Going to a research telescope is the closest experience most of us will ever have to traveling in a spaceship. To start out, science-grade telescopes are placed high on a mountaintops to get away from much of the light pollution and lower level atmospheric turbulence.
This gives the added benefit to the lucky observer of feeling as if one is starting out already on top of the world. For example, one of the best sites for a telescope, Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, is at an elevation of 14,000 feet.
As astronomers from east and west arrive to this tropical island, laboring to breathe properly at such a high altitude, we are often greeted by solid cloud cover. Clouds are of course the bane of astronomers who need clear skies to see the stars and galaxies. Why would astronomers choose so wretched a site?
The characteristic weather on the island of Hawaii is for the inversion layer which divides the maritime air from the air of the lower atmosphere to drop below the level of the summit just before dusk. When this happens the clouds fall below the telescope site, usually enabling a spectacular view of the entire sky for the rest of the night. It is as if the spaceship is launching into space.
We earn the right to be at a research telescope based on a proposal-based peer review process which has a typical chance of success of between a 1 in 5 and 1 in 10. The winners are awarded a certain number of nights to conduct experiments that involve new ways of studying objects and phenomena in space.
By studying the light from objects in a new patch of a sky, or a well-studied patch of sky in an entirely new way, we are truly exploring in a way no one has done before. Again it is as if we are there in a spaceship. Is this analogy crazy?
Let us consider that we can see the Andromeda Galaxy 2.2 million light years away with a hand-held telescope, and that with telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii we can see the most distant galaxy in the universe at 13 billion light years away. These extremely large distances boggle the minds even of experienced astronomers, yet the universe is so transparent to light that we humble humans can see and even study these amazingly distant objects. Perhaps the spaceship analogy is not so crazy after all?