If it’s in the sky, there’s a better than average chance that Grover Hughes of Booneville can tell you about it. Consequently, he eagerly awaits the solar eclipse that will happen on Aug. 21.
Hughes became interested in astronomy in the 1950s as a hobby. The interest worked into a large portion of his profession and his passion for gazing toward the heavens has never wavered.
Now age 92 Hughes has seen eclipses before, but none like this.
“I’ve never seen one this close to totality,” he said last week at his home. “I’ve never seen more than about a half of the sun being obstructed.”
Tuesday will feature much more blockage than that.
“This is the first time in many years that the path of totality has traversed completely across from coast to coast from the Pacific Ocean across the nation and into the Atlantic Ocean,” said Hughes. “It won’t touch every state but every state in the Union will see some degree of the eclipse.
“Ours will be a partial. According to my calculations, I figure the maximum is 87.8 percent will be covered.”
Using Google Earth and Naval Observatory site Hughes found the closest to him for near totality would be in Jefferson City, Mo., about 350 miles away. A son in Fort Worth, Texas offered to drive to Booneville and transport Hughes to Jefferson City but he declined, figuring the city would be overrun with history seekers.
Hughes’ computations show the eclipse will be visible starting at 11:44:20 a.m., with a midpoint of 1:14:10 p.m., and an ending of 2:42.
Further, Hughes calculates it will get dim.
“According to my calculations there will be 4 percent of normal sunlight. I’ve double- and triple-checked the numbers and I’ll do it again but it may get really dim,” he said.
Hughes invites anyone who would like to to come to his home on Dub’s Way Tuesday to safely view the eclipse as he sets up a telescope to project the image through the telescope’s eyepiece onto a piece of paper.
“People can’t get hurt that way and several people at one time can see it,” said Hughes. “And the fact that the white paper is inside a box and out of direct sunlight they can get a better view of it.”
Hughes has lived in Booneville for 13 years, coming to the city with his now late wife, who was a native of the city. The couple met on a Greyhound bus and were married 70 years and 21 days, he says proudly.
The telescope Hughes will use to view the eclipse Tuesday has its own story. It was manufactured in the mid-50s and was part of the Moon Watch program, Hughes said.
“Our country was getting ready to launch a satellite and we didn’t have radar trackers and things like that and so what they did was they went across the nation and got different high schools and other groups to agree to supply kids,” said Hughes. “I was one of the early people in the program and I had been watching satellites from my flat roof so they called me Albuquerque East and called me Moon Watch Station 157 and gave me that telescope.”
Hughes fascination with the heavens began when he worked for Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., though initially he designed the non-nuclear portions of atomic bombs.
“Sandia came to pass because of Los Alamos,” said Hughes. “It was originally the Z Division of Los Almos, which is where Oppenheimer and like-minded individuals put the first atomic bomb together.”
In 1957 Russia launched Sputnik,” said Hughes. “We, the United States, were getting to launch one as part of the international geophysical year, but the Russians put their little heads together and decided ‘we can upstage the Americans’ if we put one in space first.
“So they got real busy and threw a bunch of engineers in it and they beat us to the punch.”
Following the launch Hughes read in his local newspaper that the satellite would be travelling from southwest to northeast and later that evening he witnessed it passing his home.
“I thought my gosh, that’s interesting. Three or four months before that I had bought a $20 pair of binoculars, which I still have, and I bought a $5 book on astronomy, showing the constellations. I had been out at night standing on my flat roofed house and learning the constellations. That night the Sputnik went by through some constellations that I now knew.”
The following day the newspaper reported the satellite would return, but it was to come out of the northwest and going toward the southeast. Why the difference between evening and morning?
“That question changed my life. I wanted to know, why did it get changed around,” Hughes recalls.
So he started studying on his own and he started helping a mathematician, read more and more books, and learned all he could.
A couple of work assignments later Hughes was in field operations, where he designed tracking mounts.
“They used my tracking mounts for years to carry high speed cameras that takes pictures of things like rockets lifting off and guns shooting shells,” said Hughes.
All the while he would spend the evenings watching satellites and the now Sandia Corporation was concentrating more and more on space. That was just fine with Hughes.
“GPS was just being invented and part of our mission was to help determine whether the Russians, Germans or anybody else was setting of clandestine nuclear test shots anywhere on the earth,” said Hughes.
He was called in to help with calibrating a laser beam onto a “GPS bird,” that made its way across the globe twice per day.
Hughes then designed a 30-inch diameter scope and its mount and, “it fired a 30-inch diameter laser beam that lasted for a few milliseconds. The laser beam would hopefully hit the sensors (on the satellite). My job was to write the computer code for the aiming of that big telescope.”
He got so accurate that at any time he was within three arc seconds so the tests moved to daylight hours.