I am not an avid astronomer, but I do like to watch strange phenomena. A solar eclipse is one that should not be missed. Sundays event alas was outside of my viewing area. But I knew that somewhere in the wild world of the internet there would be a live feed. 

As I had a two hour radio program to prep for and then host, my time seeking down feeds was somewhat limited. Wired.com put up an article and pointed readers at the Slooh space camera. So after I finished my broadcast I opened up Slooh. It looked good, there was a countdown timer etc, but when the timer reached zero, there was no feed. I prodded and poked and discovered that they wanted $150 to view the stream. To say I was pissed does not do it justice. I was hopping mad! I won’t even give them the benefit of a link!

The article on Wired also mentioned some guy by the name of Scotty Degenhardt, an amateur astronomer who would be broadcasting from the much fabled Area 51 in Nevada. This obviously got my attention. The broadcast was going to be from the much touted Black Mail Box.

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I was hooked already. A solar eclipse and Area 51 all rolled into one, what could be better?

I tuned in. It was indeed far better coverage than the dry and boring one offered by Sloth or whatever they call themselves. I missed the very beginning (trying to open Sloth), while it was clear that Scotty was not actually transmitting from Area 51’s fabled mail box, but it sure was fun to watch. It was rough and ready, and was the classic example of broadcasting a live event that you care about, rather than the views of the the tv station or advertiser.

Scotty did a wonderful job. He did what many could not. He engaged the audience, particularly the families with little kids that stopped by to see what was going on.

I enjoyed it all. So much so that I decided that I wanted to interview Scotty Degenhardt. Well I have to admit that he is not the easiest man in the world to track down. He seems to keep a pretty low profile online. None of the usual ‘suspects’ seemed to know anything about the man. I put on my serious mining gear, and finally struck gold. I found a web site that just had to belong to him. scottysmightymini.com.

I caught up with Scotty by phone, and he agreed to an interview. One of the things I noticed was that he was just as engaging and enthusiastic on the phone as he was on the broadcast.

Simon Barrett: I believe the original plan was to film it just outside of Area 51, from the infamous mailbox, but clearly that did not happen, what is the real story?

Scotty Denghardt: Yes that was Plan A, My wife and I headed out to the mail box area to do a ground survey. Believe it or not at the heart of the broadcast technology is an iPhone, and the closer we got to the mailbox the faster the signal strength was dropping. We had no bars by the time we arrived. I really wanted to cover the eclipse live rather than record it, so that made the site a no go. We backtracked a few miles and found what looked like a far better location. I quickly sent the GPS info to my friend and started to unpack the gear. It did not take long to discover that once again the live broadcast was in jeopardy. I had been worried about the iPhone being fully charged up and had topped the charge off in the hotel. The charging cord is also the one that connects it to the computer, I had left it in the hotel!

My partner in crime arrived and we discussed the options. He was not very happy with our location, and suggested that we pull back a few more miles and set up in the small town of Alamo. He had spotted a Gas Station that would make the perfect location.

So with time running out, we headed to Alamo. Finally we had our gear set up, we solved the wiring problem, and we were ready.

Simon Barrett: I would imagine that you also became a bit of a tourist attraction. Men with telescopes in broad daylight gathered together in a Gas Station parking lot must have turned a few heads?

Scotty: hahaha yes we did soon collect a group of interested onlookers.

Simon: Tell me a little about yourself? Where do you live?

Scotty: I lived in Tennessee for 50 years, but call New Mexico home now. 

Simon: When did the lure of the stars attract you?

Scotty: Oh that goes back a long way. I was around age 12, and I would watch the local TV news broadcasts, they had a weatherman, I can no remember his name, but he would always include a little something about astronomy, where the planets were in the night sky, meteor showers etc. He also wrote the weather column in the local daily newspaper. Every morning I’d be the first to retrieve the paper, and I headed straight for the weather report

When I was 14 I somehow managed to back my father into a corner. He took me to K-Mart and bought me my first telescope. K-mart is not known for high end optics, but I was in heaven. That night I made my first find, I found Saturn!

I have been hooked ever since.

Simon: I loved the video of the eclipse, but without doubt is was the audio track that caught my attention. It was charming to listen to you talk to the younger generation. Offering them peeks into the telescope and special glasses to watch the sun.

Scotty: I guess we were well prepared, in an unprepared sort of fashion. We had assumed that we might have a few people interested in what we were doing so I brought along thirty pairs of special glasses designed for viewing the Sun. It was hectic though, wires and equipment were everywhere and the last thing we needed was an accident. We were all rushing around and melting in the 100 degree heat.

At one point, and I am sure it was on the audio, my wife asked me if I wanted a bottle of water, “No, but I sure could go for a cold beer”.  

The group of onlookers were all fun, the kids had a great time. Who knows, one or two of them might grow up and share my interest in astronomy.

I have to admit that I have great respect for people like Scotty. In my mind the world would be a better place with more Scotty’s. Do what you love, and share the passion with others.

Unfortunately due to the inevitable appearance of Mr. Murphy (Murphy’s Law) the live broadcast was not recorded. This is a huge shame. Sure other groups and observatories had better optics, but no-one can beat Scotty Degenhardt’s sound track and enthusiasm.

What I found interesting was watching the number of ‘live watchers’ grow as the event progressed. 1000 became 10,000, became 30,000, etc. Not too bad for a guy with a telescope and an iPhone!

Simon Barrett

 Note: Any errors in transcription are entirely my fault. The interview was written from my memory….

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