History

 
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There is a well-known Bill Cosby comic monologue that opens with, "In the beginning, I started out as a child."

While the Cosby bit finds its humor in its universality, it is a fair bet that many of us who are now involved in amateur astronomy also started out as children, or at least teenagers, of the Space Age. In fact, research by folks at Sky & Telescope indicates that many amateurs are active in the hobby as young people, drift away from it in the 20s and 30s as they pursue careers and have families, and then return to astronomy in middle age when there is time and inclination for them to do so.

This is certainly my story. My eyes were first opened to what an amateur telescope could do when, as an eight-year-old child, my parents took me to a show at Miami's Space Transit Planetarium. Afterwards, there was a telescope set up in the courtyard; it was probably only an eight- or ten-inch reflector, but it seemed huge to me. I vividly remember climbing a short ladder and looking through the eyepiece at this jewel-like object set against the blackness of space. The object was Saturn, and I can honestly say that moment changed my life.

I begged for a telescope of my own and was given a small, probably 40 mm instrument with a cardboard tube. The only thing I remember seeing through it was the Moon, but it kept my interest alive and led to what had to be one of the most common purchases back then, a 60 mm Tasco refractor. With it, I could see planets and some deep sky objects, and it got me thinking about an even bigger scope.

The summer of my 12th birthday, I worked at mowing yards and in the repair shop at my father's business earning every penny I could. My goal was to buy a Criterion RV-6 reflector, a telescope that cost the princely sum of $195. My father both challenged me and added to my vocabulary by telling me that I probably couldn't "defer gratification" long enough to save up that much money. By September, however, I proved him wrong when I had the money for the telescope and the shipping; he helped me get a length of steel tubing milled and tapped to serve as a backyard pier.

I soon became involved as a student member of the South Florida Amateur Astronomical Association. According to its official history (see here), I was its youngest officer when I became its vice president at the age of 15. Several of its members - I particularly remember Charlie and Mary Wylie, Joe Cardin and Rev. Keith Love - were wonderful mentors. I was active in the SFAAA until late in high school, when sports and girlfriends somehow became more important.

When I went off to New England for college, my knowledge of astronomy became useful - I was able to snag a work-study assignment in the physics department, that in turn led to operating the campus observatory. I was recently interviewed for a historical article about the observatory that appeared in the Holy Cross College Magazine (see here). Sadly, also during this time, I sold my prized RV-6, something I have regretted ever since.

After college, I drifted away from the hobby as I devoted time and energy to my professional career. But from time-to-time I would pick up a Sky & Telescope off the magazine rack and try to keep up with the developments in amateur astronomy. I also paused at the outreach booths that local clubs occasionally put up at various events.

But it wasn't until the spring of 2001, when I saw a notice in the newspaper about a star party at a nearby shopping center put on by the Riverside Astronomical Society, that I became hooked again. The club's largest scope - a 22-inch Dob - was there and I was impressed that its handler left me to run it for a while. I joined the club at its next meeting and have been very active ever since. Today, I am chairman of its Board of Trustees, and serve as the "station master" for its desert observing site, the Goat Mountain Astronomical Research Station, or GMARS (see here).

I recount this history because my story is probably similar to many others -- not just people of my generation, but also young persons growing up today. And I think that it is important for amateur astronomical groups to remember to devote part of their energy to recruiting students to our ranks, perhaps as part of outreach programs. While we may only enjoy their enthusiasm for a few years before they go on to other things, I am sure we will enrich their lives and that, one day, we will see them back among us.

Ralph and his prized RV-6, set on a pier in his backyard in Fort Lauderdale.

A newspaper article featured me and two other students active in the local astro club.

The winter nights were cold in the college observatory, which had a Zeiss refractor.

In August 2003, I was able to set up on the grounds at Mount Wilson Observatory.