A S T R O N O M Y   AT   D E L T A   R E H A B I L I T A T I O N  (Archived)

First Light!

At approximately 8:00pm on the evening of September 4th, 2003, the Delta Astronomical Observatory transmitted it's first images directly to the classroom and the waiting Delta astronomy students. The gym was packed with wheelchairs and the students had warmed up with a discussion about the planet Mars and refresher on the history of "Starship Careless", the temporary name for the Observatory. Paul Walsh, the course instructor that night, then dashed out to the observatory, targeted a close-up of the craters of the moon in the telescope's viewer, turned on the special STV (Space TV) camera and piped the image to the waiting students via 100 feet of coaxial cable. All systems were "GO" and there on the projection screen was a wavering, live image of lunar craters, up close and personal!

Here are the very first test shots taken by the Delta Observatory

Here's the crater Clavius on the Moon >>

Lunar craters

<< More lunar craters

Here's Mars taken through the trees >>

A fuzzy picture of Mars

Here's the Whole Story from the Beginning...

Telescopic Therapy: Astronomy at Delta Rehabilitation

By Paul S. Walsh

 -This article was originally published in Mercury Magazine, Volume 31, No. 1, 2002

The idea that we live in multiple universes has always been a difficult one for me to grasp. After all, I have enough trouble just grasping the one I wake up in every morning. By my simple count, I seem to be able to ascertain that there are just two universes available to me on any given day. There is the one we all generally refer to as "the universe." The other is the one inside my skull, the personal universe composed of my brain and all that goes on inside of it. My mind is a universe with its own unique laws. It sometimes seems completely unrelated to the other communal universe that we all share.

Both of these universes hold fast to their secrets and remain two of our most challenging frontiers. Both continue to surprise us with theory-shattering revelations. We used to think of the brain as being kind of like Plaster of Paris. Once it was broken, that was all she wrote. But in the world of cognitive rehabilitation for people who have experienced severe brain trauma, we are discovering that this old view is far from the truth. The human brain is much more fluid than we thought. New neural pathways can be stimulated to grow new ways of thinking and looking at the world. The brain just needs a healthy inflow of data. Brain cells dance with delight when they hear a certain kind of music - the kind of music that respects the individual, offers participation, and rewards effort.

Astronomy can perform this role. This is the story of my attempt to share my passion for astronomy with a community of individuals that society is largely unaware of and is perhaps a little frightened to acknowledge. In January 1999 I began teaching an astronomy class at the Delta Rehabilitation Center in Snohomish, Washington (40 kilometers northeast of Seattle). This is a facility for people who have experienced severe brain injuries. Everyone who has sat in on this class has been amazed at the ability of astronomy to inspire the students to learn, to remember, to inquire, to laugh, and to wonder.

My Crazy Idea

I can vividly remember our first class. Talk about stage fright! Even 20 years in show business, comprising more than 100 plays and film and TV bit parts, wasn't enough to prepare me for that first evening. I had only been involved in amateur astronomy for about three years at that point and I was nervous about being able to deliver the goods. I looked out over a class of about 25 people, most of them in wheelchairs and all of them looking at me intently. I knew I had their attention, but, where to begin? How much and what kinds of information could this crowd handle? How would their injuries affect their participation? Did I really know enough astronomy to teach this class?

Taking a cue from a well known 12-step program, I began, "Thank you all for coming. My name is Paul and I'm an amateur astronomer." The next hour and a half went by in a blur. At one point, someone asked what Jupiter was made of and, as my mind fumbled to recall the proper elements and molecules, a strained voice in the crowd began uttering the list: hydrogen, helium, methane, ammonia. I scanned the faces to see who was talking and saw that it was a young man in a black cowboy hat speaking with tremendous difficulty. When he finished, I ask him his name and how he knew this. Jeff Kammers explained that before his accident 10 years earlier, he had been a practicing amateur astronomer in Alaska. He owned a 4.5-inch refractor and specialized in planetary observing. He had forgotten about astronomy entirely until the class, but that it was all beginning to come back to him in a rush.

Right then and there, I was hooked. Line and sinker. In that moment I knew that my crazy idea to teach astronomy to a group like this wasn't the least bit crazy. It also turned out that Jeff wasn't the only member of the class hungry to learn more about the night sky.

The idea to teach this class had come to me several months earlier during a trip to Los Angeles. A couple of friends knew that my lady Valarie and I had an interest in astronomy. They had arranged through a friend for Valarie and I to spend a night observing with Mount Wilson Observatory's 24-inch scope. This is the instrument used by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Telescopes in Education (TIE) program. Students from around the globe can dial in with a computer and take control of the scope and its ST-6 CCD camera to take pictures of the deep-sky objects of their choosing and download the images to their classroom. It's truly an amazing program.

TIE volunteer Jim Norris was our guide that night. It was just getting dark when we arrived at the telescope. The marine layer had ushered in a low haze that blanketed the Los Angeles light dome, so the sky looked surprisingly dark. Once inside the dome, Jim went through a long checklist of cautions and explanations and then turned the scope over to us. Valarie controlled the dome while I brought up the charting software on the computer and got chummy with the targeting and camera controls. Pretty soon, we were looking at a very passable image of the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) that we had captured in about 20 seconds. There is no substitute for aperture.

We took four more shots and then Jim said it was time for the main event. The phone rang and we could hear a teacher and a bunch of students on the speakerphone, calling in from a middle school in San Diego. After a brief exchange, Jim told the teacher, "Its all yours," and Valarie and I stood by in amazement as the students took over the sky charting program I had just been using. Using a mouse, they targeted the edge-on spiral galaxy NGC 891, opened the camera link, set the exposure, fired the shutter, and a minute later they had the galaxy glowing on their classroom monitor. "Bing-badda-boom," as they say. I suddenly knew that long distance robotic astronomy is not only a reality, it's as easy as playing a video game. That's when the idea hit me full force. I said to Jim, "Hey, I know a group of people that might really get a charge out of something like this. How much do you know about brain injury?"

Living Life

A recent Harris poll indicates that the American public is unaware of how serious a problem traumatic brain injury (TBI) really is. Prior to the Korean and Vietnam wars, severe head injuries were usually fatal. But during these wars combat medics and field hospital teams learned how to better address the critical first 72 hours following severe brain injuries. What they learned has been both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that many people can now survive head injuries that used to be fatal. The curse is that there is a growing population of citizens that will be in recovery for the rest of their lives and the United States has not yet established a national policy regarding the services and assistance they require to travel the road from coma to community.

The symptoms for traumatic brain injury are virtually infinite, ranging from mild behavioral disorders and memory problems to chronic seizures and non-responsive states. Many victims are also physically impaired. Speech and vision problems are common. Unlike cases of mental retardation, people who have sustained a brain injury are, in many ways, just as they were before the injury. In other words, a brilliant individual can be locked inside a broken mind, desperately waiting for someone to find a way in, to clear away the wreckage and discover what is left. That person is still yearning to grow and finish becoming the best person he or she is capable of becoming. That's the mission of the Delta Rehabilitation Center. The technical term is "cognitive rehabilitation" and Delta's motto is "living life." Delta's story pretty much begins with my cousin Mike.

In 1974, Mike Walsh was a 20-year-old college student. Sharp, tough, confident and witty, Mike was ready to take on the world. One day he was driving his VW Bug when the drunk driver of a Chevrolet turned left in front of him. The Chevy plowed up the hood of Mike's Bug, its bumper slamming into Mike's head. Mike was so badly injured that the first police officer to arrive assumed he was dead. The officer pulled Mike from the car and dutifully began CPR. He finally got a pulse and Mike started breathing again and began his long journey down a new and uncertain path.

At that time, Mike's parents, Wally and Donna Walsh, were managing a nursing home called the Snohomish Chalet. They had taken over management of the center just three years prior to Mike's accident. Then they got that awful phone call: "Your son is in the intensive care unit and is not expected to live."

Mike was in a deep coma for seven months. After the first five months Wally and Donna brought Mike home to a specially constructed private room at the chalet. Mike's family talked and read to him every day and many nights because they firmly believed he was still "in there." The doctors and specialists had all given up hope. The most optimistic doctor said that even if Mike woke up after being comatose this long, he would probably be a vegetable. I think that doctor would have made a better grocer than a physician.

Mike eventually woke up. One night, a nursing assistant tucking him in broke wind loudly and he started to laugh, which has led to "whoopee cushions" being part of the equipment for several coma recovery units around the world, not for use in coma recovery per se, but because such bodily sounds are a common currency in early childhood communication, the use of such sounds often stimulates laughter and recognition where more sophisticated approaches would miss the mark.

Mike is still physically impaired but in the years since his initial recovery, he has learned to care for himself, and he returned to school to finish studies in math and German, write poetry, and tell at least 10,000 jokes using a little keyboard printer attached to his wheelchair. Mike is a loved and honored member of the family and what has become the Delta Rehab community. His nickname is Rotten. My favorite Mike quote is: "Death is for wimps."

Mike and his brother, Chris

To learn more about what had afflicted Mike, Wally and Donna began to seek out more brain injury survivors looking for a place to recover. Over the years the Snohomish Chalet has quietly evolved to become one of the world's premier head injury rehabilitation facilities. The activities calendar is packed year-round with all kinds of stimulating events. The entire local community pitches in, teaching crafts, playing music, and putting on festivals. For years, my primary volunteer duties were to help set off fireworks for the 4th of July and to play one of the nine Santa Clauses required to handle the annual Christmas party for the 300 residents and staff. Input, stimulus, and good old-fashioned human involvement are the key ingredients when it comes to cognitive rehabilitation. This is a population limited in its ability to venture out into the world, so the world must be brought to them. Without such "food for thought," it has been proven that these people will die years, if not decades, before their time.

Now that you know a little more about my personal connection with traumatic brain injury, you can better understand my epiphany on Mount Wilson. I just had this hunch that exploring the universe would appeal to people who must spend most of their time confined to four walls and a wheelchair. I was right.

On Stage

The first class was in January 1999. My intent was to schedule a TIE program event two months later. I would hold classes twice a week leading up to the TIE night so that the students would be able to appreciate what the images were all about. The weather gods thought otherwise and our first on-line imaging session didn't occur until May. By then, the class had a firm grasp of what we were hunting for. I used the analogy of birding. The Sun and planets are in our local garden. The stars and nebulae are farther out but still within the jungle canopy.

Globular clusters hover above the jungle canopy, and far above the canopy were other jungles with their own globs and, as we're finding out, their own planets. When the time came, the class voted to grab a variety of different "birds" but there was a decided preference for galaxies.

Our TIE night finally came and we pigged out. Because most of the students struggle with vision and varying degrees of motor-skill problems, I acted the part of computer interface, translating the students desires and suggestions into mouse-clicks on an old PC. The PC was connected to a large-screen television so the whole class could clearly see what was going on.

Our first image was a hit. The scope had inadvertently locked-up during the exposure and we were treated to a lovely set of star trails. This was an effective way to illustrate the rotation of Earth! The succeeding shots were magnificent, however, and included globular cluster M3, Coddington's Nebula, and spiral galaxies M51 (the Whirlpool Galaxy), M63 (the Sunflower Galaxy), M106, M109, NGC 3184, and NGC 3938.

The prize catch of the evening was Supernova 1999by in NGC 2841 during it's peak brightness. The Rochester Academy of Science website later accepted our image into its data pool for this supernova. This was a huge thrill for the class. It represented not only one small step into the world of "real astronomy" but also a giant leap in self esteem and a sense of connection and accomplishment. We had "Harley" black and orange T-shirts printed up to commemorate the event. No more glorious raiment was ever worn by kings, nor with such pride.

Val and I took a break from the routine of classes as other priorities took control. Then one day my cousin Chris called me. Chris is Mike's oldest brother and he now runs Delta. Chris said, "They won't shut up about it." I laughed and said, "Yup, I figured that might happen." To which Chris replied, "How much would it take to build our own robotically controlled observatory?"

A Quantum Leap

Well, as I write this article, the Snohomish community has donated $6,000. Fellow amateur astronomer and scope vendor Herb York helped us acquire a Meade 10-inch LX200 telescope with super wedge and moto-focuser at manufacturer's cost. Another local amateur, Jonathan Murray, bought us an SBIG STV for a direct video link to the large screen TV the residents require in order to view the images. We are now in the design phase of constructing an actual observatory with attached classroom where our class can invite local school children for a look through the telescope. We'll bring things full circle by team-teaching the school kids. That's what I call a quantum leap.

It's important to note that the technology is secondary. The students are the center of the event and nothing more than a floor to stand on is necessary. Let me illustrate. NASA recently sent a videographer to capture our class for a NASA press release. The young man arrived somewhat unexpectedly and we had to quickly schedule an impromptu class.

About 25 students showed up including a new woman, Patty, who was extremely upset that her bingo night had been replaced with this "astronomy junk." The planned hour-long class turned into a full two-hour question-and-answer discussion on everything from reviewing all of our past imaging experiences to the effects of weightlessness on people with disabilities. Patty ended up being one of the most avid participants and was positively beaming when the class was finally forced to dismiss long past its usual bedtime.

Recently, I have begun to notice several Delta staffers picking up the ball, scouring bookstores and hobby shops for astronomy-related items and sharing them with the residents. The aides recognize astronomy as another valuable communications tool in their daily work and they leap at opportunities to add to their repertoire. One aide stopped by the local toy store and picked up a marvelous device called a solar computer for about $30. She has had a ball using it with the residents.

I'm not sure how the experts would measure the success of this class in bringing about cognitive rehabilitation. But I think I know how I would measure it. In early September 2001, I took about 20 students outside for a casual look at the New Moon using a web-cam hooked up to my 80mm wide-angle refractor and laptop. As the evening darkened, the conversation took on the relaxed feel and easy banter of a simple gathering of observing partners. This was a profound shift in the dynamics of the class. For an entire evening, the students' injuries had been rendered invisible to my consciousness. My students had become my peers, and my role as teacher had dissolved into one of simple fellowship under the stars.

When embarking on a teaching program like this, I think it's important to remember that the most important piece of astronomical equipment you can offer is you, yourself. Your passion, your commitment, and your interest in the students are more powerful than a 10-meter telescope when it comes to transporting your audience to the farthest reaches of the universe. I hope you'll consider the possibility of getting involved in an outreach program like this. I can tell you from experience that it will not only deepen your astronomical experience, as only teaching a subject can accomplish, but you will also learn some surprising things about yourself and your fellow voyagers. All of it good.



Judy Bruce (Mother of Brian Bruce):

"Brian doesn’t do a lot of initiation* but once he was in your class, it brought questions to mind that he asked – basically there was just his Dad and I around when he was asking them. Like I say, he doesn’t initiate much so I thought this was a plus – a very big plus."

(*a term from the behavioral sciences meaning that Brian hardly ever speaks unless spoken to)

Ed Moore, activities director at Delta Rehab:

"Well… any time you stimulate the brain, it’s beneficial to recovery from any kind of brain injury. Also, more than just stimulating the brain and the thought processes – it (the class) gives them a connection outside of the facility. A lot of times, it seems like the walls of the facility is kind of a "closed world" and the connection with Mt. Wilson Observatory, hooking up with them on the telephone and seeing it on the screen is like a line to the outside world that can help, not only mentally, but emotionally – and if they feel better about themselves and world, then they’re going to recover quicker. It’s helped me, personally, in my relation with the residents in that it’s given us a common ground. I’ve been interested on astronomy in minor way for a long time - now they’ve got an interest, so when they have questions, it gives me something to talk with them about, that has to do with something other than medical rehab. So, it kind of gives us a new common ground and been very beneficial in that way."



Mike Walsh, Student: 

"I would like to learn more about the historical aspects of astronomy."

 Leanne Son, Student: 

The class "Got me to think about a wider expanse. It took me out of my wheel chair in a way – not in the physical sense, but in my mind. My favorite thing was when we found the supernova. It got me thinking, gee, what else is out there?"

Yes, the class helps because we’re not just stuck here – we’re physically stuck here – but mentally, we’re not.

 Dennis Long, Student:

The most surprising thing I’ve learned is "That the things that are out there are part of reality. My favorite kind of object are the globular clusters. Even though these appear close together, there is a lot of area in between the stars. You don’t know what you’re missing."

Has it helped in my recovery? "That’s a deep question… I don’t know, but it’s my personality and character that have gotten me this far."

 Jeff Kammers, Student:

"I think it’s really neat to know how stars are formed and planets and stuff. I think it’s really amazing. I’ve been into it since I was a kid watching Star Trek. Remember that show "Space 1999"? I never missed an episode. Later, in Alaska, I had a 4-inch telescope. The Northern Lights were so bright – some nights we couldn’t see the stars."

The class has helped me "because what it did was kick loose memories and stuff that really helped. Things I couldn’t remember came back and, when they came, they came in landslides!"

 Gary Edwards, Student:

I’ve enjoyed learning "How the planets are all circling each other and all - how they got their names." The most surprising thing I learned was "How the planets organized themselves altogether – their formation."

 Jim Hirst, Student and resident poet: 

I’ve liked "Learning about our Solar System and the galaxy and far off stars, etcetera… Thank you for showing us about the Solar system and what our possibilities are and about the galaxy quest (laughing).

It gives us a variety of options… to choose from, rather than just moping and wondering about our difficulties. It opens up a range of explorations for us to choose from rather than worrying about own difficulties.

Regarding the value of teaching astronomy at other facilities like Delta: "I think the possibilities are endless because of the large variety of information that is being explored. I believe the Solar System is not yet explored enough to verify the possibilities…because we could have further things to teach us about our experiences on earth – because we could have diseases and problems going on that could be taken care of by some new findings on different planets or so that we could learn from and get an understanding of what is out there."

"I had a telescope that my Dad left me before he died. That I used to look into space – and I had a few questions that I never seemed to get answered. The class has brought an understanding to me that is reconcilable with our solar system and what our possibilities are.

 Joan Setzer, Student:

What I find most interesting is "The possibility that we might have some contact with life other than our own. I find astronomy very mind expanding – that’s also why I watch a lot of channel 44, the Sci Fi channel… I believe that space exploration in this country is hampered by "laws of the land". I just think that the wealth of knowledge that we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know. More money should be going to space exploration.

I asked Joan, who struggles with Multiple Sclerosis, about proportional distribution of federal funds. If she had to choose between money going to MS research or to the Space Program, she said, "The Universe takes priority".

 Dave Harmon, Student: 

"It’s so spacey!" (laughs) "I find it really fantastic to think that there is everything, never-ending. So, if man had a way to stay alive long enough, could he not get in a rocket ship to go far enough to reach the edge of space, if there is one. It would have to be manned because a robotically controlled ship could crash and ruin the mission. I trip out and my mind will just wonder and wonder and wonder… Sometimes I think of the things that might be of help to mankind as far a space exploration."

Whether studying astronomy can help with brain injury? "That would depend on the severity of trauma. Yes, having the class available made me think that, even though so much has been accomplished here on earth, the exploration of space leaves man not with more chapters – but whole, new, unopened novels that haven’t even been browsed."

Viewing our SolarSystem

A poem by Jim Hirst, Astronomy Student 1/16/99

Today on January I6,1999 we Delta residents had a very informative date! Because Valarie and Paul Walsh, were here at Delta to teach about our solar system not about some hog wash!

In our Galaxy there is about a billion stars, and surprisingly they are both near and far! And yes I should say, our galaxy is called none other than the Milky Way!

We learned a little bit about Mercury, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and the sun, also we learned a bit about Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto before they were done!

Our next closest galaxy is Andromeda 2 point 5 million light years away, that is the nearest big galaxy to the Milky way! We residents learned so much more, about gravity, comets, space travel and other planets galore!

About space we had so very many questions, and with that Paul and Valerie were able to come right back with some informative answers and or suggestions! We sure do appreciate their awesome show, and even though they will be back the next few weeks-we were sad to see them go!


An amateur astronomer and content editor for Astromart.com, Paul was the Director of Internet Services for the Delta Foundation.

Copyright © 2002
This article is copyrighted and rights are retained by
Paul S. Walsh, 2002, and may not be reused in whole or in part without the permission of the author or through special arrangement with Mercury, The Magazine Of The Astronomical Society Of The Pacific.

The Delta Observatory...