The Redneck Astronomer

My life has always been a collision of worlds that never seemed to fit together. This article explains, in part, what I mean.

Published by Tony Darnell on 15th Aug, 2007

God, I hate this freakin’ picture. It was taken last July/August on my vacation to Florida to see my Dad. Before I go any further, I just want to say that I’ve since lost 30 pounds, inspired in no small part, by this freakin’ picture.

I took it with the purpose of maybe using it as the photo on my About page, but when I saw it, I said there was no way I was putting THAT picture on my site.

The more I looked at it though, I came to realize that this picture says a lot about me. No, not that I’m a little too fond of Guinness and microbrews, rather it shows that I’m somewhat of an anomaly (actually, my wife says that all the time). It occured to me that my life straddles many different worlds.

If I were asked to describe myself in one sentence, it would have to be:

“I’m a computer programming redneck astronomer-inventor who plays Irish music, reads science fiction and loves to fish."

I have very humble, simple roots and I seem to be interested in everything. Most of the time, I segregate all of the worlds I inhabit – put everything in my life into little compartments. Sometimes however, those worlds collide.

And it really freaks me out when that happens.

Let me tell you the story behind this photo. It was taken on the last day of our 5-day fishing trip to catch redfish in the Mosquito Lagoon, a region of water immediately north of the Kennedy Space Center. We had spent all morning (since about 4am) fishing. It was stiffling hot, muggy, and we didn’t catch a damn thing.

On the last day, I wanted to go to the Space Center. I was tired of looking at the Space Shuttle on the launch pad from the boat, I wanted to get closer. Besides, I hadn’t been there since the 70’s when my parents took me there for my birthday one year, and I had great memories of it. I wanted my kids to see it too.

So we packed up our stuff at about noon, got the boat out of the water, and went to Titusville.

I want you to visualize this:

Tony and his dad on a boat

We had just come off a boat where we spent all morning taking catfish and trout-that-were-too-small off of hooks, handling shrimp and small mullet for bait, and sweating like proverbial pigs. To say we were ‘ripe’ would be an understatement, trees wilted as we drove by and the alligators shook their heads and made snorting sounds as we passed. I think a couple of seagulls fell out of the sky. We pull up into the Kennedy Space Center parking lot in a pickup truck with CB antennas sticking up, guns in a gunrack (they were my Dad’s), pulling a boat full of fishing gear.

It felt like going to Disney World with the Clampetts (from the Beverly Hillbillies TV show). All that was missing was a Jethro Bodine YEEEEHAAWWW when we pulled up and shooting guns in the air.

The feeling was so surreal, my redneck world had crashed into a world where space travel was common, the gateway to the universe: Kennedy Space Center.

OK, so the first problem was parking. After we found a spot for the truck and boat (we parked by all the gigantic RV’s), and stowed all the valuable hunting and fishing gear, we get on the Tramway to the ticket area. Not surprisingly, we had the entire bench to ourselves. “Remember kids, we parked in ‘Buzz Aldrin’, row 5.” A rather attractive tourist about three rows up kept waving her hand in front of her face. Others were checking the bottoms of their shoes.

For those of you who’ve never been to the Kennedy Space Center, let me just say that you had better be prepared to take out a small loan to get in. Tickets for the four of us cost around $200.00!

My Dad, God bless him, didn’t flinch. When I tried to pay he said, “Put your money away, boy. You ain’t too old for me to kick your ass, you know.” My heritage is a proud one.

So, after we got our tickets, next was security. My Dad had forgotten to leave his big-ass (and I mean BIG-ASS), knife in the truck. It was this big, hairy looking knife with killer jagged edges. Needless to say, security wouldn’t let him through.

So we trekked all the way back to the truck to put the knife away (we walked to spare the pleasant-smelling tourists this time), and went inside.

Now we find ourselves with tourists from all over the world, looking like we just got off the… well… boat.

Tony standing under Saturn V booster

We had a great time. My favourite part was the Apollo Saturn V area. The kids couldn’t believe how large it was. Immediately, all of those hours sitting in front of the TV as a kid came flooding back. I have probably stared at the Saturn V rocket more than anything else in my life, except perhaps into the eyepiece of my telescope. Oh, and Angelina Jolie.

I had stared at it on TV (I also have a probably unhealthy attraction to Walter Cronkite because of my hours watching him talk about the Apollo program), I had posters of it in my room (Is it weird that I had the Apollo 11 crew picture right next to my Farrah Fawcett poster? Please say no.), I built plastic models of it, and I even launched a 1/50th scale model. I dreamt about that rocket and was inspired by what it meant. I wanted to BE in that rocket.

Next we saw the most amazing IMAX movie I have ever seen, Magnificent Desolation . It was probably the best movie (of any kind) I have ever seen (even better than Lord of the Rings). I left that theatre feeling as if I had just gone to the moon. I actually cried, I’m not kidding. The effects were amazing and the re-enactment sequence where the 3-D camera is behind the astronauts as they land the lunar lander on the moon, really got me. It really felt as if I was standing behind Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they landed the Eagle. I was a kid in 1969 living my dream.

A smelly, pudgy, redneck astronomer with tears streaming down his face wearing 3D glasses is not a pretty site. My boys asked if I would please walk a few paces behind them as we exited the theatre.

Our last stop was the Liberty Bell exhibit. The actual capsule that Gus Grissom flew in during the Mercury program had been salvaged and was on display at KSC. “Oh man, are you kidding me?” I was in heaven. This exhibit had artifacts from the time in my life when my strongest memories about becoming an astronaut were born and led to my becoming an astronomer. The 1960’s and 1970’s were a powerful time for me: the dreams of my life were being cast. While I was only about 8 when Armstrong landed on the moon, I had a clarity of purpose that few kids my age could relate to.

My kids however, couldn’t care less.

“Dad, when’s dinner?”
“Look! This is the ACTUAL capsule that Grissom flew in! Look how cramped it is.”
“Yeah Dad, that’s great, but we haven’t eaten since the sandwiches on the boat.”
“Check this out! They found the roll of dimes he took with him!”
“Alright, alright. Here, take this camera and get a picture of me next to this capsule and we’ll go buy one of those $12.00 hamburgers.”

So that’s the story of the picture of a redneck astronomer. It's a picture of a simple guy who couldn’t do math to save his life until he was in his thirties, finally enjoying a life of his dreams working in astronomy. With a beer gut that wouldn’t quit.

After I got home from that trip, I debated deleting that photo from my camera. Instead I printed it out and put it by my computer where I would have to look at it everyday. Now that I’ve lost that weight, I can post it.

So, I’m an anomaly. I’m a redneck astronomer. Like Homer Hickham (from the movie October Sky, a true story of a coal miner’s son who went on to become a NASA engineer), I emerged from the swamps of Florida to study the universe.

Here’s a few characteristics of redneck astronomers (be careful, we spook easily. You could go your whole life and never see one).

  • Say “YEW-knee-varse” instead of universe
  • Have a fishing rod holder on the fork mount of the telescope
  • Love to fish at night so we can do two things at once: stargaze and catch fish. It’s actually our idea of heaven on earth.
  • One of the few groups of people who really know what a truly dark sky looks like.
  • Can see tailing redfish by starlight alone.
  • Have a can holder mounted on the fork arm of their scope and only observe those areas of the sky that won’t cause the beer to spill.
  • Differ from most rednecks in that we drink microbrew beer instead of Bud Light.
  • Hang fishing lures from the guidescope.
  • Have a beer cooler underneath the tripod.
  • Hack our telescopes to include a CB radio.
  • Have old telescopes hanging from a tree in our front yard instead of old car engines.
  • Put naked-lady silhouette mudflaps on our tripods.
  • Have “Insured by Celestron” bumper stickers (I know, I’m reaching with this one).
  • Battle cry: “If telescopes are outlawed, only outlaws will have telescopes.”
  • To us, a 9mm takes on a whole new meaning (it’s an eyepiece focal length – look, if you have to explain it, then it’s not funny…).
  • Cool our CCDs by strapping a cold beer to it.
  • The gun racks in our trucks have refractors in them.
  • Name comets we discover after NASCAR drivers.
  • Name comets we don’t discover after NASCAR drivers.
  • Think NASCAR drivers would make great astronauts.
  • The movie October Sky makes us cry like blubbering idiots.

Published by Tony Darnell

Tony Darnell Profile Picture

Tony Darnell is the creator of Deep Astronomy, LLC, a company dedicated to sharing the wonders of the universe and providing perspective of our place in the cosmos. For most of his life, Tony has been interested in science communication and education and has dedicated the best part of his life towards that interest. While embarked on that mission, for 30 years Tony has also worked as a software engineer and worked on writing code for telescopes, astronomy data pipelines, image processing and data analysis. His last gig was the goal of a lifetime: working on data from the Hubble Space Telescope.