I am making a documentary with Argyle Rebel Films about the NASA astronaut training at Morehead Planetarium. How did we get here?
On the morning of December 21, 1968, three men who trained at Morehead Planetarium sat atop a Saturn V rocket, ready to become the first humans to travel to the Moon. Below is a picture of two of those men on the far right standing with planetarium director, Tony Jenzano, in the center.
Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders (not pictured above, but who also trained at Morehead) made it around the Moon, saw its far side, and returned home safely on December 27, 1968. The astronauts could turn down the mission, being told that their odds of survival were about 50-50, but knowing how important the mission was to winning the Space Race against the Soviets, none of them did. Their Morehead training ensured that the astronauts knew star positions to use as guideposts to point the way home.
December 21, 2017 is forty-nine years after the launch of Apollo 8, but it is also the winter solstice marking the first day of winter.* The solstice is the day when sunrise and sunset positions stop creeping southward, hesitating for this one day, and start creeping northward toward spring.**
The solstice gives us the longest night and a season of long nights great for skywatching and storytelling under the stars. It also marks a time for planning a new year.
This winter solstice, look for sunset a few minutes after five p.m. The crescent Moon will be low in that direction. As you gaze at it—with binoculars if you have them—imagine what it would have been like to share that first human voyage to the Moon, the one that happened only forty-nine winters ago.
* Summer solstice for those in the southern hemisphere, the start of summer and longest day of the year.
** Fall for those in the southern hemisphere.
Looking up from different parts of Earth means we don’t always see stars the same way as our brothers and sisters elsewhere on the orb, but all cultures stand breathless beneath these heavenly bodies and weave star stories filled with heroes, royalty, and beasts. Stargazing is far more than just astronomy. Skywatching results in folklore, a window into our collective hopes, fears, and dreams. Planets carve paths through our heavens over weeks and months. Galaxies appear as snapshots to our mortal eyes, great swirls hovering among diamonds scattered across the black velvet of night. Our heavens bind us together and these bonds should never be so neglected as they are today.
If you yearn to bring this wonder to your families, ponder for a moment if you could empower the poorest of us in this season of giving. Swirling and glowing clouds of light and dust thousands or millions of light-years away can provide inspiration to any who behold them. A donation to Astronomers Without Borders’ Share the Sky provides cosmic perspective to those in greatest need of inspiration and hope. Help others see the skies the way that Henrietta Swan Levitt, Andrew Grey, and Derrick Pitts have and these others will someday discover things to lift us all.
Now that you have considered charity for others, ponder bringing these gifts to your own family and friends. Get a start on selecting what telescopes to buy your loved ones using this handy guide.
1) Telescopes are for skywatching. That means you should think beyond the glass and metal telescope and think about what it represents!
Subscribe to a great sky-watching podcast, like Sky Tour. At home, point your computer to www.heavens-above.com. On the go? Use your mobile device and dial up Heavens Above or download the android app: Heavens Above. On your Apple device, perhaps Star Chart is what you’ve needed all your life.
Really have the cosmic itch? See a star show at your local planetarium! (Make sure to ask which one is about constellations, though.) Go to your local skywatching sessions. Planetarium staff and telescope owners are friendly, polite, and love answering questions about the heavens.
NOTE: If you aren’t very interested in #1, you shouldn’t buy anything yet.
2) Want to buy something? What is your budget?
If a telescope is new and costs less than $200, it is likely plastic junk that will be hard to aim, hard to see through, and it will frustrate you into never using it again. If this is your budget, you have two options: binoculars or Craig’s List (or estate sales or other informal sales markets).
Ready to spend more? $400 is likely to get you a solid, satisfying piece of equipment along with good eyepieces and a case. Most will have a hand-paddle with buttons that will allow you to point the scope and align it to the sky easily. So which kind to buy?
I like these guides:
3) Now think about logistics, like telescope weight and bulk.
(The Celestron CPC-8 and the author hoping you aren’t thinking “weight” and “bulk”)
In that picture, I look really happy, right? But that 85-lb telescope plus eyepieces case, stepstool, and power pack to keep it running…it means I can’t just grab this all the time. And taking it camping? Only if my vehicle can pull right up to the observing site.
The scope I’ve had for 20 years, however, is the one below and I take it out ten times as often. It’s just easy, light, and while it doesn’t collect as much light or give me as many heavenly bodies to look at, it’s more than enough to see the Moon and planets and a few things I really want to show my friends. (You can’t see the smile in this photo, but it’s there.)
(The Meade ETX-90 projecting the Sun just before the August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse)
4) Where can you get your scope and eyepieces, tripod, and other accessories?
Pick up a copy of Astronomy Magazine or Sky & Telescope from your local bookstore’s magazine stands and flip through the ads. There are a lot of choices.
I own a device from each of the “big three” telescope manufacturers and I love them all. Don’t make me choose!
…but, High Point Scientific has always given me balanced perspective regardless of the label on the telescope.
4) Want a more comprehensive guide of equipment? A thorough overview of how to select a telescope or set of binoculars, as well as what to do once you own it is written by a man who owns dozens of telescopes and reviews them professionally: Ed Ting. Check out his site http://www.scopereviews.com/begin.html
5) Last words of advice that might seem random, but you can thank me for them later:
and most importantly…
Questions? Praise? Corrections? Please leave a comment below!
Good luck, Happy Holidays, and may all your skies be filled with stars!
On this Thanksgiving, I say thank you to…
Dad and Mom, for carving out time for me and providing opportunities in music, martial arts, and the sciences. I would link to a picture of you wearing superhero outfits, but I’ll just point everyone to the image above and let them guess.
Dr. Brenda Scott, DPhil (Oxon), for providing a light for me to follow and loving me always.
Jonathan Keohane, for teaching me astronomy and physics in high school, then telling me about “this job I know where you can teach astronomy.”
Dorothy Findlen, for teaching me high school English. You helped me realize my deep love of storytelling and writing. And that I shouldn’t use sentence fragments. Like now.
Juanita Woods, for telling me in August 1991 that I should check the open jobs at Morehead Planetarium.
Jim Horn for being mentor, friend, and inspiration for chasing grand dreams. Your knowledge of Morehead Planetarium is a deep ocean and I am forever in your debt for letting me swim in those waters.
CJ Jenzano, for letting me into your life and loving me as if we’ve known each other for decades. I will write books with tales of your father and yourself embedded within, but only because of your patience, good humor, and kindness.
Todd Boyette, for seeing my inspiration and encouraging me to chase my dream of writing about Morehead Planetarium & Science Center’s past, present, and future.
Amy Sayle, for your years of friendship, your honest assessments of my writing, and sharing with me your own brilliant work. My first novel would never have happened were it not for your kind encouragement and your critical eye.
Kate Neece, for your love and support, especially when I am least deserving.
Don Hall, Jeff Hill, Holden Thorp, Richard McColman, Mickey Jo Sorrell, Jonathan Frederick, Michael Washington, Owen Phairis, Austin and Beth Guiles, Carolyn Wallace, Adam Phelps, Michael Rowlett, Greg Parker, Rick Scott (no, not that one), Drew Gilmore, Veronica Yoshida, Eleanor Allen, Russ Collett, Bineyam Tafesse, Rinna Hoffman, Greg Campbell, Amit Lal, Derek Campbell, Leena Amarnath, Brian Pickett, Erin Payne, and David Pressley–for sharing your best work, your stories, your support, and inspiration with me.
My friends, too many to name, but you know who you are.
Nancy, Thomas, Sarah, and Rebecca.
Advice I recently got during a writers’ conference: keep your day job. Many successful mid-level writers, ones you’ve heard of but who don’t get the biggest high-dollar deals, they have jobs to pay the bills.
Two things about that: 1) I’m hopeful that readers will love what I write, but I’m in this for the love of writing, not out of an expectation of fame and riches; and, 2) I love my day job, so even if I get the million-dollar deals, I can’t see myself quitting.
I am a computer programmer at Gilead, a company focused on discovering and manufacturing life-saving and life-improving medications. My data processing work provides a tiny link in the chain of tasks from the moment of chemical compound discovery to the moment when the medicine is placed on drug store shelves. A really tiny link, but one that ensures patient safety and focuses on how to help sick people. I consider it interesting, compelling, and honorable work.
Above are pictures of me on my November visit to Gilead.