A Little Piece of Amateur Astronomy History
Gregory Gross

A Little Piece of Amateur Astronomy History

There’s something special about Questar telescopes. Small and convenient, these jewels of craftsmanship are a joy to own and use. They prove that aperture is not everything in a telescope.

A Questar Admirer’s Progress

October 2015 issue of <em>Astronomy</em> magazine
The image in the October 2015 issue of Astronomy magazine that introduced me to the Questar telescope. Astronomy magazine via archive.org

My earliest encounter with Questar telescopes was in NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, my very first amateur astronomy purchase. In that book, author Terence Dickinson noted that, “for many years, the best-known Maksutov-Cassegrain was the Questar, a beautiful (and very pricey) high-performance 90mm telescope.” Dickinson added that, although Meade’s ETX later offered similar functionality and excellent value at a much more reasonable price, “the ETX is no Questar.”

But the first time I actually saw an image of a Questar was in Glenn Chaple’s article entitled “10 Classic Telescopes Remembered,” which appeared in the October 2015 issue of Astronomy magazine. I remember being immediately smitten by the charm of what appeared to be a superb piece of craftsmanship in a small package. I’m a sucker for such things, and it didn’t take much more for me to be drawn to those little scopes.

I spent the next three years ogling Questars online. I read all I could about them, seeking out any review I could find and learning about the operation of a scope I didn’t even own. Their gem-like appearance and surrounding lore fascinated me, and my interest in them deepened.

Camp Hancock Star Party in May 2016
My first in-person encounter with a Questar at the Camp Hancock Star Party in May 2016.

Coming across one in person for the first time at the Camp Hancock Star Party in May 2016 only reinforced that sentiment. I remember interrogating its owner, who was all too glad to gush about his Questar, a true “portable observatory.”

But the hesitant value seeker in me balked at going much further than reading about them. I found myself having an occasional look at new Questars available through Astronomics, but the price tags put me off. Listings on eBay were another frequent lure for me, but, again, the typical asking price even for used Questars deterred any action on my part.

Other interests always seemed to take priority. After the total solar eclipse that swept across the United States in August 2017, for instance, my growing interest in solar astronomy compelled me to invest funds in a dedicated H-alpha solar telescope. With the possible exception of serious astrophotography, there are few areas in the hobby that are more expensive than solar astronomy or Questar telescopes, and I found it hard to justify indulging in both. Solar astronomy won.

Jumping In

In spite of my rationalizations, that hankering to get a Questar never really went away. There came a point in this Questar admirer’s progress when window shopping turned into serious shopping, and I began to look in earnest for an early example. True to my professional background in database development, I did my research and gained a better sense of typical selling prices by compiling a list of Questars from the 1950s and early 1960s that had sold in recent months. I searched and waited.

Questar #2-15xx
Questar #2-15xx.

Finally, a 1962 Questar appeared on the market. It had some problems, but it was available for a great price. Still not quite convinced of spending a ton of money on a telescope with a small and obstructed aperture, it seemed to be my opportunity to own a little piece of amateur astronomy history on a shoestring. At some point in its life (probably sometime in the mid-1960s), Questar #2-15xx had gone through a wide-field conversion, and it didn’t quite have that fully original classic look that I sought. The scope had also seen better days. While the telescope’s cosmetics were excellent, its optics had deteriorated likely as the result of poor and careless storage over the years. It also arrived with its declination brake frozen in place perhaps as a result of someone not knowing how to operate it (loosening it requires a counterintuitive clockwise turn). Also apparently ignorant about how to open the original saddle leather case, a prior owner had ripped the clasps off the door flap. This poor little scope clearly had a tough go at it over the years, but it held up remarkably well nonetheless.

In spite of its shortcomings, this Charlie Brown Christmas tree of a Questar brought me a tremendous amount of delight. Even little things made me smile. When I first looked down into the scope’s case pockets late in the evening of the day that I received it, I was excited to find that the small Bristol spline wrench that would have originally come with the scope was wedged in at the bottom of the solar filter pouch. It had probably been there for decades after the initial owner perhaps dropped it in there and forgot about it.

Using the jam nut trick to loosen the declination brake
Using the jam nut trick to loosen the declination brake.

That Bristol spline wrench came in handy when my attention turned to loosening the frozen declination brake. After using that little tool to remove the declination brake knob, I turned to a pair of #8-36 machine screw nuts and a standard box wrench to employ the jam nut trick and loosen the frozen declination brake itself.

Later, I managed to reattach the clasps back onto the leather case door flap with minimal evidence that any repair had been done. With a little creative use of some PEC*PADs, Weldbond glue, and new rivets that I found at my local hardware store and that turned out to be a perfect match with the originals, I managed to restore and secure the door flap latches to their original position.

But perhaps most satisfying was the simple act of getting my hands on a Questar and gaining the very unique experience of using one. Doing so felt like a victory in itself.

I have to confess that, when I bought it, I never expected to use it as a serious observing instrument. After working through its mechanical kinks, it didn’t do much more than stay on the receiving end of my admiration, and it more or less just sat there for a month or two waiting to get used.

Observing the heavens with Questar #2-15xx
Observing the heavens with Questar #2-15xx.

Those first few observing sessions with my Questar utterly confounded my expectations. I was amazed how well it could resolve Jupiter and Saturn even with its failed coatings. To be sure, even a storied telescope like the Questar can’t break the laws of physics. The view that its 90mm of aperture offered was much dimmer compared to what my C8 SCT offers. To be fair, I admit that my Questar’s failed coatings probably had a lot to do with that dimness. But even in spite of all this, I was astounded by how such a small scope with so many problems could still produce such a detailed, well-resolved view of the planets.

But perhaps more important, the simple act of using my Questar left an indelible impression on me. Handling a self-contained, fully-mounted scope that switches from finder mode to low power and to high power, all with the mere flick of a few small levers, makes for a decidedly unique observing experience compared to what more conventional scopes offer. It didn’t take me long to learn how much of a delight it was to use. I couldn’t help but smile every time I handled it. No other telescope does that for me. All in all, it was money well spent.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

As I spent time with my Questar #2-15xx, its compromised state weighed on my mind. Cosmetically speaking, it had remained a beautiful instrument even after years of neglect. But its optical coatings had quite clearly deteriorated. Should I put resources into it and bring it back to its former optical glory? Or should I seek out a better example? For months, a debate raged in my mind, and I went back and forth on the question of what to do with my Questar while my poor wife rolled her eyes upon seeing me struggle with my dilemma.

Questar #2-14xx with Praktina FX camera body attached
Questar #2-14xx with Praktina FX camera body attached.

Then one day a beautiful example of an early Questar appeared for sale. After a brief but intense period of hand-wringing, I snatched it up. My Questar #2-14xx, built only a month before #2-15xx, brought another dimension to my first-hand experience with Questar telescopes. It had all of its original features intact including a large focus knob and smaller axial port, two features that were characteristic of the earliest Questars. It even included its original instruction booklet, and its #30 Cheney case latch keys and Bristol spline wrench were still in the little plastic pouch that they would have come in when Questar shipped the scope to its first owner.

As an added bonus, the scope came with a number of very hard-to-find accessories: a Praktina FX camera body, a 58mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar lens, and an early Questar camera coupling set. I was quick to recognize the unique behavior of the shutter button on the Praktina: pressing it halfway down flipped up the mirror, and going all the way released the shutter. This feature helps prevent the negative effects of mirror-slap vibration on exposure sharpness, and it’s consistent with the behavior of Questar-modified Praktina cameras that the company described in its 1960 promotional booklet.

In action, Questar #2-14xx showed Jupiter and Saturn with even better resolution and brightness than what #2-15xx could muster with its failed coatings. Its mechanical action was smooth and flawless for the most part, a testament to how well these little scopes were built all those years ago. I grew to be very happy with my new (to me) Questar.

A Questar “Restomod”?

I still have Questar #2-15xx. In all likelihood, I’ll eventually muster enough resources to put towards fixing its optical shortcomings and mechanical flaws and make it a first-rate, fully-functional observing instrument. It would be a pity to relegate an example of such a nifty scope to second-class status over the long term. Not too long ago, I came across a New York Times article that described how some vintage automobile aficionados take collector cars and perform “restomods” on them—that is, they introduce modern features into classic vehicles to make them more usable according to today’s standards while retaining much of their original look.

I became intrigued with possibilities for the first Questar I came to own. As I mentioned above, a prior owner had a wide-field conversion done on it. Since it is no longer in original condition, I don’t feel a sense of hesitation about modifying it further. And there is a precedent for making updates: I know that Questar’s founder Lawrence Braymer was not shy about adding improvements to scopes sent in for service. In the instruction booklets from the 1960s, the company wrote, “We constantly try to make internal improvements, and whenever possible we design the changes so that they can be applied to earlier instruments.” So the folks at Questar Corporation clearly seemed to be driven by the “restomod” spirit themselves. In keeping with the spirit of its apparent history, I think Questar #2-15xx is a good candidate for a “restomod.” Having a Questar with all of the beautiful original cosmetic features but with the performance of modern optics may prove to be too tempting of a thing to pass up.

An Evolution in Thinking

Over the course of time that I’ve had one in my possession, my thinking about Questar telescopes has evolved. I’ve gone from seeing them as mere curiosities to looking at them as serious observing instruments with features that no other telescope offers.

To be sure, the Standard Questar is not the perfect instrument for every observing scenario. No telescope is. Honesty also demands an admission that the aperture of a 3.5-inch Questar telescope is subject to the same laws of physics as any other aperture is. Honesty will still further demand a recognition of the particular shortcomings that are inherent in any catadioptric telescope. Every telescope design represents a compromise of some kind, and the Questar’s Maksutov-Cassegrain design is no exception to this.

And then there is the matter of its price. Indeed, Questars are not cheap even when they appear on the market used. But any hand-built telescope that represents a first-rate execution of a given optical design and that is produced in small batches by an experienced, dedicated, and proud group of artisans is simply going to cost a premium. I would expect nothing less if I were on their end of the transaction. Moreover, there is no doubt that one can obtain any number of mass-produced telescopes that are capable of providing deeply satisfying experiences at the eyepiece for a fraction of the cost of a Questar. I myself have a number of these types of instruments, and they have given me just that on countless occasions.

But in spite of all this, there is something special and unmatched about Questar telescopes. It’s a strong affinity for these qualities that make for proud and very happy owners of these unique instruments. As the years go by, I can completely see how a Questar would stay with me even as my telescope collection thins.

(This piece is based on earlier postings I made in the Cloudy Nights Questar forum on February 26, 2019, September 25, 2019, November 18, 2019, and January 16, 2020.)