2 Groups of Local Stargazers are Bringing the Solar System to the Coast
No need to be an expert to enjoy the wonders of space
Northwest Florida Astronomy Association
Bob Gaskin, of Miramar Beach, was one of the founders of the Northwest Florida Astronomy Association.
A retired Air Force colonel who flew the Lockheed U-2 ultra-high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, Gaskin has long been familiar with the terrain above terra firma. But he got started with stargazing quite by accident. It happened in 1995, after he had taken over as the director of the Emerald Coast Science Center in Fort Walton Beach.
“We had a great big storage room, and I was sorting through all kinds of equipment and stuff that was just taking up space, and I came across a telescope,” Gaskin recalled. “It was a very small one — I would estimate 3 inches in lens-diameter — and it was black.
I didn’t know anything about telescopes, but I didn’t want to throw it away.”
There were no astronomy programs at the science center, and no one on staff knew much about the topic, so Gaskin was left to his own devices to teach himself about astronomy. Knowledge didn’t come quickly or easily.
“After a number of weeks of frustration, I gave up,” Gaskin said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. The key to astronomy is to know what’s up there and get the telescope on it — and that’s what it’s all about. There’s everything up there from galaxies to star clusters to nebula … you name it. The question is, when is it visible and how do you find it?”
Technology, in the form of an iPhone application, eventually helped Gaskin make progress in his studies. He recommends the current iPad app, SkySafari. “Once I started studying how stars were formed, how the universe was formed, how everything was formed … I just fell in love with it,” he said. “Getting into astronomy — I can’t compare it to anything else.”
Gaskin’s enthusiasm for astronomy was obvious, as was his willingness to share what he learned from other people who are interested in studying the night skies. One of his fondest astronomy-related memories came from a public stargazing event, or “stargaze.”
“This one night, we had a fairly large scope setup focused on Saturn,” he recalled. “I had a hard time getting people away from the scope. Then this one guy came up, and he looked at it, and looked at it and looked at it. Then he sat down, and then he asked me, ‘Can I see it again?’ And he got back up to it and looked at it, and looked at it and looked at it. And he sat down and he was crying — real tears in his eyes — and I said, ‘Is anything wrong? Why are you crying?’ And he said, ‘I have devoted my life to science — I’m a medical doctor — and I guess I had a pretty high opinion of what I know about science. But when I look through that scope and see Saturn, I realize how much I’ve been missing.’”
At a recent meeting of the Northwest Florida Astronomy Association, Dick Hoey, from Destin, said, “You can only fall on your face so many times before you seek help, and with astro-imaging, you need a lot of help. Every time I’m here, I learn something.”
Steve Runyan, from Crestview, is a newcomer to the group. “I love looking at the stars, and I own a couple of cheap telescopes,” he said. “I want to get more advanced, and I want to see more.”
Dean Covey from Fort Walton Beach has been a member for five years. “I had interest in astronomy before, and I picked it up again when I retired from civil service — from the Air Force,” he said. “I come to these meetings because there are some good programs here, and they always enlighten me.”
George and Renee Gollehon, from Niceville, said they took an interest in astronomy by way of a younger relative. “We started out looking for a telescope for our grandson, Frank Atchison, and he told us about this club,” said George. “It’s so amazing, the things you learn, and it just gets you so interested in the night sky and the history of the sky. Now Renee is taking a course in astronomy at the Extended Learning Center.”
Eli Taylor, a 7-year-old Cub Scout from Bluewater Bay Elementary, attended a meeting with his mother, Ashley Taylor, and reported, “I’m really interested in constellations and asteroids and the stars, and I checked out a telescope from the library. One day, maybe, I might be a scientist that works in space.”
Dave Halupowski, a Valparaiso resident, hopes to convey his interest in astronomy to his 10-year-old granddaughter, Emily Odom. His interest reaches back to 1967, when he picked up a book at his junior high school library in Danvers, Massachusetts.
“Star Trek was big then, and I was very much into science fiction,” he said. “I still have the second telescope I ever bought, back in 1968. Since then, I’ve (traveled for astronomy purposes) as far south as Bolivia; as far west as Fort Davis, Texas; and as far north as West Virginia.”
To get started in astronomy, Halupowski recommends joining a club and attending its events.
“Generally, you’ll find members with various types of telescopes, and you can talk to them about what they like and dislike. And if you do want to purchase one, check out the kind of scope you want. That gives you some idea of what you’re looking at and how to use the equipment.”
Professor Anthony Russo is Northwest Florida State College’s host for the Astronomy Association meetings and is one of its founding members. The college’s observatory has been around since 2001, and its Prime Design telescope is used to take pictures of outer space.
“When I was about 8 years old, father was a carpenter, and he would take me out on the porch where we lived in Miami and break out a surveyor’s transit, and we’d just look at the moon,” Russo recalled. “We weren’t able to see much else — maybe some moon craters — but oh, boy, that just fired my imagination. It got me into learning science and started a lifetime in astronomy.”
When asked what it is about astronomy that is so attractive to people, Russo said, “It’s a lot of things. The beauty of the heavens, the wonder of it all … and some people approach it from a religious aspect. Then there’s the excitement of scientific discovery. We had a comet come by around Valentine’s Day, and a lunar eclipse that night, and … a solar eclipse (in August).”
Russo is a rarity: a veteran stargazer who doesn’t own a telescope, choosing, instead, to use those that are available to him through his work. “You don’t need (a telescope),” he said. “You can just come to our meetings.”
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of not having your own equipment to use, Russo recommends starting out small, “with a pair of binoculars, maybe.” He said, “You don’t want to go the whole hog and spend a ton of money and realize that you don’t know what you’re doing and you’ve made a mistake. Start out small and learn as you go along.”
Another stargazer who isn’t afraid to use binoculars is Tom Haugh, a former Air Force master sergeant who lives in Valparaiso and serves as the Astronomy Association’s outreach coordinator. Haugh grew up as an “Army brat,” using binoculars to look at the sky.
“That’s what was available and they’re excellent to start with,” he said. “That’s what I recommend when someone comes up and says, ‘I’ve got a young’un and we want to buy a telescope for Christmas. What do you recommend?’”
Rest assured, there is plenty to see using binoculars, alone.
“There’s a couple galaxies, moons of Jupiter and plenty of star clusters,” Haugh said. “You can spend a lot of money on a telescope and it just doesn’t click with the youngster. So now you’ve got something you won’t be using, whereas, with a pair of binoculars, if it doesn’t catch on, there’s bird watching — or NASCAR watching. They can be multi-purpose devices.”
Haugh shares his expertise at association meetings and at stargazes, alike. Although the organization has a sizeable membership — Haugh estimates about 45 members — only 12 to 15 people come to the meetings and only five or six attend stargazes. This means that members have access to individual instruction as they may desire.
The Northwest Florida Astronomy Association’s mission to inform and educate in the subject of astronomy extends beyond the bounds of its membership, too. “We work with the school systems, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties — daytime and nighttime — and one school in Luverne, which is in Crenshaw County, Alabama,” Haugh said. The association also supports the Emerald Coast Science Center at its new location on Memorial Parkway in Fort Walton Beach.
“They have an inflatable planetarium, and they do three (public) shows a night on the first and third Tuesdays of the month,” Haugh explained. “We provide the color commentary.” Color commentary involves answering audience members’ questions as they are asked.
“One question we perennially get is, ‘Is Pluto a planet?’ or ‘Why isn’t Pluto a planet?’” Haugh said. The answer to both of those questions is complex and fascinating, and the planetarium is a great place to get those answers. The six public events are free of charge.
At the stargazes, Haugh also runs into a common theme.
“Many people say, ‘Hey we’ve got this telescope,’ and we say, ‘Well, why didn’t you bring it out?’ And they say, ‘Well, it sits in the closet.’ So we encourage the public: Bring your telescope out, and we’ll give you a hand with setting it up.”
Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association
For Dr. Wayne Wooten, Professor of Astronomy at Pensacola State, astronomy is all about “the beauty, the changeability and the excitement of discovering new stuff.”
Wooten was a 9-year-old farm boy in Piney Grove, just north of Defuniak Springs, when he first saw the comet Mrkos in the western sky. That was in 1957, and it launched a lifetime of discovery that has gained him continuing local and national recognition.
Wooten is a major sponsor of the Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association (EAAA), which has a membership of more than 100 individuals. Wooten has served as the editor of its journal, The Meteor, for the last 40 years.
As an educator, Wooten recommends that high schoolers who have been bitten by the astronomy bug concentrate on math, physics and chemistry in school.
For the more mature crowd, Wooten said, “Come to as many of our stargazes as possible. Bring along your telescope, and if you need help, learn from the people who are more experienced. The more events you come to, the more you learn. Basically, most of these people are self-taught. A lot of that began by coming out to the meetings, and they learned by doing.”
Air Force dentist Chris Gomez has spent four years with the EAAA, and is one of its officers.
“I didn’t know much when I first joined,” Gomez said. “At my first stargaze, I saw 30 shooting stars in the first hour, and that was really cool.”
Now Gomez is among those who are dedicated to learning something new, every time he looks up.
“We have the benefit of living where you can sit outside and see the stars,” Gomez said. “You can join us with no commitments, and once you know the map that’s in the sky, with objects hidden in deep space, you can point your scope to them.”
Northwest Florida Astronomy Association
The NWFAA meets at the observatory of Northwest Florida State College, in Niceville, and schedules occasional public stargazes. For more information, visit nwfastro.org.
Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association
The EAAA meets at the Boroco Center for Science and Technology on the campus of Pensacola State College. For more information, visit rlwalker.gulfweb.net/astronomy.