On being an amateur astronomer

Once again, something happened that made me realize why I am an amateur astronomer. Last night, I was tired. It had been a chaotic day at work as I tried to make a living selling storage sheds. I had closed up the store and headed for the Urban Astronomy Center, that gateway to the stars tucked into the back of Tom Sawyer State Park.

As I pulled up, Mike Sellers, our LAS Scout Merit Badge Instructor for the night, called me to ask for the code to the door. I said “Mike, I’m right behind you” and parked next to the building. Mike and I set up the sound system then, as Mike prepared his presentation and fired up the computer, I did my presidential thing as I vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom and got the second classroom ready for the four Cub Scouts we were anticipating.

At seven, the scout troop from Corydon arrived followed closing by a troop from Shepherdsville. John Turack, Mark and Peggy Rockstroh and Mike Moraghan joined us to be ready to view the stars just in case we got a sucker hole in the cloud cover.

Mike and I entertained the first group as the Corydon guys made camp in the Picnic Grove, a stand of trees close to the UAC. We used Seeker, Virtual Lunar Atlas and Starry Night Pro to give them a tour of the universe and what they would see if the sky was clear. When Mike’s class with the boy scouts formally began, John and I took the cub scouts into the other classroom.

As we sat down around the board room table, I looked around at the faces of the four Cubs. Anticipation was what I saw. A glimmer in the eye. A thirst for knowledge that we would slake.

No technology here. Each scout had a 1980 edition of Astronomy magazine in front of them. In the center of the astronomy cloth-draped table, was a large plaque with the planets on it. I had next to me the Cub Scout requirements to earn the Astronomy Belt Loop and Astronomy Academic Pin. I also had UAC director John Turack at the other end of the table to supplement my knowledge and help me get the guys through their ninety minute session.

Starting with how to use a telescope, we took a whirlwind tour of the basics of astronomy. We drew the solar system, each in his own way as we developed a mnemonic to remember the planets. Along our path of new knowledge, these four young men, ages eight to ten, astounded us with how much they knew. I told tales of adventure as they listened to how Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin went to the moon and how the brave astronauts of Apollo 13 didn’t make it there but, with the help of Ground Control and duct tape, made it home alive in a life raft known as a Lunar Excursion Module.

We talked of Galileo and Newton, of heliocentrism, of gravity, of aliens, of the universality of physics. We even tried to calculate how far light would travel in a year. The expression of one young mathmetician was “Oh, man, this is going to fry my brain”. But I made him not use a calculator. Try it. Take 186,000 miles per second X 60 X 60 X 24 X 365. That’s a light year. So, how far would light travel in a year?

In ninety minutes, after a mind-blowing session in which our knowledge was taxed, I declared that they had earned both cub scout awards and we interrupted Mike and the boy scouts in the big room so these four guys could get their round of applause.

As we went outside, one of them looked up to me and said “Thanks.You guys are great. You should be professionals.”

No, thank you. When I can get together with my fellow LAS members under a cloudy sky with occasional peaks of the moon, when I can walk tiredly to my car at eleven p.m. after making sure the scouts are AOK in their camp and see that my friend Mark Rockstroh is still there loading his car, then I am thankful that I am an amateur astronomer.

I wouldn’t get paid for something I love so much. The smiles on the faces of the young men who just went on an imaginary trip to the stars is payment enough.

Ken Alderson

LAS President

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