Humanity has explored the earth from pole to pole and the depths of every ocean and sea. Yet, we explorers have yet to explore the full magnitude of our own galaxy, much less the universe. However, there is one group of students who are getting ahead and learning how to shoot to the stars.
As many pass by Highland High School on the busy four-lane highway, they might notice the dome of the observatory peeking above the angular rooftops.
In December 1989, one man's desire to increase interest in science for students became a reality when the Highland High School observatory was completed.
Leonard Holden Jr., a man well-known for helping his community, donated a Newtonian telescope to the Highland High School.
Among other things, Holden has donated his time and money towards restoring the Old Hardy Gymnasium and getting a grant for a walking trail in Hardy as part of the Main Street Hardy Organization. He also said he has been working on the veterans memorial in Ash Flat for the past several years.
Holden received his physics degree from Arkansas Technical University and received further education at the University of Michigan. Holden worked at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico during and after he received his education.
"Since astronomy is a field of physics and science, I've always been interested in it," Holden said. "One thing led to another, and when I retired I bought the telescope because I thought that would be an easy way to keep doing some science."
The Newtonian telescope Holden donated to the school was originally designed by Sir Isaac Newton. The telescope uses mirrors instead of lenses to view the night sky. A round concave mirror bounces light passing through the telescope onto a flat mirror tilted at a 45 degree angle to an eyepiece so the viewer can see the moon, stars and other heavenly bodies.
Since the observatory's completion, students and astronomy groups have used the telescope to map stars and view the scenery on other planets.
According to Holden, the first years of the observatory were filled with excitement as people became more interested in space and science. Holden said for a year or so after the observatory was built, the North East Arkansas Astronomical Society would meet at the observatory on a regular basis to view the stars. Now, the observatory is just for students.
Holden said he used to come by the school and talk to the third through sixth graders, all of whom had numerous questions for him about the telescope. "They would all come over to the observatory, and I would give them a talk and show them some slides and answer their questions," Holden said. "They would just continuously ask questions." He said he also worked with the senior class for several years.
Lita King, the school's astronomy teacher, said students learn constellations, how to map stars and how to use the telescope. "They learn about the pointer stars. They learn how to read star maps so that they can actually pinpoint stars in the sky according to a star map. Then, they actually learn, as far as the telescope goes, how it's oriented, the settings on it, that type of thing," King said. "In my astronomy class (students) learn how to operate the lens (of the eyepiece) and how to focus it. We also relate it to what they learn in other science classes as far as the kind of connection between using a microscope for viewing things up close and the telescope for viewing distant objects. So, they learn how to put the lens in. They learn how to focus it. They learn how to find objects in the sky."
Along with the Newtonian telescope, there are pictures of planets, which Holden also donated, lining the entrance. Some models of planets made by past students are also displayed.
A bronze antique telescope dated about the end of the 19th century sits in a corner for students to look back and compare older telescopes with more modern ones. According to Holden, this telescope was donated by a man from Pocahontas.
"For the kids, probably, looking at the moon is one of the most intriguing things," King said. "Even for me, as many times as I've done it, there's just always something magical about looking at the moon."
Students also learn the history and basics of rocket launching so that maybe one day they can view the scenery on another planet much closer than they do now. King said the students in her class do an annual rocket launch where their payload, which houses an egg, must parachute and come back down to earth safely. "There are no two rockets that are the same," King said.
King also works with the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) to get programs for the students to work with and learn more about astronomy and the physics of rocket launching.
According to King, the observatory and other science classes that were added on to the school at the same time were all funded through grant money.
Holden said he bought the Newtonian telescope years before the observatory was complete, and he had his own observatory in his yard at home.
"There seemed to be a lot of interest (in the observatory) with the kids and other people, too. So, Highland was planning the building of a science classroom and everything in 1989, so I went to the school board and proposed to them to add the observatory to that. I donated the telescope then to go in the observatory," Holden said. "So, that's what they did. They built the new classrooms and the observatory together."
"I worked with the architects on the design (of the observatory)," Holden said.
"What I really had in mind (with the observatory) was to generate an interest in science for the students at Highland," Holden said. "Astronomy is a visual science, you know, you can see things through the telescope. I thought that would increase the interest in science if the students could actually see something like that and use the instruments and get more involved with science. I think it did to a certain extent."