have to accept like how mall you are and how like everything you do in the end is kind of irrelevant.”
All of the students agree that, because their lives are tiny blips in the grand scale of time, they are free to make bold choices and pursue their passions.
“It relieves this pressure of existence,” Thompson says.
Before heading back down the horrible road in the dark, we all go outside to look up at the sky. The Milky Way stretches out above us. The dome of the observatory is open. The red lights from inside make it look like a giant white pizza oven that’s on fire.
It’s only 10 p.m. The peak hours for the students to study the sky are between 11:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. Their heads won’t hit pillows until 4 a.m. For them, the night is still young.