A Brief History of Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center by Ann Congdon
The idea for an observatory in the Morongo Basin began to grow in the mind of long-time desert resident Jerri Hagman in response to many comments by guests at her Homestead Inn in Twentynine Palms. Their reaction to seeing - really seeing for possibly the first time - the night sky was, “Wow, there should be an observatory here!”
The seed of a plan took root when Jerri met with Jerry Mattos, another long-time Twentynine Palms resident, who was then on the board of Basin Wide Foundation (BWF). Eager to support a nonprofit venture in Twentynine Palms, BWF provided the down payment for the initial purchase of property. As the plan grew to include a nature center, Sky’s The Limit became the name and captured the enthusiasm of this grassroots, all-volunteer endeavor. Originally an affiliate of BWF, and now an independent corporation, Sky’s The Limit is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization and is truly a basin-wide effort.
The search for an appropriate location involved the participation of an astronomer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA. The site that was selected has a lot going for it: not only does it afford an excellent 360o view, but its nearest neighbor to the south is Joshua Tree National Park, assuring that nothing will be built to impede the view of the darkest part of the night sky. Located on Utah Trail at the southernmost edge of Twentynine Palms, the campus is the first thing to greet visitors coming out of the Park and the last glimpse of the City of Twentynine Palms for visitors as they enter the Park.
The initial transaction was for seven and a half acres of pristine desert land, soon followed by the acquisition of another two and a half acres. In 2009an additional five acres were purchased. Funding comes from donations, grants, and from the Galaxy 72 Club of Investors: groups and individuals who pledge a specific amount for a period of six years.
With purchase of the property, Sky’s The Limit (STL) Committee put forthits mission statement and began to set its goals. “SKY’S THE LIMIT is dedicated to facilitating hands-on experience for learning about the desert, earth, and sky.”
Support and encouragement for an educational program that stresses “hands-on” participation came early on from the Lewis Center for Educational Research in Apple Valley, California. Rick Piercy, President/CEO of the Lewis Center, shared a wealth of valuable experience and inspiration.
As the vision evolved, STL set its objectives:
Construct and operate an astronomical observatory for education and research
Build an amphitheater for both day- and night-time outdoor programs
Develop a center for hands-on education and exploration in archaeoastronomy (the integration of natural and cultural history)
Provide a special area for amateur astronomers so they may use their own equipment
Make the facilities available to the public, schools, and life-long learners throughout the Desert Communities, the Coachella Valley, Banning, Beaumont, and beyond
Preserve native plant and animal life on our 15-acre site
Foster appreciation of the vegetation of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, the two deserts represented in our area, and encourage the use of nativeplants in all local landscaping projects
Make the campus and its buildings an example of sustainable desert design
The Groundbreaking and Blessing of the Land on September 30, 2007 drew a large, enthusiastic crowd of residents from the entire Morongo Basin. The United States Marine Corps Color Guard opened the program, with (then) JTNP Superintendent Curt Sauer and Connor Sauer as MCs.
Following the Ceremony of Blessing the Land by an elder of the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians, a group of young students led the groundbreaking. Two kindergarteners joined a 90-year-old lover of the night sky in turning over the first shovels of earth.
Collaborations and partnerships at this time exceed 25 organizations and numerous families and individuals. Federal supporters include Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP), The United States Marine Corps Air to Ground Combat Center (USMCAGCC), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Within the Morongo Basin, significant support has come in the form of aerial topographic survey, hydrology study, and civil engineering from the City of Twentynine Palms; pro bono site survey and staking as well as design consultation and sustainability guidance from local firms; Copper Mountain College student and faculty participation in projects as diverse as sculpting a scale model of the proposed campus and leading on-site star viewing. Volunteers from Outward Bound and USMC joined a JTNP botanist (retired) and locals in relocating native plants from areas to be graded and in laying out the nature trail. Noted sculptor Simi Dabah has donated ten of his monumental steel pieces to the project.
Donated materials and volunteer labor made possible the construction of two small buildings. One is the Welcome Center/Gift Shop where a project model is on display along with informational materials and souvenir items. The second is a Workshop with astronomical models and teaching materials as well as a “lending library” featuring a variety of small telescopes. When the roll-up door is lifted and the large screen pulled into place, the Workshop becomes an open-air classroom for evening presentations.
STL is off the grid thanks to eight solar panels, donated by Wonder Electric and Eli Marshal and installed by Jeff Arwick, plus a bank of reclaimed batteries donated by the USMC. This system, engineered by STL’s Mike Schmitt, provides the power for computers, projectors, a weather station, and security cameras.
Many generous donations and hours of volunteer effort have gone into the Nature Trail, the Orrery, and the Meditation Garden, all of which provide educational opportunities for groups of all ages. Individual donors contributed two brick pads plus a curving, ADA accessible concrete walkway to provide spots for amateur astronomers to set up their telescopes. The ultimate plan is for a dozen pads, complete with worktables and electrical power for telescopes and computers.
Following construction of the dome (see article by Ray Yeager), a grant from San Bernardino County - initiated by Supervisor Neil Derry - funded the construction of restrooms on campus. With these facilities in place, Sky’s The Limit is continuously expanding its educational program and is welcoming large groups of all ages - from elementary school field trips to Road Scholars programs for senior citizens.
Sky’s The Limit is now focused on creating the amphitheatre for day- and night-time programs. There are many opportunities to support this endeavor.
Observatory and Nature Center 9697 Utah Trail P. O. Box 1 Twentynine Palms, California 92277 760-490-9561