Makers Love BRO!

We participated in our first Mini Maker Faire on November 16th, in our remote northern outpost of Rochester, New York. And people absolutely loved Black Rock Observatory!

We brought the 1:6 model of dome 2 to Rochester Riverside Convention Center to participate in the first ever Mini Maker Faire in Rochester on November 16 where hundreds of people oohed and ahhed over the beauty of the dome. Organizers estimated about 2,000 people in attendance and seriously, it seemed as if every one of them stopped by the booth to chat. It was non-stop smiles all day long!

Dennis Schinnell stopped by before the event opened and helped me (Pat Rapp) assemble the dome. With his sharp mind and knack for solving puzzles, he was as huge help. He ended up spending most of the day at our booth, chatting with people and sharing information about the Black Rock Observatory and the Mars Rover Art Car.

20141122_103040People fell completely in love with the observatory model. Small kids wanted to take it home. Adults wanted to visit the full scale dome. Everyone was in awe of Gregg Fleishman’s design and were completely blown away that the full size dome fit together exactly like the small one. We had a lot of kids asking what an observatory is for, which was great. I could feel their excitement. I heard parents and kids talking about planets and stars. One child said, “Can we get a telescope?” and her father said, “Yeah! Let’s do that!” It was wonderful to see the BRO be a gateway to learning. It sparked something that might otherwise not have come up for some families.

And families with little kids were not the only ones loving the BRO. We had tons of people checking it out, asking how it was built, and asking about Burning Man.


I gave a talk in the afternoon that I hope will encourage people to create their own science-based art. The gist of it was that people really want to engage with science, and building art can facilitate that connection. I also emphasized what I think is one of the great qualities of the Desert Wizards of Mars: everybody on the crew is equally valued, and that kind of leadership allows everyone to contribute their own unique skills. I also pointed out that sometimes the unexpected happens. Sometimes, in the middle of the biggest party on earth, people pull up their lawn chairs and watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. ūüôā

Our booth was a busy place at Mini Maker Faire. The day flew by and was over in what seemed like minutes. You know you’ve struck a chord when you’ve been so swamped that you only managed to take three photos at a six hour event. Here’s the third one:


I can’t wait to do this again. Thanks, BRO!


Kickstarter Fulfillment, Hibernation and 2015…


My wonderful supporters, we are working with the supplier to make sure you all get your rewards for pledging your support. Many have already gone out and I appreciate the patience of those who have not received their rewards. We’re actually ahead of schedule on some of them, but behind on others.

We’ve run into a snag with the XL t-shirts and hoodies, so those are delaying some orders, but it shouldn’t be long. I’m visiting with the supplier this week. Here’s a break down of where we are as of 11/7/14,

  • $1 reward Digital Download of a Major Tom Burning Man photograph-DELIVERED -these are available for download at this address:¬†http://vardenphoto.smugmug.com/Clients/Black-Rock-Observatory/¬†the pass word is Caranvansary. You can download as many high-res photos as you like, Ill be updating that gallery with new photos periodically.
  • $5 reward ¬†one Black Rock Observatory sticker, a high resolution digital photograph of Black Rock City by Major Tom and our sincere thanks – MAILING NOW – ¬†DOWNLOAD Available¬†some delivered
  • $10 reward 106 backers YOUR NAME LASER ENGRAVED onto our prototype observatory dome destined for Burning Man 2014 + Digital Download of Major Tom Burning Man photograph Est delivery: Aug 2014. DELIVERED*¬†This is a long story. I was assured before offering this reward that a company in Orange County had the equipment to do this on our dome panels, after committing and almost delivering, I was informed the table could only handle 4’x4′ sheets for laser engraving. They advised that I was given bad information and that they had a waterjet that could do the work, but there were no tables capable of engraving a sheet that large. After some more research, I discovered that I promised you something that just isn’t possible yet. A friend offered to help and managed to cut the names into a piece of wood that was to be placed inside the prototype observatory dome. I saw it with my own eyes, but it never made it to the Observatory. Lost in the move somewhere, the search is continues….rest assured, Ill do my best to get this completed by the next mission.
  • $15 reward 6 backers Spacey songstress, Kim Boekbinder’s new astro-themed album The Sky is Calling. Est delivery: Aug 2014 –¬†DOWNLOAD PENDING
  • $25 reward 144 backers Your choice of Black Rock Observatory Patch for showing your support, Black Rock Observatory Logo Bandana or Gregg Fleishman Geometry Poster Download. Est delivery: Nov 2014 PATCHES &¬†BANDANNAS¬†DELIVERED, DOWNLOAD PENDING there are a few pieces that were returned that have not been resent.
  • $40 reward 81 backers A quality T-shirt with the Black Rock Observatory Logo Est delivery: Nov 2014 –¬†CURRENTLY DELIVERING: XL’s are delayed, but many of these sizes are on their way or delivered. Some 3X and 4X hoodies are bad and need to be exchanged.
  • $50 reward 23 backers Customized Astrolabe Star Map. Est delivery: Nov 2014-DELIVERY PENDING
  • $65 reward 52 backers Black Rock Observatory Pewter Pendant Est delivery: Nov 2014 – CURRENTLY DELIVERING¬†
  • $100 reward 38 backers A high quality zipper hoodie with the Black Rock Observatory logo. Est delivery: Nov 2014 –¬†CURRENTLY DELIVERING – XL’s and 3X/4X delayed
  • $150 reward 36 backers PACKAGE DEAL Black Rock Observatory logo Hoodie + Tshirt + Bandana + Patch + Wristband. Est delivery: Dec 2014 –¬†CURRENTLY DELIVERING –¬†XL’s and 3X/4X delayed
  • $250 reward 5 backers Real Nickel-Iron Meteorite. Est delivery: Dec 2014 –DELIVERED
  • $400 reward 2 backers Dome Cut List – Own your own full size copy of the Black Rock Observatory dome. Est delivery: Aug 2014 –¬†DELIVERED
  • $650 reward 2 backers Meteorite from Mars. Est delivery: Oct 2014 –¬†DELIVERY PENDING- nice pieces and dealers that aren’t gouging are few and far between these days, but they’re out there. I’ve been keeping an eye out for months, I’ll pull the trigger at just the right moment to maximize your investment, delivery is likely before Christmas.

We’re still waiting on a quite a few survey responses, so if you requested a reward and never received a survey asking for your mailing address or clothing sizes, etc., check your spam folders or inboxes and drop us a line if you never received it. Thanks for your patience with us as we work towards fulfillment. Thank you very much for making this whole project possible.

Into the future and 2015….

A cardboard model of the BRO dome at NASA Ames 75th Anniversary
A cardboard model of the BRO dome at NASA Ames 75th Anniversary

At the moment, the domes are resting on a concrete pad in Leona Valley, Ca, stacked in semi-neat piles, dormant, awaiting orders. The crew is still recovering from all this craziness and many are working hard on real world astronomy and space flight stuff, but most of us sit and dream about it while we work at Earth jobs in the dust. The holidays are coming and it’s time to reconnect with family, the fireplace, shorter days and fat bellies.

There’s nothing on the radar for a few months. It feels kind of nice, actually. I’ve been obsessing for years now. I imagine, after fulfillment is complete, I’ll sleep a little more soundly. I’ve already started plotting and scheming for next year and there’s a ton of opportunities on the horizon.

I’ve been invited to speak about the Observatory by the Rose City Astronomers in Portland, OR in April. If you’re in the NW on April 20th, 2015 and would like to hear me blather on about Black Rock Observatory, Burning Man and Kickstarter, please stop by and connect, I’d love to meet you and say thanks in person.

There’s a science camp-out for kids in Joshua Tree in February, along with the Science Olympiad at the Antelope Valley College (the MRAC was there last year). March has BEquinox and I’ve been looking forward to taking the dome there since the prototype build, the dark skies there will allow our scope to really dig deep. After that, festival season is in full swing. Possible destinations for Black Rock Observatory include: Portland Regional -SOAK, Lucidity, Lightning in a Bottle, AZ Regional – Saguaro Man, CO Regional – Apogaea, Great Lakes Regional – Lakes of Fire + Electric Forest and more. We’d like to return to BRC and YouTopia obviously and we’re keeping our eyes open for more opportunities to bring BRO to the people.

I’ll keep you posted through the winter, but to keep in touch on a more personal level, join our Facebook Group here:¬†https://www.facebook.com/groups/BlackRockObservatory/¬†We regularly post a lot of great news stories there related to Burning Man, astronomy, space flight and science in general, so follow along or join the conversation, we’d love to have you.

Have I mentioned thank you?

Thank you. You have made my dreams come true. ¬†I’ve said it enough myself in the last 6 months to make it a cliche all by myself, but it’s true.¬†You’ve made the dreams of many others come true, too.¬†Heck, we have 644 people standing here together!! We can change the world like this. NO! We already have. Sometimes I just can not believe that the real thing is sitting in front of me, it seems so surreal. Even after all the blood, sweat and tears, it seems like a dream.

One last note: I’m not always the best at connecting and am often introverted, but I feel you out there, each and every one of you. Every single dollar. I know you work hard for those dollars and we’re not as sexy as gadgets or cruises or that new Burning Man costume. Please, please understand that I feel your support. It means the world to me. I owe you one.

Reach out at any time if you’d like to connect at vardenphoto@gmail.com or friend me on Facebook. I’d love the opportunity to say thank you in person, so please stop me if you see me or avoid me if you don’t like hugs, ’cause I’m givin’ ’em. If you’ve read all of this, you’ve likely given me the adventure of a lifetime and for that, I am eternally grateful and I can’t wait to meet you. Until then,

-Major Tom, signing off….


YouTopia: Revelation Revolution

Black Rock Observatory at YouTopia
Black Rock Observatory at YouTopia

Just before Burning Man, the folks in the San Diego Collaborative Arts Project invited us to their regional decompression event, YouTopia: Revelation Revolution and asked us to apply for a grant and we did. The observatory was running over budget, so I desperately needed the funds in order to avoid a huge personal loss that I had no idea how I was going to afford. I discovered the dome seen above would cost twice as much as the first dome and far more than we had budgeted for, because of supply issues. The wholesaler who supplies the imported Latvian Birch, the same wood used for much of Gregg’s structures, had run out of stock at just the wrong time and we were forced to pay retail price for all the wood comprising the entire second dome, not to mention the cost of the rotation mechanism. An hour after I learned this and about 7,500 heart beats later, SDCAP contacted me to award us the grant. The timing was perfect. Cosmic even.

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Visit THIS LINK to watch the timelapse video.

Let me tell you, the folks that throw this event gave us the warmest welcome you could ever expect. Not only did they reach out and offer the help we needed to get to there and request our presence, but they gave us a perfect location at the top of a hill with beautiful views of the sky and an incredible perspective on the whole event. From the top of our perch in a larger valley, we could survey what seemed like the entire event, snaking down a creek in a gorgeous stretch of the La Jolla Indian Campground, just miles away from Palomar Observatory, a historic venue for astronomy. Big thanks to Meg and Paul for the best skies this project has seen so far and the chance to again do our thing.

The build went extremely smoothly this time. Largely because we had the master, Gregg Fleishman with us, who understands it all better than anyone, but also because we had learned a lot. 95% of the work was performed with 5 people, one supervising, in a leisurely pace. We completed the dome before dark. We had slept in and taken a long lunch. Granted, we weren’t in the remote, dusty desert, far from civilization in constant winds and blazing Sun, that definitely helped. Considering all of this, I believe we’re getting better at this. We can complete it with a smaller crew in a faster time and now’s the time to look to the future and what stops we’ll be making next year in this space adventure.

CItizens of YouTopia loving the Rock
CItizens of YouTopia loving the Rock

The people that came to see us at the observatory were blown away. I knew deep down all along that we’d connect with a certain group, but I’m astounded to see how big that group is. So many wonderful people made the trek up the hill to visit our observatory even under cloudy skies. Again, the meteorite was a huge hit. People really resonate with the age and the weight and the over all sculpture quality of the Rock. I’m contemplating another acquisition just due to the sheer impact of them, pun intended. We also brought one of Gregg’s Satellite structures and that is always amazing to see come together. They pack so small and yet deliver so much visual impact, play area and intimate space, it’s almost magic. And when you see one, you know Gregg is there somewhere and somehow, that just makes people feel good.

Gregg's Satellite at the Observatory
Gregg’s Satellite at the Observatory

The clouds were relentless. We set up the Observatory on Thursday and never saw stars until Saturday morning just before sun rise. I stayed up all night Thursday and Friday waiting for the clouds to part. I had brought the observatory all the way out here and built it to show people the universe and I was determined but fading fast. I set my alarm to go off every hour that night to check for clear skies at about 3am. In one hour, it was clear as a bell. Only about 2 dozen folks stopped by before the Sun came up, honestly I don’t think anyone barely noticed that stars were out finally, but those who did were treated to an epic view of Jupiter. The seeing was fantastic, the transparency was superb and as I’ve mentioned before, our telescope is a monster.

Our scope under fantastic skies at YouTopia
Our scope under fantastic skies at YouTopia

The views were phenomenal. I literally skipped around and jumped up and down like a little boy. The skies at Burning Man were fair this year and since then, Ive had some great views at home in the high desert of L.A. County, but here in the heart of the reservation in this gorgeous valley, our project, our telescope shined like a bright shining star of amazingness. Anyone with decent sight was seeing almost a dozen individual cloud belts and zones on the surface of Jupiter with blue festoons clearly visible in the Northern Equatorial Belt. The Galilean Moons were visible, too and some were even giving up colors. Io was certainly tinged with yellow.

It wasn’t long before the Sun came up and put everyone to bed. I fell asleep that morning with my fingers crossed for just one clear night so we could really wow some people with great vistas. Saturday night was our last chance.

Our telescope.
Our telescope.

The day started out cloudy and overcast. It was a perfect time to walk around and enjoy ourselves at this amazing festival. The organizer do a great job and you’ll find 3,000 plus great folks there, all with something great to offer. As the day progresses, I could tell we were going to be open for business. The skies were shaping up to be perfect and perfect they were.

The chilly air over the Observatory was still and¬†crystal¬†clear. The Orion Nebula is one of the most¬†beautiful deep sky targets in the sky and our telescope seems almost perfectly configured to view it. This star birth region is just awesome to look at and it appears bluish in hue. I enjoyed some of the best views of this target of my life on Saturday night. The looks on people’s faces were priceless. I heard more wow’s and¬†expletives than you’d expect to hear near powerful scientific instruments, but that’s the way things should be.

The Moon and Jupiter over Black Rock Observatory
The Moon and Jupiter over Black Rock Observatory

It’s usually fairly easy to amaze with Saturn, even with a small telescope. It has rings and we love it. With the Orion Nebula, it’s much, much harder. If you drive the average amateur telescope out to a dark sky and stare for a while, you may barely make out the brightest parts of this gas cloud. People spend hours, night after night staring ¬†and staring trying to tease out tiny details with the frigid winter air freezing their breath to their ski masks and condensing the water vapor out onto your optics. I’ve spent many sleepless nights straining my eyeballs and freezing my other [parts] off to see what this telescope slams into your brain like a freight train. The beauty hurts and darn it, there goes the water works just thinking of it. Damn you, updates.

Please believe me when I tell you this telescope works. It’s awakened this old dusty amateur astronomer once again after years of trying to wring every photon from decades old, tiny, inadequate equipment. Sure, the views aren’t like Hubble, but the fact that I can slap someone in the face with a dim nebula instead of the bright Moon or a planet makes me very happy, and powerful. We have a gun and it’s loaded with galaxies and nebulae and planets and it’s pointed right at the public’s face. We have enough aperture (or firepower) to take people outside of the solar system and even our galaxy and that’s very special. Thanks to you.


Kickstarter Film Festival and Mindshare L.A.

What an honor! Kickstarter shows us off to the world.

The Observatory at Kickstarter Film Fest before opening.
The Observatory at Kickstarter Film Fest before opening.

Since our last update, we’ve built the observatory twice. We had the honor of being chosen to represent the Los Angeles Kickstarter community among other awesome projects at the Kickstarter Film Fest in Griffith Park at the Autry on September 12th, shortly after our return to Burning Man. To demonstrate what’s possible with crowdfunding, Kickstarter chose Black Rock Observatory and handful of other L.A. projects to ser up and show the community just what we do. We were proud to be set up at the Autry not far from the World’s Fasterst Hot Tub, Carpool De Ville. You can learn more about the Film Fest at this link:¬†https://www.kickstarter.com/events/filmfest2014_la?ref=filmfest. Much fun was had. Keep an eye out for the event next year.

Installing the first structural elements after constructing the track system.
Installing the first structural elements after constructing the track system.

It was a learning experience. We learned that its far easier to build on grass near food, bathrooms and civilization than in the Black Rock Desert. We may have anticipated this. We made many new friends at Burning Man and with their help, the build went pretty smoothly. It seems that the system that can be easily demonstrated properly and new crew members are quickly able to hit the ground running if properly manged. If. I was pretty tired and made some mistakes, but in the end, after a 23 hour day in which we built and disassembled the observatory, no one was hurt and everyone loved the project. We learned a lot about a safer way to construct and disassemble and that knowledge was essential for the next build in San Diego. More on that later.

Major Tom and Dome 2
Major Tom and Dome 2

People seemed to resonate with the project just as they did at Burning Man. I’ve underestimated the power of two elements of this project: the power of the meteorite and the appeal of rotating the dome. The views through the telescope for the first half of the night were almost embarrassing. No amount of amazing optics can peer through barbecue smoke and food truck exhaust to reveal beautiful views of Saturn. No one seemed to mind. Even with the wavy, nervous ringed planet and few other stars piercing the Great Los Angeles Skyglow, people were still enthralled by the meteorite, they loved to turn the dome together and they didn’t mind underwhelming views of Saturn. They just loved the look of the whole thing and were thrilled we there.

After opening at the Observatory.
After opening at the Observatory.

We saw some of you awesome supporters there and even some that we had met on playa at Burning Man for a second time and we’re thankful you made the trip out to see us again! We also met a lot of new friends there and had a lot of great opportunities to talk science with probably a thousand great folks. To top it all off, at the end of the night, the Moon saved us. It rose over a relatively unobscured patch of trees with no meat fumes and we were in business. Now we were cooking with gas, so to speak.

The Moon through our 20″ telescope is something you should definitely see if you get the chance. It is stunningly beautiful and has to be the most beautiful gray thing in the world, oh wait, it’s not in the world. Alright then, the Moon through our telescope is the most beautiful gray object you’ll ever see. Craters, volcanos, rilles, cliffs and more detail than you can take. It is amazing. We even carried the fully assembled telescope out of the observatory so the team could start disassembling it to make our deadline to get out of there. There was still a line of folks ready to view the Moon and they were not disappointed.

Thanks to Alex Hudson from Kickstarter for making this happen and staying until 2AM IN THE MORNING HELPING US LOAD UP! He was amazing, the first there and the last to leave. You are awesome, sir!

Check out this gallery of the build courtesy of Gary Spiers: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=oa.625450067572148&type=1

And then, we had a lot of time to think about we learned from Burning Man and the Film Fest. It wasn’t always easy. We managed to not hurt anybody, but we were tired and very done, but it wasn’t time to rest. It was time to learn before the lessons faded away into the holidays with turkey dinners and family visits. So we thought long and hard.

Check out this article by Sue Karlin in Fast Company on our presence at Burning Man and how we’re contributing to the science culture there.¬†http://www.fastcocreate.com/3035896/bringing-space-science-education-to-burning-man-and-beyond


Major Tom at Mindshare talking up the project
Major Tom at Mindshare talking up the project

I was invited to give a talk on the Observatory at Mindshare in Los Angeles on September 26th. Think TED talks, but for burners and collaborative artsy types. The crowd was very receptive to hear the story about how I convinced Gregg Fleishman to join us on this journey, remind me to tell you some time. I really enjoy talking about this project with people and this night was exactly what I needed to cure my blues from missing Burning Man. I really got that great feeling talking and visiting with my favorite community, every time I drive down out of the desert to be with you all, I’m happy I did. Thanks to Tupa and Dougie. I back home to the desert refreshed and looking forward to more rest.

Then, as soon as we weren’t tired any more, we did it again in San Diego.


Primary Mission Accomplished!

Burning Man 2014 was a huge success!!

Burning Man 2014: Caravansary was amazing. Two weeks seemed to disappear before our eyes and it’s hard to believe it’s all over. Crew descended from all over the world on Black Rock City to show participants the cosmos and build this observatory and it was just beautiful to see.

Our build week was difficult. We had transportation issues and weather that zapped one entire day of build before we even got started and we were playing catch up on our personal preparations all week. That leads to a tired and uncomfortable crew, so we tried to take a lot of breaks and relax when we could. The harsh conditions took their toll, but all handled it like professionals, keeping their eyes on the prize and working hard every day.

Photo by Kevin Bond
Photo by Kevin Bond

By the time we were up and running, there was a line. Actually, there was a line before we were open, while we were collimating the telescope’s optics (no pressure) and if that didn’t make it hard enough, we didn’t get a chance to add a finder scope until mid-week making the scope very difficult to point. We still killed it.

I didn’t take enough photos! We were so busy showing people the universe, we didn’t get a chance to photograph the Observatory as much as we hoped, but the awesome citizens and some crew took these great images that are already making some of us homesick. Thanks everyone!

Spotting a Jupiter rise. Photo by Ken Bocchino
Spotting a Jupiter rise. Photo by Ken Bocchino

The spot lights and lasers over Black Rock City did cause more trouble than we anticipated, but that was remedied by simply choosing alternate targets that weren’t obscured by a sound camp’s beams from miles away. We were convinced camps in the city were aiming directly at us on purpose for a few minutes, but we were probably just imagining things. We stuck mostly to the bright and easy to locate targets like the Andromeda Galaxy, Saturn, Jupiter, m13, the Ring Nebula, Orion Nebula, etc. People were thrilled and the reception to our experiment was very warm. We were almost a mile beyond the Man, but people showed up in droves. There were lines that were 50+ people long most nights for hours at a time, but they didnt seem to mind. We wanted to alleviate the wait times with other scopes, but many vital parts and screws vibrated out on gate road on the way in making secondary scope use very difficult at best. Lesson learned. People were thrilled anyway.

Photo by Ken Bocchino
Photo by Ken Bocchino

The meteorite served as a great lesson for the queue and next year, we’ll steer the line through more interesting exhibits so we can make the line experience more rewarding. Many said the line and the distance to the Observatory didn’t bother them, they got a chance to “discover” it and talk with other burners about their experiences. All in all, I was blown away by the attendance and the effect we had on participants.

We had some very long lines! Photo by Michael Risch
We had some very long lines! Photo by Michael Risch

I was expecting to reach few, but it seems like we touched many. More than a few people told me that we changed their lives. There was a gentleman studying propellant chemistry who told me that we “connected the dots” for him and gave him a greater context for his work that he had never felt before. Parents of children who visited us during the Kidsville event on Wednesday night approached me all week telling me how their kids couldn’t stop talking about seeing the rings of Saturn or touching the meteorite. We gave out 36 meteorite sample as gifts to kids and they were all amazed, blown away and grateful.

Sky diver headed for our Dawn of the Burning Sun event by Charlie Dayburn just before Embrace burned
Sky diver headed for our Dawn of the Burning Sun event by Charlie Dayburn just before Embrace burned

All the hard work pays off when you see that spark in someone’s eyes. Everyone is beautiful when they’re amazed. I’m tearing up a little right now just thinking about what you’ve allowed us to do here. What an honor you’ve given us! But then, as you know, I get a little misty every time I’m writing updates for you, don’t I? Thank you. You, who has given us the opportunity to turn a tiny light on in people’s lives and reassure them that the world is INDEED just as amazing as all the magic in their science books. YOU! who made my dreams and the dreams of many others come true by supporting this project. YOU who dared to expand people’s minds to include the universe with in it. YOU! who took a chance on us and believed in us! YOU who made this world a more beautiful place. Thank you. Thank you very VERY much.

From all the crew at Black Rock Observatory, thank you. Hopefully, we can meet you in person and offer face to face gratitude for this amazing privilege. If we were lucky enough to meet you at Burning Man, I hope we can thank you again some day. Should we never cross paths, know that you’ve changed the direction of lives forever and that we’re eternally grateful for that.

Taking it all down. Photo by Kiril Krylov
Taking it all down. Photo by Kiril Krylov

See you soon, – Major Tom


Hey, kids! Do you like science?

BRO is on it’s way! We’re going to Burning Man!

The trucks are loaded. Everything’s ready to roll. The crew will work in the night time, sleep in the day time, and we are definitely on our way home!

Visit the Black Rock Observatory at Burning Man 2014, at 12:00 and 5000′, beyond the Temple.¬†¬† And see the Mars Rover Art Car! We will be in deep playa. Head out from the back of the Temple and you’ll see our domes in the distance. The view of the heavens will be magnificent from there!

Fantasy writer and uber-podcaster Steven R. Boyett did these two commercial spots in the style of 50s instructional films for the Black Rock Observatory at this year’s Burning Man. Give ’em a listen, and visit the BRO on the Playa this year!


Kickstarter Launch

>>>>>Check out and share our Kickstarter page! Share this link: http://kck.st/1q79SUW <<<<<<

Wow! What a wild ride! Our Kickstarter is 47% funded in just over 2 days! Here we go!!!!

We’re building an astronomical observatory for Burning Man 2014 and beyond, complete with giant telescope and science exhibits! The Black Rock Observatory will be a mobile observatory dedicated to the celebration of art and science and built to show the public the joy, immediacy and beauty of our solar system and universe.

The observatory consists of two 21‚Äô domes designed by 2013 temple architect Gregg Fleishman and built by the Desert Wizards of Mars. At night, participants will be invited from miles away by high powered lasers pointing out planets and distant targets from an open sky planetarium. Our 20″ telescope will resolve the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn and five of its moons, Martian polar ice caps, outer planets, and distant galaxies and nebulae! We also have an extensive daytime program in store including meteorites, white light and h-alpha solar telescopes, pinhole viewers and a radio telescope.

Our planetarium will be a place where travelers can rest their weary feet and dazzle the brain. An outpost for the curious and intrepid, we want to give the sky back to those who have forgotten it belongs to them. We want to give them views of the night sky they can explore again after Exodus by simply looking up and connecting.

Please check out and share our Kickstarter – funding ends July 17th!


Renderings and Kickstarter

BMO_RevisedPlatform2 (1)

Black Rock Observatory on playa. Rendering by Kerry Harwood.

We have new content for your brains! From renderings of the dome to telescope news and fundraising, things are starting to get really exciting. As we approach our launch date and the Burning Man gate, our focus has shifted a little from planning to fundraising. We’ve had hundreds of hours of meetings and thousands of hours at personal computers. We’ve contemplated and surmised, dreamed and wished; its time now to start making this thing real. There’s still much virtual and desk work to be done, many legal and economic loopholes and regulations to follow and fondle, but here comes the fun part. We’re lucky to have convinced Kerry Harwood of Harwood Visuals to work on some 3D renderings of Gregg’s design to include in our Kickstarter video. He’s taken some time to give us some still images that provide a sneak peak of what the video might look like and for me, they are just amazing to look at. This thing feels real already and we’re just really getting started. Kerry’s talent is evident and we’re fortunate to have him on our team. The people that have volunteered their time on this project are a constant source of inspiration for me and I’m lucky to work on a crew with so many ¬†amazing talented people, but then I guess that’s what Burning Man always feels like.




TinMan and his amazing walking machine. – photo by Philippe Glade

I’d like to also take a minute to welcome the TinMan to our team. He’s working on making our beloved orb rotate so as to provide an unobstructed view of the heavens. He’s also going to be bringing his iconic dome structures to join us at the Observatory. He uses the same geometry¬†as our architect, but he uses metal instead of wood, so we’re going to be the¬†Small Rhombicuboctahedron center of the universe for 8 days. Archimedes would be proud. A very special thanks to the TinMan for driving all the way from Sacramento to L.A. to help Gregg Fleishman move his studio.

A few weeks ago, I kidnapped our dome model and drove North away from the city lights to escape the light pollution. I wanted to experience stargazing through the dome and I couldn’t wait until August to do it, so I set up my camera inside the dome and took a series of 30 second exposures and processed them into a video and then still images. It was an amazing night of silence and contemplation among the stars that I won’t likely forget anytime soon.


Our scale model under the stars in the Sierra Nevada. – photo by Major Tom

I couldn’t help but wish that it was the full size dome out there, but that time will come. I’ve seen many astronomical domes over the past 20 years, but none have had the style and the stunning beauty of this dome Gregg has designed for us. Just more proof that just about any project can use good art. There’s still a badass quality I’m struggling to describe about it. Driving home that morning, I couldn’t help but think that we’re on to something special here.

Click for video

Click for video

The Kickstarter campaign is almost upon us, where we ask the world to vote us into existence with their money. We’ve finished gathering assets for the video and are preparing the rewards we’ll send our supporters when they for out hard-earned dough. The Big Ask. I’m confident we can successfully fund this project, but I need your help to do it. We need to get the word out as a team and together we can do this. We’re going to prepare a press release, many blog and social media posts and we’ll be sending emails as well in campaign to get this thing into the real world where it can do some good. There’s a ton of people out there to inspire and we can’t do it unless YOU help spread the word. So, here’s a sneak peak at some of those rewards. I’ve designed a graphic and simple logo that includes the Moon, it’s phases and our Black Rock City streets and our guest of honor, the Man. We’ll be offering t-shirts, hoodies and bandanas with this logo and perhaps a tank top if there’s enough interest.

Logo for Kickstarter rewards

Logo for Kickstarter rewards

There are some pretty awesome rewards in store for the campaign. We’ll¬†be creating a pendant with Gregg’s dome design to announce your B.R.O. support to the world, we’ve got midnight tours of the American Museum of Natural History, customized astrolabe star charts, private star parties, 3D plans for the dome, meteorites and a special private observing session¬†at Mt. Wilson Observatory plus¬†many other great rewards to say thanks to those who help make this project a reality.Hoodie template (illustrator) BROroundneck_black_template01 As a reward for a donation of any size, donors can download¬†a high resolution copy of¬†one of my images¬†of Laura Kimpton’s “BELIEVE” or Gregg Fleishman’s Temple of Whollyness or Charles White’s Mars Rover Art Car from Burning Man 2013: Cargo Cult.


In other news, we held our first fundraiser at Mt. Wilson Observatory and we all had a blast. We rented out the 60″ telescope and used the behemoth to view planetary nebula, planets and even one of my favorite distant galaxies. It was a great opportunity to get together with some L.A. burners (and some not) to discuss astronomy, history and Burning Man. Our project is starting to get a lot of attention and the Mt. Wilson group was buzzing with possibility and the excitement of a great night of observing. In all the years Ive been going up the mountain, I’ve never seen the marine layer come in and block out the city lights. Although the atmosphere was scintillating like crazy, the added contrast because of the darkness was a thing to behold. The dust lane in the Sombrero Galaxy jumped out at me and hints of dust and cloud detail teased itself out of the dark. It’s like getting to see an old friend but never this close or this clearly.

That about wraps it up. Our Kickstarter should begin within a few weeks, so keep an eye out for it. We have the chance to do something truly special here. I know that if we pull this off, aside from my family, this will be my greatest accomplishment. I’ve dreamt of running an observatory in a great city since I was a kid. Distractions and real life get in way. I abandoned this dream long ago on the side of the road. My math skills, my economics and my self confidence were broken and Im still working on it, but when I saw Black Rock City for the first time, I knew this was kind of place that wants you to live your dream. It dares you to live your dream. F#*k that. It demands¬†that you live your dreams. So, here’s mine. Wanna help me build it? ¬†



It’s all happening!

The Moon, Jupiter and the Internation Space Station through the dome model.

The Moon, Jupiter and the Internation Space Station through the dome model.

Gregg surprised us last week by having a 1:6 scale model cut and inviting us to his place for a build. We all knew we we’d be building a model eventually, but this was a fantastic surprise and my anticipation grew all week. When I arrived at his place, it was a feast for the eyes. Amazing wooden structures and geometric models surround you. Gregg Fleishman’s signature style was everywhere I looked. Having admired his stunning work on the Otic Oasis, the Pistil and the Temple of Whollyness, not to mention his furniture, I was thrilled to be standing there examining what looked to me like decades of work. There were a thousand shapes that wood never had a dream of becoming. It was like the Kama Sutra for Birch trees.

Before I knew it, the crew had arrived and we were punching pieces out of plywood sheets and removing the masking tape backing that holds all the pieces together to sand the rough edges. The model was cut with a MotionMaster 4×4 table with a 2mm bit from ultrathin 3 ply Finland Birch. The model is 1:6 scale so 2 inches = a foot. It looks like the full size dome will be about 21 feet across and measure over 15 feet tall. It wasn’t long before we all had our heads down sanding and the sounds of the friction rang about like so many DJ’s scratching on. That Burning Man feeling started to coarse. That familiar collaboration feeling started to creep on me. There’s a Burning Man feeling that involves collaboration, work, community and release that hits me every time I’m near people like this. My brain and veins come alive and I’m drunk with possibility.


Our project went from vaporware to hardware in just a couple of hours. Seeing a real dome in front of you that looks like it Tronned out of Autodesk and into the real physical world is exciting. I felt a little like Neo after swallowing the interlocking plywood pill. When I sat in front of the Temple of Whollyness, it looked precisely and exactly like the 3D rendering. That feels like a incredible triumph of math to me, one that’s way over my head, I’ll admit, but inspiring to an almost painful degree. There are realities; we can understand the mysteries of the univers. Standing in front of this 1:6 model of the observatory gave me that same feeling, but I feel connected to it in a more important way.¬†Executing math sculptures ¬†with software and trees is the same magic early astronomers wielded when they predicted eclipses and equinoxes. I don’t know if the Aztecs had a profound sense of meaning, philosophy, time and space intertwined when they built their pyramids, but that’s what I’m feeling now. We may not have the longevity of some of those stone structures, but in the impermanent impression we leave, there is an unbreakable thread of truth and numbers. I’m not even sure what it is or even what it looks like, but I know it’s real.

We finished up the model while we all discussed and commented and we took a short time to enjoy the sight and exchange some “holy shit that’s cool”s before we sauntered off down a Culver City street to some great margaritas.

Gregg’s making some changes to the dome and we’re starting to raise some money. Work on our Kickstarter campaign has begun, so look out for that soon and we’ve arranged a night with a historic telescope at the Mt. Wilson Observatory. It filled up so fast, we’ll likely reserve another night. We’ll be using the 60” telescope that Edwin Hubble used to discover redshift and the Big Bang ¬†to view whatever we like. You can stand in the same place as Einstein and used the same equipment as Stephen Hawking did. If you’re interested in joining us next time at Mt. Wilson, email me at vardenphoto@gmail.com or join our Facebook group and you can donate to the project anytime by clicking the Support Our Work link or send your donation via payPal to DonationsBRO@gmail.com.

I really want to thank Gregg Fleishman, Tupa, Luba, Keith Split, Captain Everything, Krista An, Matt and Charley for this amazing model.

Thanks for your time and support. – Major Tom