The Sky’s the Limit
Befuddled as a beginning stargazer? Just keep looking up

Bill Wren’s love of astronomy dates back to an early childhood experience.
IMAGE: Woody Welch

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures,
were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams,
to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where
he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

—“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Walt Whitman, 1865

On Sunday, July 20, 1969, while millions of people around the world were glued to their television screens anticipating the most historic event of the 20th century, I was sound asleep.

Maybe the excitement was just too much. Sure, I was almost 7, and I was starting to stay up late more and more. On Saturday nights, I even had scary-movie-watching privileges (seems like there was always a good mummy flick starting at 10). But there was something about the pent-up anticipation of waiting for the Apollo 11 astronauts to walk on the moon that just did me in.

The Eagle had landed, but would they ever get out of the lunar module? My eyelids grew heavy, my chin hit my chest, and startled, I rose from the couch, stumbling down the hall to my bedroom. Next thing I knew, my parents were waking me up, summoning me back to the family room and the black-and-white scene on the rabbit-eared TV: Neil Armstrong was slowly descending the lunar module’s ladder.

Suddenly, I was wide-eyed and wide awake: At 9:56 p.m. Central Daylight Time, Armstrong stepped off the ladder’s bottom rung. Walter Cronkite, ever eloquent and concise, said it all: “Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon …”

From there, it’s a grainy, blurry memory: The weird crackling and beeping of the astronauts’ radio transmissions back to Earth. The reflections of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in each other’s dark, protective helmet visors. Armstrong proclaiming, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Struck with brilliance, I grabbed my dad’s binoculars, dashed into the backyard in my pajamas and locked in on the moon, certain I’d be able to see the astronauts weightlessly hopping in the zero gravity of outer space.

I never saw them, but I’ll forever see that night and the star-studded sky outside Lubbock on the family farm. Sure, I could see headlights from U.S. Highway 84 three miles away, and a few house and barn lights here and there, but overall, it was pitch-black.

I’ve been a city dweller a long time now. Save for the occasional escape to far West Texas, dark night skies, sadly, don’t define my daily experiences. But my childhood memories—and trips to West Texas—keep the flame alive: I miss the stars.

So I asked two highly credentialed West Texas-based astronomers to share their most pivotal night-sky (and day-sky) memories and to provide stargazing tips for beginners like me, who don’t know the constellations Capricornus from Orion.

‘Like an Instant Replay’

Bill Wren, the 55-year-old special assistant to the superintendent at the McDonald Observatory, fell in love with the night sky as a toddler. He grew up in Missouri, southeast of Kansas City near the Ozark Mountains—a beautiful setting destined to shape his life.

One night, at about the age of 3, young Bill pulled his dad’s binoculars off a closet shelf and lugged them to the living room in front of a plate-glass window. The binoculars were too heavy for him, so he stabilized them against the window with his body, holding on with both hands and looking through one lens as the moon rose over a lake.

He holds the image near: the moon’s reflection in the water, its mountains and craters going past. He waited patiently, letting the moon rise and drift through his field of vision before it slipped out of sight.

The memory, Wren says, “is like an instant replay, with full motion and color.”

Tips for beginning stargazers: Purchase a small pair of binoculars—For every star you can see with the naked eye, you’ll see dozens more with an optical aid. And it’s not necessary to immediately invest in a telescope. Just by scanning the Milky Way with binoculars, you can see hundreds of clusters of stars all grouped together.

‘It’s Like a Photograph in My Head’

In some astronomy circles, David Oesper is most famous for writing the Ames, Iowa, outdoor lighting control ordinance adopted in 1999 that serves as a model for many cities nationwide.

But the 54-year-old Oesper, an astronomer, author and West Texas transplant who moved to Alpine from Wisconsin in February, followed an early fascination with space rockets to a love affair with the stars: His earliest memory, at about the age of 2, is of standing in a playpen, holding onto the bars and watching a 1958 daytime space rocket launch on a black-and-white TV. “It’s like a photograph in my head,” Oesper says.

Oesper, a former International Dark-Sky Association board member, says he was drawn to West Texas by the McDonald Observatory and the region’s dark skies. There’s a world of opportunity beneath these skies, Oesper says, noting the growing importance of something called astrotourism: a new brand of tourism that attracts astronomers of all levels to places like star-rich West Texas, where there’s plenty of elbow—and telescope—room.

While West Texas is also rich with economic development opportunities beneath its night skies, Oesper says that education and public outreach matter most to him. He’s writing a field guide for novices about interpreting the night sky with optical aids and without. And soon, he’d like to work at the McDonald Observatory and teach public astronomy classes, perhaps in conjunction with Alpine’s Sul Ross State University— which has a planetarium and offers undergraduate astronomy courses—and to area school students.

Tips for beginning stargazers: Seek out the experts, such as at local astronomy clubs. And spend some time with a star wheel or star chart, learning the names and positions of constellations. Most important? Make stargazing buddies. “The saddest thing is to experience a meteor shower and not share it with anybody,” Oesper says.

McDonald Observatory: The Ultimate Experience

Obviously, to do any quality stargazing, you’ve got to be under dark skies. So, astronomers say, drive out of the city, 50 to 100 miles if you must to get away from masses of bright artificial lights.

Perhaps the ultimate experience for Texans is a trip to the McDonald Observatory for a stargazing party in the Davis Mountains. In early May, I and about 100 other tourists spent an evening with Frank Cianciolo, the observatory’s senior program coordinator, whose green-beamed pointer seemed to touch the stars.

The crowd murmured “Oh!’ and “Ah!” as Cianciolo directed our eyes to a satellite zipping across the sky. Pivoting as one, we turned to look at Saturn. “It’s what a planet should look like,” he said, drawing laughter. “Any planet with an ounce of self-respect ought to have a nice ring system around it.”

We moved to a telescope area—portable ones and bigger telescopes inside small observatories—where long lines formed to look at Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, galaxies beyond the Milky Way (such as the Whirlpool Galaxy) and star clusters billions of years old.

From there, it was on to the amphitheater, where Cianciolo swept his pointer through the sky, connecting the constellation dots for us.

At night’s end, as we walked in the dark to our cars, mindful to keep our headlights pointed away from the facility’s huge research telescopes higher up on Mount Locke, I thought about the best piece of advice I’d received all night.

While waiting in a telescope line, I fired questions at Wren, the observatory’s special assistant to the superintendent who’d already worked a full day but just couldn’t stay away from the stargazing party. I could just make out his smile in the dark. “Keep looking up,” he said, walking away to help other beginners find their way.

Camille Wheeler is staff writer for Texas Co-op Power.

Look! Up in the Sky!

Cool astronomical happenings to watch for in December and January:

• December 13-14: Geminids meteor shower

• December 21: total lunar eclipse, from roughly 12:30 a.m. to 3 a.m.

• January 3-4: Quadrantids meteor shower

More Ways to Learn About the Night Sky

McDonald Observatory star parties

Stargazing tips, McDonald Observatory’s StarDate Magazine and more

2011 Texas Star Party: May 29-June 5, Prude Ranch near Fort Davis. Annual gathering of astronomers from around the world features talks from professional astronomers, telescope makers and special guests, tours of nearby attractions, and, of course, stargazing.

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