Astronaut Buzz Aldrin returns for "First Light" celebration

Buzz Aldrin looks around the work room where inmates carve and paint sandstone rock into beautiful sculptures. Inmate and artist Billy Beck watches.

Buzz Aldrin looks around the work room where inmates carve and paint sandstone rock into beautiful sculptures. Inmate and artist Billy Beck watches.

Former astronaut Dr. Buzz Aldrin was the guest of honor Thursday during the "First Light" opening celebration of the Jack C. Davis Observatory.

A member of the famed Apollo XI team and one of the first men to walk on the moon, Aldrin first lent his support to the development of the observatory at Western Nevada Community College two years ago.

"I'm thrilled to see this kind of progress," Aldrin said. "I wish we could make this kind of progress with the space program."

An ardent advocate of space travel and teaching youth about the field, Aldrin said astronomy and education are vital to the continuation of the space program.

"We've learned so much in my lifetime," he said. "Our understanding has expanded tremendously, just by examining the stars."

A walkway connects the main campus with the observatory with planets represented in sandstone images carved and painted by members of the Vietnam Veterans' Chapter 545 at the Nevada State Prison.

Aldrin's itinerary included a visit to the prison, where he shook hands with the artists.

Helaine Jesse, vice president for institutional advancement at the college, presented the prison artists with specially minted silver coins.

Jackie Crawford, director of Nevada's Department of Corrections, presented Aldrin with a plaque of appreciation.

"I do appreciate all the work you've done," Aldrin said to the prisoners. "You've contributed to inspiring others to learn more about the stars, and I thank all of you."

The idea to build an observatory began in January 2000 with a $100,000 donation from the Nevada Gaming Association for Educational Excellence.

Aldrin's visit in 2001 increased support for the project. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., authored an appropriations bill in the U.S. Senate, leading to an additional $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The observatory is now a 2,800 square-foot, $1.2 million facility.

Located just northwest of the college, the observatory has three telescopes, one equipped with a spectrograph to collect data from stars.

The facility includes a Campbell Scientific research-grade weather station. A fourth telescope, used to study the sun, is in a robo-dome just outside the building.

Completion of the observatory has led to an expansion of offerings in astronomy, including planetary astronomy, white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes and stellar astronomy, said Anne Hansen, college spokeswoman.

"This is a dream come true for me," said Dr. Robert Collier, professor of physics and astronomy.


First Light events for the Jack C. Davis Observatory


-- 4 p.m. - Ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception- hosted by the Western Nevada Community College Foundation

-- Dusk-10 p.m. - Astronomical Society tours and viewing of the stars


-- Noon - 9 p.m. - Astronomical Society tours

-- 2 p.m. - Lecture by Dr. Gerrie Peters, University of Southern California Research scientist, on the evolution of hot, massive stars.


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