To infinity and beyond...
Robert Ferguson Observatory looks to the future with new executive director
When the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park slides back the dome on its 40-inch refractor telescope and opens its classroom doors at a typical “star party” on a warm summer night 200 people will be there, hoping to catch a glimpse of a planet, moon or other celestial body through one of the observatory’s three telescopes.
The observatory, dedicated to public science and astronomy education throughout its 20-plus-year history, has been an all-volunteer effort, led by the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association, the nonprofit which built, operates and maintains the observatory (RFO).
“We no longer want to be Sonoma County’s best kept secret, we want people to know we are here,” said Chris Cable, the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association’s new executive director. Cable, who started this April, is the association’s first-ever paid staff person – and a signal that the nonprofit is ready to position itself to grow.
“It’s been an evolution of construction and instrument upgrades to get where we are now,” said Colleen Ferguson, board member and daughter of Robert Ferguson, the observatory’s namesake. In 1996, when the observatory opened to the public with one telescope, it was the realization of many years of work by a small group of passionate volunteers, several of whom are still board members today. Over the next two decades, building a classroom and additional observatory wing, adding two more telescopes, maintaining the equipment and facilities, developing its educational offerings, and hosting its monthly public events has been an ongoing labor of love for those volunteers, now a group of about 70 people. While two of the observatory’s three telescopes have been donated over the years (one from Dominican University and one from University of San Francisco), the observatory’s most modern and biggest 40-inch telescope was built, donated and installed in 2016 by longtime volunteers Steve Follett, Mark Hillestad, Larry McCune and George Loyer.
A volunteer effortRFO hosts monthly public daytime solar observing, where people can safely look at – and listen to – the sun, and nighttime public “star parties.” It is also available for rental for private “star parties,” and hosts educational series on seasonal astronomical topics of interest. Since 2017, the observatory has hosted more than 7,500 visitors from around the Bay Area, despite being closed for three months after the North Bay fires in October 2017. Colleen Ferguson said she’s even met tourists from London who chose to spend the last night of their stateside vacation at an RFO star party because they’d heard from their London astronomy club just how wonderful the presentations at RFO were.
Volunteer docents hail from a variety of backgrounds like computer programming or electrical engineering, but also have included a winemaker, high school math teacher, and a hot tub salesman. Many come from Sonoma County, but a few travel all the way from Ukiah, Willits, and San Francisco to share their knowledge of the night sky.
“It’s so remarkable to me what they’ve been able to do here for 20-plus years,” said Cable. “It’s a special place that attracts the same people over and over for decades.”
A shift in focus“Over the years I think they’ve realized how much work it is to run an organization,” said Cable. “At some point, you reach a point where you’ve got to get over a hump in order to grow as an institute.”
“We have the equipment, so the next thing is to build capacity, do more outreach to the community. So that means a shift in direction from building stuff to operating an observatory,” said Ferguson. “Operating an observatory is something we need to get good at.”
That’s where Cable comes in.
“He’s new to the area, but has that experience on the operating side,” said Ferguson, who lives in eastern Santa Rosa. “We are delighted that he’s here.”
Cable, born in Idaho and raised in Sacramento, recently moved to Rohnert Park with his longtime partner, Laura Peticolas, who is a physicist and Associate Director with the Education and Public Outreach Group at Sonoma State University.
Cable is a biologist by training, but has spent the bulk of his career – the past 25 years – running nonprofit science centers from Alaska to Colorado. Most notably, he was in charge of growing Alaska’s only discovery center, the Imaginarium in Anchorage (similar to San Francisco’s Exploratorium), from a small organization with a $400,000 annual budget and seven employees into an institution with an annual budget of $1.6 million and 20 employees that is now housed in its own wing at the Anchorage Art and Science Museum.
“We wanted someone whose primary job would be to focus on the observatory and observatory needs,” said Dave Kensiski. Kensiski, who lives in Benecia, is board president, volunteer IT director and an engineer at Google. “It’s an experiment that’s turning out as quite a success.”
Cable and the board of directors will be working on seven priorities over the next few years, with the first being to expand the board from six to fifteen seats.
“We want to bring in more diversity in terms of skills and the physical make up of the board,” said Kensiski. Expanding the board will help give a better representation to docents and help the board draw from a wider range of professions and the community.
Additional members will give the board flexibility to develop committees with bandwidth to handle additional work on topics like public relations and marketing, program and docent development, or fund development.
“The biggest challenge now is getting enough volunteers to run the programs we envision, so that’s a big part of this growth,” added Kensiski.
Outreach and educationThat vision includes expanding RFO’s educational outreach programs for elementary and high school students, and increasing its research partnerships at the high school, junior college and university levels.
To “strike sparks,” as Robert Ferguson would say.
RFO was named after Petaluma resident Robert “Bob” Ferguson, known as “the father of striking sparks,” who got joy out of striking sparks in the imaginations of school children. “I grew up with a dad who was passionate about astronomy and getting telescopes in the hands of kids,” said Colleen.
Bob Ferguson, a retired PG&E safety engineer and an amateur astronomer, dedicated his garage space to other members in the nascent Sonoma County Astronomical Society in the late 1970s to build homemade telescopes and other tinkering.
As president of the Astronomical Society, schools invited him to speak about his hobby and he placed telescopes at school star parties. In the 1980s he spent his days making telescopes, sponsored by the club, for elementary school students throughout Sonoma County. The club would sell the telescopes for about $100, at a time when a comparable telescope might cost $500 to $600.
Colleen, an engineer and public works director with the City of Sonoma, said she’s not one to operate a telescope herself, but she shares her father’s awe of the humbling night sky. “I love the outside world and being outside under the stars puts it all in perspective. There’s all these things we get worked up about, just stuff, that makes us concerned, agitated. Out under the stars, it’s not that big of a deal.”
This year, RFO merged with the Sonoma County Astronomical Society, and will continue the society’s youth education programs, including the Striking Sparks Annual Telescope Awards Program, which Bob Ferguson began in the mid-80s with seven handmade telescopes, plus The Young Astronomers program, and school astronomy nights.
Throughout the month of September, the observatory is also partnering with Sonoma County libraries to provide a series of space-themed events, culminating in making contact with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. At the Rincon Valley Library on Monday, Sept. 16, 6-7 p.m., RFO volunteers will set up telescopes to teach kids (grades 4-9) how to use them. Then, at the Sonoma Valley Library on Sept. 28, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., volunteers from RFO will provide a telescope (with special filter) so viewers can look directly at the sun, and inside the library kids (grades K-6) can explore hands-on, space-themed activity stations. Check out more events at sonomalibrary.org/space.
A passion for astronomy“It makes us all incredibly happy to hear 'oohs' and 'aahs' when a child or adult peers into the eyepiece and sees the rings of Saturn, the moon of Jupiter, a nebula or a beautiful cluster of stars,” said Nancy Cummings, who has been volunteering with the observatory since she retired in 2010. “When I met the other docents, I knew I had finally found a place among the other geeks where my knack for schmoozing comes in handy. My enthusiasm for the subject far outweighs my knowledge, but it forces me to keep learning.”
It’s this passion, shared by so many of RFO’s volunteers, that the board also hopes to acknowledge, cultivate and support going forward.
“It’s a fabulous team we have up there,” said Colleen Ferguson. “It would be wonderful to support them in ways so they can do more of the things they want to do.” That means having the capacity to hire support staff so volunteers can do a little more teaching and ‘striking sparks’ and a little less scheduling and cleaning the bathrooms.
“Those people from London didn’t come to RFO because we had cool instruments, they came because of the people,” said Colleen. “When I’m out in the community, I don’t hear people talking about our equipment, they talk about the people. That’s greatest asset the observatory has.”
“We are very excited to have Chris on board and thrilled by the work he’s done so far and looking forward to the next chapter,” said Kensiski.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.