SURVEYING THE HEAVENS IN THE SHIELDS VALLEY


Retired aerospace engineer Mike McClure’s personal observatory, which he dubbed the “Shields Valley Observatory,” scans the starry skies above Wilsall shortly after sunset on Thursday night. (Enterprise photo by Hunter D'Antuono)
By: 
Hunter D'Antuono
Enterprise Staff Writer

In Mike McClure’s book, cloudless skies are good for far more than bright, sunshiny days. For him, the real joy comes after Montana’s side of the globe has bid our solar system’s centerpiece adieu, as there are few places McLure would rather be than beneath a rich, star-painted nocturnal canvas. 

And at nearly every opportunity, that’s exactly where he is — peering through a hefty telescope in his observatory on the southern fringe of Wilsall — his personal window into the heavens. 

McClure is a bit more than a garden-variety backyard stargazer.  

After moving to Wilsall with his wife, Linda, seven years ago, he started what would be a two-year-long project, building his octagonal-shaped observatory and calibrating the telescope that would serve as his portal to the greater universe. 

“This is really a dream I had, 25 or 30 years in the making,” he said. 

His professional career serves his hobby well. A retired aerospace engineer, McClure worked for 26 years in Tennessee for the then-called Arnold Engineering Development Center, a U.S. Air Force operation distinguished as the most advanced and largest complex of flight simulation test facilities in the world.  

The 67-year-old astronomer holds three degrees in the fields of physics and aerospace engineering from Iowa State University. 

While McClure admits his equipment is “getting kind of dated,” there are no shortage of celestial wonders to observe and capture with his setup. 

His fully computerized Meade 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, and the dome over it, can swivel 360 degrees and track about 10,000 different objects in sync with the steady rotation of the Earth.   

The dome not only shields his equipment from precipitation and the glare of headlights from U.S. Highway 89, but it also enables him to capture long-exposure photographs — otherwise, the wind would vibrate the setup, smearing any images. 

The telescope mount, powered by a lawn mower battery, allows McClure to make one-to-two-minute long monochrome exposures, revealing objects not so readily visible to the human eye, such as Orion’s Nebula, which he displayed on a computer monitor under the dome on Thursday night. 

He also commands respectable views of objects within our own solar system. 

On Jupiter’s upper clouds decks, he can spot the shadows cast by its own moons and has a solid view of the rings of Saturn, and can resolve the details of craters on Earth’s moon.  

“The planets are neat, but I love to look at deep-sky objects,” he said. “I can find even the faintest of galaxies.”  

McClure’s passion for science and the night sky sparked with Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, which launched into orbit when McClure was 8 years old. 

“It caught my fascination,” he said. “I got a telescope shortly after that. I wanted to be a scientist. It’s just something that’s in my DNA.” 

Inside the dome, printouts of dozens of passages from the Bible are taped to the walls. McClure, a self-described “creationist astronomer,” holds a differing view as to the origin universe than the prevailing cosmological theory, the Big Bang.  

“Secular scientists live and die by the Big Bang model, but there are problems with it,” he said, stating the physics don’t quite add up for him.

He pointed out one of his favorite passages on the wall: “He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was at his feet,” offering that God is the creator of mass and that “bowed the heavens,” hints at the general relatively’s curvature of the space time continuum, while “the darkness at his feet” is in reference to black holes. 

“I’m a creationist, but that doesn’t take away from looking through the telescope,” he said. “I still see the wonders of the universe.”

McClure said he is open to members of the public scheduling a stargazing session at what he likes to call “The Shields Valley Observatory.” 

To contact McClure and learn more about his interpretation of the cosmos, visit his astronomy blog at www.heavenspatterns.com. 

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Hunter D’Antuono may be reached at photo@livent.net.