As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the Seventh Annual Deepest South Texas Star Safari was held under the auspices of the Three Rivers Foundation. While in Coonabarabran, Australia, I was fortunate enough to sit down for a conversation with Fred Koch who is the founder and principal benefactor of the 3RF. Included below is my conversation with Fred:
Can you please describe the 3RF?
Well, the Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, or the 3RF, is primarily an educational non-profit. We started out using astronomy because we had competitive advantages with dark skies in West Texas. However, it will expand to the other sciences and it will also include the arts. I was convinced when I went to an international planetarium association meeting in Melbourne four years ago and seeing digital planetarium what an extraordinary appeal can be made to the emotions aesthetically. The arts are very important, as are the sciences, and that is reflected in our facilities in Texas. We also now have a 3RF Australia entity that is separate, though, it's a sister organization. In both cases the idea is to use astronomy as a vehicle to encourage education with perhaps a bias towards science education.
The education approach you are taking – does it apply to students of any particular age or does it apply to everyone?
In general, across the board, everyone. We cater to students. We want to provide a hands-on interaction in the hope that that will promote a greater interest in science. Scout groups, for example, come out to our Comanche Springs astronomy campus in West Texas. We have public star parties for adults. We have teacher workshops. We feel like that's the best way – right now especially – to leverage our resources so that we're reaching a greater number of people.
How old is the Three Rivers Foundation?
We probably were incorporated five or six years ago so we're certainly in the salad days of our existence. Like any organization you have plans and you don't always meet those goals and timelines. But, yet, when you look back you're always amazed at how far you have come and that's because of the volunteers that we have been so fortunate to be able to recruit.
How many volunteers do you have now?
Right now, I think, complementing the staff we have of about eight people, we have about 35 regular volunteers who participate in astronomy events in West Texas.
I have heard that part of the focus of your organization is on rural communities and inner city communities. Why this focus?
Not restricted – but the thinking would be that in the inner cities or in the rural areas there are potential budding Einstein's and Shakespeare's and Beethoven's. We are trying to provide opportunities for these kids to redefine themselves. We like to say we're in the business of epiphanies and we hope to provide experiences so that some individual, child, adult will rethink themselves or rethink what their opportunities in life could be.
You have a reputation for having excellent astronomy equipment at your star parties and at your campus and also here in Australia. What's the rationale behind your decision to use high-end equipment?
Well, we certainly don't have the equipment of a professional observatory – we can't compete with that nor do we try. We try to optimize the best available equipment for the public and for amateurs. Right now, for example, our largest reflecting or dobsonian telescope is 30" in diameter. Someday maybe we will have larger. We have looked at getting a 48". We've looked at getting very large special camera-type telescopes. We're really looking at trying to be innovative such as with our StarChair, made in Australia, with very large binoculars attached to it providing a space-view of the sky chock full of stars. We want to engage the emotions and intellect of anyone who sees or views through this equipment.
How did you first come up with this idea?
Like so many ideas it just grew. We initially were at another facility, had some philosophical differences with it, were gifted 50 acres of West Texas ranch land, later gifted another 50 acres, later had the opportunity to purchase 600 more acres so now we have 700 acres of land. (The land is) not so good for farming, marginal for raising cattle but fantastic for boy scouts, for example. So, we use this as a campus not only for astronomy but for biology, geology, just any project. One of the reasons I think we have such enthusiastic volunteers is someone may come wanting to help or with a curiosity and when they have a talent we try to provide them with resources to pursue that talent. So, where we will be in five years or even two years from now will be very different from what I might imagine because it will be very largely driven by our volunteers or by our staff and where our opportunities are to carry out our mission.
What was the thinking behind the Deepest South Texas Star Safaris? Who came up with the idea and why is the star safari valuable to the Three Rivers Foundation?
It already existed in a different form before Three Rivers got involved. Tony Buckley and Lachlan MacDonald I think were perhaps the driving forces of a club in New South Wales that wanted to encourage overseas visitors to come to Australia for both the Southern skies and an Australian cultural experience. Because I personally have reason to spend a lot of time in Australia, I met them. Anne Adkins from Texas had also been coming over here. Their goals and 3RF educational goals seemed to meld. We don't have a campus in Australia. We're more of a virtual organization that is separate from the Texas organization but at the same time we have allocated large telescopes to volunteers. They not only participate in star parties for visitors from overseas two times a year but also they'll go out to schools and service clubs and provide a community service.
Where is the campus in Texas?
It's West of Crowell, Texas and I suppose if someone looked at Texas and Oklahoma – particularly the Southwest corner of Oklahoma it's about 30 miles South of there. It's not as high an elevation as professional observatories but we have very dark skies and we have proximity to large populations. We have an excellent tradeoff in that regard. We're able to service large areas and still have the dark sky resources we need.
You said that where you go in the next few years is dependent on the activities of the organization and the people involved. What do you see happening in the next year?
We've been hit financially like everyone else has but we are starting to see ways to innovate around that. As an organization we have reached a maturity where we can credibly go to foundations and ask for help. We'll do that in small ways first as sort of a training wheels exercise. Where we want to go in the near term future is that we need dormitory space particularly say for teachers who come out to our Comanche Springs campus for workshops or for university students to come there. We want to have laboratories so that we can expand into the other sciences. Classrooms. At some point – not in the next near but long term – we'd like to have a planetarium there, for example. We are already expanding into biological sciences by creating a prairie dog town and our turtle habitats. We will do things in the arts. For example, in Quanah, where most of our 3RF arts resources are, we'll be having a workshop on building wood brick-fired ovens. I'd like to establish the core skills in Comanche Springs so that we can redefine how people think about food, perhaps as part of the slow food movement where we think of fresh food and making our own food. I'd love it for people to come to Comanche Springs for an astronomy experience and be able to get a superb pizza at the same time.
All right. (Laughter.) Is there anything else that you would like people to know about the Three Rivers Foundation?
Well, we just want people to feel welcome to go there. It's not an exclusive club. We welcome volunteers. Don't wait for an engraved invitation to come to one of our star parties. If we're doing something that interests someone feel welcome to become part of what we are doing. While we have an educational mission as our prime mission in the final analysis we want to do a lot of good for a lot of people and have a lot of fun doing it. Thus far we seem to be able to do that.
Thank you very much Fred.
My great pleasure.