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Arizona's Nomadic, Autistic Astronomer

Richard Andreassen, an autistic, hard-of-hearing astronomer, built a trailer that acts as a portable observatory. His ideas aren't traditional, but he's garnered acclaim for his beautiful celestial photographs.
February 27, 2014, 2:00pmUpdated on February 28, 2014, 6:39pm

I find Richard Andreassen outside a camera store in Phoenix, Arizona, blasting thrash metal from his red pickup truck. Behind his truck is a trailer that acts as both his home and portable observatory. The outside of the trailer is covered in gorgeous snapshots Richard has taken of the night sky.

Autistic and hard of hearing, Richard doesn’t quite talk; he bellows in a turbulent inflection tinged by a nearly faded Long Island accent. He commands your attention, but even if you ignored him, you couldn’t disregard the beautiful celestial photographs he's taken—lunar phases, comets, deep space—and cemented to his mobile home using Liquid Nails and a staple gun.

“Wanna see inside?” Richard asks me. I nod eagerly. “Welp, don't tell no one, though.”

Richard has completely modified his truck into a mobile living space and observatory with some pretty ingenious tweaks. His “room” is blanketed in star motifs; even the ceiling's covered in the constellations he’s shot. A 13-horsepower gas motor is hooked up to his electronics: hand-built telescopes, an air conditioner, a coffeemaker, a stereo, and two microwaves, which he uses to heat up gallons of soapy water with which to shower.

“Ain't that [a] great idea?” Richard grins at me, describing his amenities— as the TV antenna and the fold-up La-Z-Boy chair strapped to his roof—as “luxuries.” I can’t disagree with him. Before these refinements, the trailer weighed 1,500 pounds; now it weighs nearly twice as much.

The trailer earned some recognition from the RTMC Astronomy Expo last year, awarding him the Warren Estes Memorial Award for “combining the visual, almost museum-like, appeal of [his] photos... with a utilitarian storage and transportation solution for [his] myriad astronomical instruments and accessories.”

Once a machinist for a military contractor, Richard has been on disability ever since an accident tore his rotator cuff. But when his mother suffered a stroke and needed to enter a nursing home, Richard was left to fend for himself. Luckily, she’d already set up the truck and camper for him 18 years prior. Their family doctor, whom Richard still sees periodically, agreed it would be best for him to live in the trailer from then on. Besides, Richard says he can’t afford rent and dislikes apartments because of all the drugs and smoking.

It’s obvious Richard is a little sensitive, especially to the heat. He can only show off his living quarters for so long before he starts growing beet-red and must return to the shade. It's in the low 90s—mild for Phoenix—and Richard can’t spend much time in the sun. So every year, from March to November, he packs up and heads to the woods in Northern Arizona, where he camps, spending his lonely nights stargazing, his telescopes and bootleg heavy-metal cassettes providing his company.

“I'm a single man, I have no girlfriends, I have no luck with them. Things never work out,” Richard explains. “You know what, ain't it better to be single in some ways? You get nothing but aggravation. I can't find the right person. I had girls into me. I had one girl that tried to rob me. So I have to be very careful. I don't trust no one.”

Richard was very close to his mother and brings her up every chance he gets. I learn she was almost 90 before she died, in 2010. She was confined to a wheelchair and suffered from dementia for a long time before finally passing.

“I did a lot of crying in the church. I had to stay in the forest. I don't want to go back to that day; I don't want to talk about that. I get crying too much,” Richard says. “But what do you do? We all have to go through that sooner or later. Don't that suck, though? It never goes away completely, doesn't it? I'm doing a little better. It is very hard when you lose your very close parent. I had a good stepfather. My mom married four times. All the other divorces, they were all bad, they all dead. I can't describe the feeling, but when you lose a very close mother or father, it rips you like the Devil. I don't want to go back to that day, though.”

Richard adds, “I promised my mom I would not give up.”

I don’t think I’m overreaching here when I say his mother would be proud. This guy’s degree of sustainability, especially rooted in a fervent passion he’s had for exploring the universe since he was 12, leaves me more than a little jealous.

Andreassen’s life is highlighted by astronomical events and little else. He already has travel plans for the next North American solar eclipse, in 2017. He can recall the exact day and date of all his pictures and is most proud of the above Venus transit photos from June 5, 2012. He says he drove all the way out to the desert in southern Utah and it took him 10 days to set up his equipment. He's also proud of the three weeks he spent in Australia, snapping images of the southern sky us northerners can’t see. He shows off these images and the boomerangs he’s also glued to his door. I ask to see his scopes, but was told they take too long to set up.

It’s interesting to see Richard’s interactions with other people that happen to wander by. A Jimmy John’s employee appears, giving out free mini-sandwich samples. It takes Richard a while to understand that they’re free, and when he finally gets one, he's utterly dismayed over the shredded lettuce and begins picking it out furiously.

“I can't fucking eat this,” he says. “Lettuce is deadly. It'll put me in the emergency room.”

A week later, I come back to check on Richard and see his newly developed photographs. He’s already mounting them, ready to glue them on when a scruffy-looking hippie wanders up, introducing himself as Frolic, and asks if we have any weed. I’m discussing UFOS with Richard, and he’s recalling strange objects he saw over New York in the 70s. I ask whether he believes in aliens.

“You know, there's a lot of something that did go on in the 1940s at Roswell,” he says and then contradicts himself. “Aliens been here already, they hiding. We don't know if they here yet, but…”

Frolic interrupts: “The guy that taught me how to grow medical cannabis in Northern California in the mountains, actually his grandpa was an actual government contractor for Area 51. He actually reverse-engineered the crash-landed craft from Roswell to actually make a bunch of the technology that's in use today—actually tablets and touch screens and stuff. But he was actually killed for it by the government because he had some of the technology in a private hangar of his stuff. And they were like, 'Oh, you can't have that stuff. We're going to take it and kill you…'”

Frolic goes on about Mars’s “Mayan” face (he meant Cydonia) and the nearby canyons that apparently trace the Pleiades constellation and Nibiru, the phantom planet threatening to collide with Earth. He also mentions that ancient aliens were somehow stealing gold from the “genetic slave race” they left on Earth, which was some time before chemtrails and blah, blah, blah. I’m really glad I didn't give him any of my pot.

People-wise, this is not a great recipe. All Richard agrees with is, “We're very sure Mars had some kind of life, about two, three billion years ago, when our Earth was still very, very hot... There's a lot of theories I don't like; I don't agree with them. Like there was another earth and someone bought earth and came and brought the earth here. I don't like a lot of the theories. We don't know.”

If that’s enough for Richard, that’s enough for me. I warmly shake his hand, thank him again for the fantastic tour, and go back to say goodbye. Admittedly, I look at the sky a little differently now, and I’m thinking of buying a trailer.