From the Board of Visitors Executive Committee


Profile in Service: Love of nature leads to astronomy for Joe Orr

In late 2012, Orion Circle member Joe Orr has made a significant gift to McDonald Observatory that will allow creation of new workshops for national park and State of Texas parks personnel that will focus on dark-sky preservation and sky interpretation. Another gift will create a fund for retrofitting observatory-area light fixtures. Mr. Orr also funded improvements to the Otto Struve Telescope’s public-viewing capabilities, along with a position for a summer intern who will help with dark-skies presentations (and numerous other programs). In addition, his support will enable McDonald Observatory to expand its cooperation with “Project Share,” an innovative effort of the Texas Education Agency that brings specialized resources to an environment for exploration and collaboration online for hundreds of thousands of Texas K-12 teachers and students.

Joe Orr

This extraordinary generosity will have a real impact on the observatory, with benefits for years to come. Says Director David Lambert, “Joe Orr will increase our outreach to state and federal parks officials to help in the important area of dark-skies education, and his giving will benefit visitors to the observatory right away, through darker local skies, better viewing opportunities, and new summer-time personnel at the Frank N. Bash Visitors’ Center to make our programs even better.”

Joe Orr has made a career out of sharing the natural world with others, and his decades-long connection with McDonald Observatory started when he was just a freshman at Sul Ross State University. It has grown stronger over time, and now Joe, a member of the Orion Circle, is combining his advocacy for astronomy education and outreach with a passion for the natural world.

“Growing up in Texas and having an interest in astronomy, I think I always knew about McDonald Observatory. My first visit to McDonald was in 1972, as a freshman at Sul Ross. We drove up to Mount Locke in the fog, and the white observatory domes appeared suddenly out of the clouds. It was quite an introduction, and one I remember well after more than forty years.”

Joe’s commitment to McDonald Observatory is as diverse as his interests in the outdoors, giving support to educational programs, dark-sky initiatives, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and more. He describes the connection he has to these varied initiatives, stating, “I’ve always admired the public star parties and other educational programs that McDonald has offered . . . . I’m especially excited about the workshops to be offered at McDonald for the National Park and State Park personnel, focused on dark sky preservation and night sky interpretation.”

He has a life-long passion for learning, and he demonstrates that a well-rounded education combines formal classroom learning with real-world experiences and leadership opportunities in nature.

His commitment to exploration did not stop at the United States border; Joe has traveled extensively in Mexico and Central America, educating countless tour participants on the value and beauty of these geographic areas. He has extensive knowledge of the ancient Maya culture, and scholars in the field respect his ability to contextualize the connection between Mayan architecture and its ancient relationship to the natural environment.

“I’ve been fascinated for many years with the ancient Maya,” he said. “They were careful observers of the skies and kept meticulous records for more than a thousand years. Knowing something about astronomy has been a great help in trying to understand the ancient Maya and explain it to others.”

In speaking of the ties that unite humans throughout history, Joe believes in the responsibility this generation has to continue to inspire future generations, and sees how astronomers and the Observatory have a unique role to play in that.

“We are so lucky in Texas to have some of the darkest skies in the United States in West Texas, and to have a world-class facility like McDonald Observatory located here,” he said. “Because of our dark skies, McDonald can continue to do cutting-edge science and research and attract the best astronomers and students to our state. This is a win-win situation, and produces many benefits both locally and statewide. But in addition to the tangible benefits, I believe it’s important to have a place where people can look up at an unpolluted night sky, to experience the awe and wonder that others have felt for millennia, and perhaps to think about our place in the Universe.”

[Carolyn Porter]

February 2013
Astronomy Program · The University of Texas at Austin
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