Ten (plus) Years at Kitt Peak

David Lee Summers, Christian Soto, and Dick Joyce at the annual AURA service awards ceremony.

This month, I received my ten-year service award from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy for my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The awards were presented following an annual presentation on the state of the observatory. Other award recipients included my boss, Dick Joyce, whose been with Kitt Peak for 45 years and one of my fellow Observing Associates, Christian Soto, who is celebrating his five-year anniversary. The photo shows the three of us at the University of Arizona ballroom where the presentation was given.

As it turns out, I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for more than a decade. I was tempted away from graduate school in 1992 and worked at the observatory until 1995. During that time, I watched the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope’s construction and served as one of its first four operators. I left because my wife and I were expecting our first child and I wanted a job that allowed me to be home more of the time. So, I went to work helping to finish commissioning a 1-meter telescope run by New Mexico State University. In late 2007, a former co-worker from Kitt Peak called me up and said they needed experienced telescope operators and asked if I wanted to return. At that time, I was a full-time writer and editor and wasn’t sure I did want to, but I agreed to an interview. They offered me a job and after much soul-searching I decided to return. I started in February 2008. So, now that it’s October, that means I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for about fourteen years. Unfortunately, human resources said I was away too long for my previous seniority to count, but my boss has expressed an interest in rectifying that if possible. We’ll see if that happens.

I feel like I made a good decision in returning. One surprising fringe benefit was that I became a more productive writer even though I was working full time. I suspect there are a few reasons for that. First of all, it forced me to better organize my time. Also, it put me into a position where I was interacting with people face-to-face more regularly, which I think helped me to bring more depth and emotional realism to my writing. Of course, the story of my departure and my return directly inspired elements of my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt.

In the book, Mike Teter leaves the observatory because of a frightening experience. As it turns out, his experience was based on something that happened to me in my first tenure at Kitt Peak. It was a windy, stormy morning and I had gone up to make sure I’d serviced the instrumentation for the morning. The wind rattled the dome and there was an energy in the air. I had an unshakable feeling that something didn’t want me there and some kind of force was coming to remove me from the mountain. That frightening feeling went away after I’d had some sleep and I didn’t leave because of that incident, but I asked myself what if there really had been an evil force? What if it had manifested? Would I have been able to stay if my fears had actually materialized? I channeled that experience into the novel’s prologue. I know prologues often get a bad rap, but I made it a prologue not because it was “optional” but because it was an inciting incident that happened a few years before the main action of the novel.

If you’re in the mood for a scary read this Halloween week, you can read the entire prologue for free at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt-Preview.html. If you get to the end and find you’re hooked, I have information about how you can order a copy of the novel. Hope you have a spooktacular week!

Schedule Cadence

Autumn has arrived, which means my working nights at Kitt Peak National Observatory will start getting longer until we reach the winter solstice just before Christmas. Autumn also heralds several other changes. Among them, I have a new supervisor and the National Science Foundation is no longer providing operational support for the 2.1-meter telescope. One upshot is that I’ve been looking at my schedule cadence with my co-workers. Here’s what that cadence looks like:

schedule cadence

Basically, my shifts at the observatory follow a fifteen day cycle. There are three “Available” or “on-call” days. I don’t work all of those, and most of the time I’ve been on call to help astronomers start their observing runs at the 2.1-meter telescope. Then I work at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope for three nights. After that I work at the Mayall 4-meter telescope for three nights, then I get six nights off, and the whole thing starts all over again. Because it’s fifteen days, my schedule drifts through the work week. If one cycle starts on Sunday, the next one will start on a Monday, and the one after that a Tuesday.

Right now, it doesn’t look very likely this cadence will change much. Perhaps the only change is that instead of supporting the 2.1-meter, I may be set up to work from home periodically on the never-ending task of telescope and instrumentation documentation. The reason it’s never ending is that we’re routinely getting new instrumentation and to keep the telescopes cutting edge, they are often modified and upgraded.


Of course, between writing, editing and astronomy, I don’t really get many days off. I get to go home and shift gears. This upcoming break is pretty exciting though. I’ll be shipping out volume 10, issue 1 of Tales of the Talisman Magazine to subscribers and contributors. Although we’re taking a break after this year, we’re not letting up on quality. This is our tenth year and we want to make it a special one!

As a reminder, there are only four more days on the Lachesis Publishing Anniversary sale. All ebooks are half price. This would be a great time to try my science fiction novel, The Solar Sea, which tells the story of the first solar sail voyage to the outer planets. My novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order, which tells how a group of vampires came together to form a team of mercenaries in the middle ages is also on sale.


Finally, on Saturday, October 4, I will be signing copies of Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order at COAS Books Downtown in Las Cruces, New Mexico from 10am until noon. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by!