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Oceanside Firm Is Finding Success in Its Space

Oceanside Photo & Telescope started as a camera retailer but now generates most of its sales from folks who have stars in their eyes.

The 66-year old business has carved out a sterling reputation as a seller of astronomy equipment, initially to amateurs, and lately to commercial and educational organizations.

In recent years, it’s branched out to helping schools upgrade their space observatories.

Ralph Emerson, OPT’s director of education, said in 2011 the company did about $300,000 in sales to schools for improved astronomy equipment. Last year, it generated about $1 million from five contracts with educational institutions, and should at least equal that number this year.

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“We now have a pipeline and (are) in discussions with six colleges, so we expect to do at least as well this year as we did last year,” Emerson said.

STEM Sells

More schools are getting on the astronomy bandwagon, investing in better and stronger telescopes, realizing what an effective tool they are in engaging students into the world of STEM.

That stands for “science, technology engineering and math,” all areas of study that aren’t attracting the number of students needed to fill openings in future jobs, says Emerson.

“If you’re in education, you know what it means,” he said. “We’re only producing about half the engineers and scientists that industry said we’ll need over the next 25 years. … As a country, strategically, we have to get better at this.”

Last year, among the observatory improvement contracts OPT signed was for Cranbrook Institute of Science near Detroit.

“That’s the same prep school (Cranbrook Schools) that (Mitt) Romney went to and they’ve had an observatory there since 1929 and the equipment needed upgrading,” Emerson said, of the $205,000 contract. “We installed three different kinds of telescopes there.”

“Our old observatory was starting to show its age. The dome was leaking. We had a manual system and we wanted to go with something that was high-tech, and allowed us to transfer the images to the Web. We basically wanted to transform the space,” said Michael Narlock, Cranbrook’s head of astronomy and exhibits.

With the upgrades, images that are viewed on the three telescopes can be transmitted and viewed at the nearby planetarium, Narlock said.

The largest contract (and one that could end up at about $600,000) entails installing six telescopes at the University of Hawaii’s Maui campus. OPT also had contracts with the University of Maine and California State University San Bernardino.

While OPT should win more contracts from the many observatories in need of upgrades, company officials said they’re jazzed over the prospect of more high schools and grammar schools buying astronomy equipment to show students a glimpse of the heavens.

“Clearly, young people who use telescopes get stimulated by science, and naturally start asking questions,” he said. “It’s similar to what happened during the Apollo space program.”

Besides the educational market, OPT sells telescopes, cameras and mounting equipment to all the largest aerospace companies, including Boeing, Lockheed-Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon Co.. It also sells to NASA , and to the European Space Agency, Emerson said.

Last year, OPT did about $17.9 million in sales, up from $17 million in 2011. That type of growth landed the business on the Inc. 5000 list for the past three years.

The Sales Force: Astronomy

More than a fair amount of OPT’s business comes from amateur stargazers who will spend anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars on all manner of telescopes.

Some take their hobby to levels well beyond the high powered scope on the patio, to building mini-observatories in their backyards, says Emerson.

“A nice backyard observatory can run from about $5,000 to above $10,000, Emerson said.

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