A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Star Struck: Mason’s First Telescope

By Lisa M. Gerry on October 24, 2011



John and Chipper Whalan’s love story was written in the stars—and they have the telescope to prove it.

The Whalans helped build Mason's first telescope.

The two met in 1971 in Professor William Lankford’s astronomy class—the first ever offered at Mason. After Chipper caught John’s attention (he remembers her as the pretty girl who sat behind him), they began going on stargazing dates, taking Mason’s small, portable telescope out to the nearby Fort Belvoir golf course. It was dark enough there that they had good visibility of the sky, and their hope was to photograph planets and nebulae. But they soon realized that the telescope was too small for astrophotography.

That’s when they got a crazy idea: they would build a bigger telescope themselves.

So, John, BS Biology ’74, and Chipper, BA English ’74, along with their classmate, Bob Veenstra, BS Biology ’74, proposed a plan to Lankford.

“We said, ‘If you will finance it, we will build you a telescope,’” John remembers. “When I look back on it, it’s kind of surprising that we did something so stupid. But it worked!”

Lankford agreed, and the three ambitious students were given $200 to get started. The money went toward buying a mirror kit, as well as books on how to build a telescope.

“We got really into it,” says John. “We worked during the summers, on weekends, in the evenings—we spent thousands of hours building.”

Chipper and John Whalan today

When they finished, they had built a 500-pound, 12.5” Cassegrain compound reflector telescope. At the time, it was the largest telescope in Northern Virginia.

“It was a very big personal achievement that we ever finished the thing—and that it actually worked,” says John.

With no place to house it, the university offered up a pig shed, where the stadium currently stands. “So, we gutted the pig barn, threw out all the manure and hay, and built a sliding roof observatory,” says John. Named the Herschel Observatory, the structure took four years to complete.

The telescope was available to Mason students, and tours were given to the public.

“We wanted to leave something for Mason after we left,” says John. “And although they tore it down to build the stadium, it was quite popular for a while. A lot of people in Northern Virginia looked through it.”

As for John and Chipper, they married two months after the dedication of their observatory. Today, they say they couldn’t be more thrilled about Mason’s new observatory and telescope. In fact, they have supported Geller in his pursuit of the custom-built telescope, and a plaque in Research Hall bears their names.

“I am so happy for Harold Geller, in particular,” says John, “and Chipper and I are absolutely thrilled for Mason. This is going to be a great, great resource.”

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