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George Lucas autograph

Courtesy of Dan Joyce/Photo by Sara J. Martinez/MEDILL

Dan Joyce's story was featured in an October 1979 issue of "Sky & Telescope" magazine. Joyce and others who helped build the telescope received autographed photos from George Lucas, who also made a donation to the Adler Planetarium in gratitude for the gift.

Scoping the skies with telescope maker Dan Joyce

by Sara J. Martinez
March 15, 2011

Dan Joyce

Sara J. Martinez/MEDILL

In his Franklin Park shop, Dan Joyce works on grinding glass to be used in a telescope.

On Jan. 5, 1978, Dan Joyce started to build a very special telescope. He had been an instructor in the Adler Planetarium’s Amateur Telescope Making program since 1976 and had made optical pieces for telescopes for about eight years before that as a student.

In the amateur telescope making shop, Joyce was teaching others how to craft their own telescopes while beginning to build his own recreational project. Nobody knew who this 10” f/4.8 Newtonian was meant for.

While dozens of people in the shop helped him, they were left in the dark.

“It was one of the best kept secrets of all time,” said Joyce, now 62.

After six months of crafting came the big revelation.

The telescope was a gift from Joyce to George Lucas, creator of the epic Star Wars saga.

A huge Star Wars fan, Joyce was inspired by a line in the original “Star Wars” novel where Luke Skywalker uses a pair of “macrobinoculars” to look at the sky.

“At that point it said, ‘For long moments he stared, wishing all the while he had a real telescope instead of the binocs,’ ” Joyce said. “I thought, ‘Of course (George Lucas) wants a telescope.’ He wouldn’t have written that line unless he did.”

By the time Joyce sent the telescope to Skywalker Ranch in July 1978, he had seen “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” (originally released as “Star Wars” on May 25, 1977) in the theaters 41 times.

Joyce’s story eventually landed in the October 1979 issue of “Sky & Telescope” magazine in an article called, “A Scope for Skywalker.”

Out of gratitude for the telescope, Lucas made an unsolicited $3,000 donation to the planetarium, Joyce said.

Today, Joyce is a technical assistant and earth and space science educator at the Cernan Earth and Space Center at Triton College in River Grove. He continues to build telescopes in his spare time at his workshop in Franklin Park.

“Dan is one of several speakers who are part of the monthly skywatch we do,” said Bart Benjamin, director of the Cernan. “He usually does the Astro News section, talking about research in astronomy and what discoveries have been made.”

Joyce is an avid amateur astronomer and identifies himself as an amateur telescope maker because he isn't professionally commissioned to build telescopes – it’s mainly for fun, or to educate others.

“I don’t go into glitzy magazines to advertise my services,” he said about his business. But every year he gets a few interested people he teaches to build their own telescope.

Sheldon Faworski, an amateur astronomer from Elizabeth, Ill., has been studying the sky for almost 60 years and has known Joyce for the past 35.

Joyce has made mirrors for Faworski’s telescopes, many of which he still uses for imaging, including a 6” f/3.7, 8” f/3.7, 10” f/3.8 and 12.5” f/3.9.

“Dan is very influential in having people make their own telescopes and expanding their own love for astronomy,” Faworski said. “He is without a doubt a tremendous asset to the astronomical community.”

In fact, Joyce was president of the Chicago Astronomical Society five times and has served on the board for all but one year since 1973.

Since 1983, Joyce has been the “astro go-to guy” for WGN-TV’s on-air meteorologist, Tom Skilling, and he serves as astronomical adviser to Skilling’s “Ask Tom Why” column in the Chicago Tribune.

“Tom is the best person in the world to work for,” Joyce said.

While creating the “scope for Skywalker” more than 30 years ago put Joyce on the map as an amateur telescope maker, today people still know him as “Jedi Dan.”

Even a recent fax to Skilling shows Joyce’s sense of humor and the continuing connection to “Star Wars.” The cover page was signed FROM: Obi-Wan Kenobi, LOCATION: Tatooine.

And his legacy lives on at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif.

After he received Joyce’s telescope, George Lucas built a hilltop observatory off of Lucas Valley Road to make use of it.

Joyce recently received an e-mail from one of his former scope-making students, Paul Meegan, who is now the president of LucasArts, the video game division of LucasFilm.

“You’ll be happy to know that the observatory on Skywalker Ranch is still in action,” Meegan stated in the e-mail. “George has it set up so that all employees can be certified in its use and book it for an evening.”

Joyce is happy to share the views of the sky he has helped to facilitate, and he may even make some amateur astronomers or telescope makers out of the bunch.

As a kid, he only viewed the sky through a store-bought telescope.

“I had once looked through a really good scope at what’s now Benedictine University,” Joyce said. “I knew what a really good scope meant.”

For stargazers who might not have that opportunity, Joyce has only one recommendation.

“Never get a telescope with all the bells and whistles,” he said. “Get a sizeable glass. That’s the most important part.”


Some of the places you can find Dan Joyce's telescope optics around the country:


View Dan Joyce's Telescopes in a larger map