Astronomy Day Memories

I have fond memories of International Astronomy Day (which this year is today — May 7). The original “astronomy outreach” event, Astronomy Day is the forerunner to International Sidewalk Astronomy Night, Global Astronomy Month, and yes, even the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Astronomy Day is largely responsible for my early discovery of the night sky, and in many ways set me on the path to the life I enjoy today.

Thirty years ago, it was “National” Astronomy Day, and the world was a very different place. There was no Internet, or public computer networks — or computers period for most people. Mobile phones? That was Star Trek stuff. We had two telephones in our house, tied to a cord in the wall. If you wanted to talk to someone a few towns away, it was “long distance” and cost extra money; talking to your grandparents in another state was very expensive and saved for special occasions. The distributed, immediate and global communication we take for granted today simply did not exist.

In that world, news of astronomy was hard to come by. There were a few magazines (Astronomy and Sky & Telescope) and that was pretty much it. Our local astronomy club was around since 1974, but such organizations didn’t really have a way to connect with the public. Newspapers, even local ones, were prime-time, and unless you had something really important, most reporters wouldn’t give you the time of day. There were still downtown shopping districts, though, and one way to get your name our there was to have a display in a local shopkeep’s window, hoping to ensnare passers-by as they went about their errands for the week. Sometimes you could even keep the display there for a month!

So when Astronomy Day rolled around one year in the early ’80s, it was a big enough deal to get some ink in the local press: a half-page story with a photo of the local observatory and a lunar eclipse. That was enough, though, to capture the attention of my middle school guidence counselor. She clipped the article and gave it to me at school. After taking it home and showing my (very supportive) parents, I found myself heading to local mall that Saturday, to see their display of telescopes, astronomy books, and other goodies. Later that evening, we followed the mimeographed map they gave us and found our way to their observatory way out in the boondocks. I got my first view of Saturn, Jupiter, and the Moon through their 12.5″ Newtonian reflector in a 16-foot wooden-domed observatory, and I was blown away. “People can look into outer space with a telescope that they built themselves? I want to learn how to do that!” The rest, as they say, is history.

So today, if you’re part of a group doing an Astronomy Day celebration, take a few moments to reflect on your first experience with a telescope, and keep that feeling in mind when interacting with your guests — especially the little ones. You could very well be talking to future astronomical society presidents, engineers, astronomers, and maybe even an or two astronaut in the making.

Happy Astronomy Day.