It was a summer night to remember some 40 years ago. I had been stargazing for over a decade, doing what I could with my old man’s $3, plastic-lens opera glasses. With them I had seen the craters on the moon, the moons of Jupiter, and a few ill-defined fuzzy patches that my kid’s astronomy book told me were star clusters and gaseous nebulae, whatever they were.
Throughout my undergraduate years at the College of Wooster, I had stolen occasionally away from my studies to gaze wistfully at the Milky Way from the semi-dark skies near Wooster, Ohio.
From my earliest days, I stared with an aching hunger at the full-page ads for telescopes that appeared on the back of rags like Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Science.
Among them was the Criterion Dynascope, a telescope of exquisite beauty with a light-gathering mirror a massive six inches in diameter. Oh, the things I could see! Oh, the grandness of the universe I could explore at the cost of $194 I did not have and probably would never have, given the snail’s pace of my youth.
The cost was simply beyond my financial capabilities. I was in graduate school and was eating three meals a day, thanks only to my long-suffering wife’s willingness to defer her future education to work as a teller at a local bank.
So I saved my pennies and purchased the mirrors for an eight-inch Dobsonian telescope. I haunted local construction sites begging for leftover bits of tubing and wood. I finally kluged together the rest of the telescope parts out of scraps of plywood, a discarded tube used to pour concrete pillars, and some leftover blue house paint.
I wasn’t much of a carpenter or a painter. I produced one of the worst looking telescopes on record. It was crude and my astronomical abilities even cruder. I couldn’t find anything but the moon and Jupiter. Still, the telescope worked! However, I needed some help to develop sufficient observing skills to goad it to its full potential.
I had heard that members of the local astronomy club did their stargazing at a site north of town. I decided one clear night to go there and ask for some help.
When I got there, I had to carry my scope down a long, dark, wooded path. Ahead was an opening in the trees, and the memory of what I saw in it still brings a lump to my throat after all these years. The opening was full of stars.
As I got closer, I saw the dark silhouette of a dozen or so people huddled over their telescopes against the backdrop of the brilliant glow of the Milky Way in the constellation Sagittarius, the Archer. And at that startling moment, I knew that I had found a home.
Sagittarius looks more like a teapot than an archer, and that’s how most stargazers recognize it these days. But even that image doesn’t work for most members of the latest generations. Tea comes in bags now. Not too many people use teapots anymore.
Newcomers tend to attract a lot of attention at such informal “star parties.” Where had I gotten my scope? Had I built it myself? Where did I get the mirrors? Would I like to see something in it?
They gave me the grand tour of the sky, with emphasis on Sagittarius and its environs, which are laden with so-called “deep-sky objects.” They are astronomical targets like star clusters and gaseous nebulae that are out beyond our solar system.
Thus began a long and wondrous journey that led me to the directorship of Perkins Observatory. Along the way, I have done thousands of astronomy talks and stargazing sessions for the public. It all began with that place at that time in a constellation called Sagittarius.
If you’d like to know what I saw that night, and how you can see them yourself, please check out this space next Monday.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.