The Arrival of Winter: Fly Me to the Moon

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.

White, McDivitt, Jenzano, Borman, and Lovell in Astronaut Training at Morehead Planetarium, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
White, McDivitt, Jenzano, Borman, and Lovell in Astronaut Training at Morehead Planetarium, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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.

Holiday Telescope Gift-giving Advice

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:

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/types-of-telescopes/    and

https://moreheadplanetarium.org/news/releases/thinking-about-buying-a-telescope

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.)

Meade ETX90

(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!

Celestron          Meade         Orion

…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:

  • Bug spray can destroy your optics. Don’t spray bug repellent near your eyepieces, telescope, finder scope, or filter sets. Don’t wipe your hands (or allow others to) on your telescopic equipment if you have bug spray oil on them.
  • Have kids and adults hold the footstool handle when looking through the eyepiece. If not, they a) could lose balance, and b) could grab your telescope and misalign it (or worse).
  • Fall, Winter, or Spring: Layers. And fingerless gloves. And hats. And blankets. And hot chocolate or coffee (off to the side, of course).
  • Cut off the mouth of a red balloon and put the remaining balloon snugly over your flashlights. Red light doesn’t harm your night vision, but other colors will!

and most importantly…

  • Skywatching is best done with friends and family. Sharing this experience means, among other things, not being terrified of accidentally falling upward into the sky and floating away into lonely and empty space by yourself. But it mostly means enjoying time pondering philosophy, science, art, and folklore with your own special community.

Questions? Praise? Corrections? Please leave a comment below!

Good luck, Happy Holidays, and may all your skies be filled with stars!