BARNAUL, Russia (Reuters) - From a garden bursting with roses, violets, burgeoning cabbages and broken furniture in the remote West Siberian town of Barnaul rises a rickety wooden tower capped with an aluminum dome.
World War Two veteran and astronomy enthusiast Mikhail Levchenko built this telescope and observatory from scratch in the 1970s, working far from the grand research centers that were once at the heart of the Soviet space race with the West.
Now, the neighbors and locals he mesmerized with his creation want to bring it back to life, and they hope a total solar eclipse on August 1 will inspire enthusiasts elsewhere to support them.
Since Levchenko’s death in 2002, the telescope, which has a 40-cm (16-inch) diameter glass lens that magnified 500 times, has gathered dust. Thieves tried to steal it for the scrap metal it once was and the observatory sank deeper into the ground.
“The instrument created by Levchenko is unique — it gives such precise images like no other,” said Oleg Petrov, who as a child would look through the telescope and listen to Levchenko’s lessons and is now among those who want to restore it.
U.S. space agency NASA has said the total solar eclipse — the first in two years — will pass over Canada, China, Mongolia and Russia — including Barnaul, where the sun will disappear for 2 minutes 16 seconds.
It identified a 300-km (186-mile) stretch of road leading to the town which would lie directly under the path of the hidden sun.
“Observers of the solar eclipse will come to the Altai region from France, Italy and America,” Petrov said. “We dream of showing them the telescope — and maybe they could help.”
Petrov says it will cost around $2 million to totally renovate and possibly move the telescope.
In the 1970s, Levchenko’s enthusiasm inspired many. Friends, children and even drunk neighbors filed into his garden to watch the celestial sights. They left inspired.
“As little ones, we listened to the lessons of Mikhail Sergeyevich,” said Petrov. “Many, after visiting this amazing observatory, became fascinated by physics, mathematics and astronomy.”
In 1973, during the twilight of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, Levchenko spent a year in his quiet garden welding scrap metal and carving wooden containers to build the telescope and observatory.
Thousands of miles away from his garden lay the huge Baikonur cosmodrome used by Moscow to shoot rockets and people into space.
“He (Levchenko) tried not to tell anyone during the Soviet times about his passion for astronomy,” said Nadezhda, his daughter. “He was afraid of looking like an eccentric.”
But his neighbors were fascinated. Petrov remembers how a drunk neighbor was once invited by Levchenko to take a look at Saturn and promptly gave up the bottle.
“He then explained to his wife that in his soul something returned, he understood how many things in life are interesting, while he was wasting his time on drink,” Petrov said.
Nadezhda laughs: “Wives tried to lead their husbands to him to treat them for alcoholism, but the stars did not have such a beneficial effect on others.”
As his fame spread, people began asking Levchenko to read the stars and find out the best time to plant potatoes and cabbages.
“My father never believed in horoscopes, but he was able to predict the weather with the help of the telescope,” Nadezhda said. “People believed in him more than they believed in forecasters.”
The people of Barnaul hope the telescope will lure visitors to their town during the total solar eclipse, even though NASA says Russia’s third most populated town, Novosibirsk, is likely to be the main visiting place in this region.
Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile