The Sentinels


Kitt Peak National Observatory lies at the top of a mountain range an hour and a half outside of Tucson, on the ancestral land of the Tohono O’Odham. The observatory domes sit atop the ridge like little spacecraft of their own. Some are better maintained than others. There are over 20 of them up there, and 2 of them were designed and instigated by Tom. 

We drove through the desert, past churches and fast food chains of every denomination and variety, past billboard adverts for the upcoming gun show (We Have Ammo!!!!) and slowly through border control in tense silence. The saguaro cacti stand like ancient witnesses along the road, and as you climb higher, the clouds cast shadows on the earth.

The air is naturally very still at that altitude, crucial to observe the stars (any movement will distort the images needed by the astronomers). Birds and crickets wander about and there are signs to warn visitors of bears and snakes. The O’Odham believe this peak is the summer home of I’itoi, their mischievous creator god, and the land is very sacred- you won’t find a Taco Bell up here. Astronomers visit here for a few days, observing through the night and sleeping in one of the dormitories during the day, so you have to keep your voice down.

We go inside one of the scopes with its hulking heavy machinery, and, of course, visit the gift shop. Then we take a walk around a gently curving road, past the never-used basketball court installed for the astronomers (not the most athletic breed- there is grass growing through the cracks in the concrete), keeping one eye on the bank of black cloud lurking over the desert that threatens to unleash on us at any moment. 

Jo-Ann, Tom’s daughter, is carrying a bottle of wine and some plastic cups in her bag, and we take it to the steps of the Spacewatch telescope that Tom fundraised for and designed. From the outside, the telescope is unassuming- it is not as large or gleaming or as grand as others on the mountain, but Spacewatch’s primary mission is to observe the skies for near-earth asteroids, like two sentinels on guard on the peak. We take a toast to Tom (or ‘Pops’ as he is more widely known here), and spill a little of the wine in the ground as an offering. 

In Tom’s obituary, when he was asked what he would do if he discovered an asteroid hurtling towards the earth, he replied, “Well I’d go outside and take a look, of course!”