Berthoud's Little Thompson Observatory

With a the help of a very special telescope, the Little Thompson Observatory is bringing space home to Berthoud.



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Children’s memory shines on for astronomer with Estes Park observatory

(Story by Carri Wilbanks & Matthew Spencer / Photos by Chris Amundson)

SHINING STARS HAVE always been guiding lights for Estes Park’s inspiring amateur astronomer, Mike Connolly, especially in his darkest hour.

Since the 1960s he had been staring up into the night sky, where the fruits of his labor as a thermal engineer often traveled. He helped launch shooting stars in the space industry like the Titan missile, the Apollo moon missions and the Magellan spacecraft’s Venus explorations. Connolly and his wife, Carole, loved sharing their joy of the Colorado night sky with their three children. The Connolly family’s starship was a wondrous vessel of imagination traveling in their seemingly endless universe together.

“I remember nights where we would all lay under the sky looking at stars and planets for hours,” he said. “I love the stars, and I loved showing them to my kids.”

Then came the blackest of nights. A tragic motorcycle accident took the lives of two of the Connollys’ children, their son, Thomas, and a daughter, Christian, both of whom were already following their father’s scientific path with careers in the engineering and computer industries. But in the depths of his despair, Mike Connolly came up with an uplifting memorial tribute for his children. He would share his family’s love of the stars with thousands of others in a shining vision: Build the Estes Park Memorial Observatory and the wonders of the universe will come.

The Connollys set up a nonprofit organization to begin the observatory, the Angels Above Foundation, which was co-founded by their daughter, Estes Park resident Michele Johnson. Soon their dream soared to honor those two bright stars in their lives. Just a year later, after much guidance from the Little Thompson Observatory in Berthoud, the observatory broke ground on land provided in Estes Park by the Park R-3 School District, and Michele’s husband, Roy, volunteered his expertise as a builder.

Now, students and other visitors can step inside a 16-foot-high dome and stare into a telescope that will take them on journeys through space 400 million miles away. The rotating dome’s orbits are powered by a motorcycle chain and a pair of oversized garage openers, and the telescope was donated by Estes Park High School, rescued from 10 years in the black hole of a supply closet. There’s also a spectacular 16-foot-high mural in the observatory’s lobby painted by local artist Kris Eitzen, inspired  by the book written by Harriet Peck Taylor, Coyote Places the Stars,  an American Indian legend about the origins of constellations.

Mike Connolly’s own journeys with the stars continue. He is a contracted thermal engineer with the Osiris-Rex project, a mission to capture a piece of an asteroid to help determine its composition. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2016, reach the asteroid in 2018 and come back to Earth in 2022. An even more amazing space odyssey has been the life journey of Connolly himself. An admitted absentee student at Lakewood High School, Connolly’s future career seemed about as likely as him spending summer vacations on Jupiter. “I was voted most likely to end up in jail,” he chuckled.

Connolly eventually became a star student and spent decades helping unlock mysteries of the universe. Perhaps his most magical space mission is that he now gets young people in Estes Park to look up in wonder at the stars, just as he did with his own children for so many splendid Rocky Mountain nights.

The donation-based Estes Park Memorial Observatory is open to individuals as well as school groups, located at 1600 Manford Ave. in Estes Park. Call (970) 586-5668, email info@AngelsAbove.org, or visit website at AngelsAbove.org


(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2013 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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