It all began in 1998 when Dr. Alex Shlanta, a retired supervisory physicist and adjunct faculty member, and Ken Pringle, adjunct faculty, both of whom teach astronomy courses, got the idea to bring an observatory to Cerro Coso. With no funding available from the college, Shlanta reached out to his contacts at the local Naval base, the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWC-WD) at China Lake. Working with the head of the Weapons Department, Scott O'Neil, Shlanta was able to acquire a 10" Cave telescope on an extended loan from NAWC-WD.
In July of 1999 the rather battered telescope was picked up and handed over to Calvin Clayson, who was a machinist working at NAWC-WD and member of the China Lake Astronomical Society, who spent many hours reconditioning the telescope and its mount to get them in working order. The telescope was in need of some basic cleaning, balancing, cleaning of bearings with the delicate optics required cleaning.
While the telescope was being reconditioned Shlanta set out to find a home for the observatory. Working together with Richard L'Hommedieu, Director of Maintenance and Operations at the time, the two discovered a spot on the Cerro Coso Indian Wells Valley campus that would meet the observatory needs nicely. The spot was located in the south east region of the campus and was a plot of land that had been cleared and leveled by college landscaper, Luis Miro, while working on the various landscaping projects at the college. Miro had used the land to collect fill dirt when he needed to build up or fill in areas around the college for landscaping. The isolated location, relatively free of light pollution, made for the perfect spot for an astronomical observatory and work began to prepare the land for a dome.
Working with members of maintenance, Richard L'Hommedieu, John Daly, and Mark Lathrop, the land was prepped, a cement pad was poured, and solar power was brought to the observatory before the first dome arrived. Groundsworkers Raul Gonzales, Oscar Pueblo, and Jose Redondo assisted with the cement pour for the 20'x20' pad. Jim Manion, a mathematics instructor at Cerro Coso, assisted with the installation of the solar power panel at the site. The first Askania dome was acquired through the same arrangement as the 10" Cave telescope with the help of Tom Wee, Carl Finch, and Sandy Rogers being an extended loan from NAWC-WD, all at no cost to the federal government. The dome, previously used for missile tracking cameras at NAWC-WD, was installed, refurbished, and the telescope was installed and mounted - and the world of astronomy changed dramatically at Cerro Coso.
In 2002, shortly following the dome and telescope installation Daily Independent Reporter Linda Saholt wrote an article entitled, "The heaven's open up at Cerro Coso," announcing the opening of the Cerro Coso observatory and giving a brief history of the observatory creation. Throughout the entire process the China Lake Astronomical Society (CLAS) members donated many hours of their time, and much of their knowledge towards the building of the observatory at Cerro Coso. CLAS members also donated equipment to get the observatory started. Faculty, staff, and students contributed $2700 to the Fire Mountain Foundation Astronomical Observatory Fund which was set up to provide ongoing financial support for the observatory.
On May 22, 2002, the first "Star Party" was hosted to unveil the heaven's to members of Cerro Coso and the community. Participants viewed the moon, Venus and Jupiter.
After the news article ran, Jack Russell, former head of Range Department at NAWC-WD, contacted Shlanta about donating a telescope and dome to the observatory since he was going to be moving out of the area. Shlanta prepared appraisal documents for tax reporting, and by September 2002 the observatory was expanded to house 2 domes and the new Meade LX 200 12" Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope donated by Russell. Additionally, more cement pads were poured to allow for telescope viewing areas and two sheds, one built by the Burroughs High School ROP program and one donated from the Child Development Center, were placed in the compound. The ROP built shed was build and delivered by the students, with Cerro Coso paying only for materials. The sheds were used to house various astronomy equipment purchased with donated funds, including binoculars and telescopes.
By 2004 Shlanta had his eyes set on getting some more domes for the observatory, in particular so that a new pedestal could be installed in one of them for mounting one of the telescopes capable of doing astrophotography (taking photos of celestial objects). In August 2004 a new Educational Partnership Agreement was signed between Cerro Coso and NAWC-WD that allowed for the transfer of additional domes and equipment.
In 2004 Dr. Shlanta offered a 6-week merit badge session for local boy scouts in the training and instruction of using telescopes. Dr. Shlanta then attended the awards presentation to personally award the badges to participants.
In September 2004 the college received an additional telescope from NAWC-WD and a 20" diameter Obsession reflection telescope was obtained through an MOU with the China Lake Astronomical Society.
Two Askania domes being delivered to Cerro Coso Community College through the efforts of Astronomy instructor Dr. Alex Shlanta.
Dr. Shlanta, Astronomy Instructor for the class and developer of the Observatory at the College. Also pictured is Larry Galvin representing NAWCWD from the Range Department whom Shlanta worked with to obtain the domes.
In April 2005, the transfer of two domes from NAWC-WD was approved. In June two Askania domes, used for Askania camera missile tracking systems, were delivered to Cerro Coso Community College. The domes were transported to the College by Boydston Construction, with the transportation costs being supported by the College's Fire Mountain Foundation. The two additional domes join the two domes previously obtained from the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division.
These domes were obtained as surplus property through an Educational Partnership Agreement Cerro Coso Community College has in place with the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) China Lake. The domes are used to house astronomical telescopes and to expand the facilities at the College Astronomical Observatory.
Since their delivery in 2005, the last two domes were placed on concrete pads, and an imbedded pedestal was constructed for one of the domes. Major repairs were done, another shed was put in place, a power generator was donated and the entire compound was enclosed by fencing (both donated by John Matisohn II) and more concrete pads were poured to allow for more observation space and for set up of additional viewing telescopes. The third, ventilated shed, was placed in the compound. The shed was in bad shape and needed major repairs, including a new roof and siding. The shed also had a ventilation system installed in order to help protect the sensitive equipment inside. Without the ventilation system the interior temperature of the buildings can reach 130 degrees in the summer sun.
In May 2006 the Dr. Alex Shlanta Astronomical Observatory was dedicated, being named in honor of Dr. Alex Shlanta who's dedication, management and unfailing efforts has brought the observatory to the students of Cerro Coso. Through the contributions of the local community, CLAS, and NAWC-WD, a half a million-dollar facility ($500,000) has been developed at an expense to the College of under $15,000. This unique facility is an outstanding resource to both students and the community alike. During the dedication members of the Kern Community College District Board of Trustees and the college president, as well as Dr. Alex Shlanta spoke. Attendees were treated to a rare opportunity to look at the sun through a special H-alpha telescope which allowed viewers to see to the second level of the sun's atmosphere, the chromosphere. Binoculars and other telescopes were also set up with special visible filters allowing attendees to view the sun as well.
In June 2006 Dr. Shlanta received the John Goodrick Award from the Western Amateur Astronomers Association for promoting astronomy education at Cerro Coso Community College. This award was presented to Dr. Shlanta at a China Lake Astronomical Society meeting.
On June 29, 2008 Dr. Alex Shlanta, the driving force behind the Observatory passed away. Dr. Shlanta will remain a shining star in the memory of the College and his efforts will be continued.