Sunday, December 11, 2016

 

Issue #521: So, What’s Gonna Happen to Us?


I promise we will get back to the Messiers next week, OK? This week, however, what’s on my mind is a question that is evidently on your minds, too. Certainly, I get asked it often enough at my star party and club appearances: “Uncle Rod, what’s gonna happen to amateur astronomy? All the folks at my club are Baby Boomers or older [as in the picture at left of Rod’s own club]. Is amateur astronomy doomed?” What is to become of our beloved avocation as we Baby Boomers exit stage left over the next 10 – 30 years?

If we are to figure out where amateur astronomy is going, it’s a good idea to examine where it came from. Technically, Galileo was an amateur astronomer—there were really no professional astronomers as we understand the vocation then (though there were certainly physicists). Even that giant of 18th Century astronomy, Sir William Herschel, was an amateur astronomer. There were pros in his time, but he wasn’t one. He was a fairly well educated man, a gifted musician, but he was not an academic. He had a pension from the King, but that was in recognition of his discovery of the seventh planet and his astronomy “outreach” activities at court; it was not a salary like that the Astronomer Royal received.

Well into the 19th Century, the line between amateur and pro was blurry. It wasn’t until the latter part of the Victorian era that "professional astronomer" came to be defined as an academic, a professional scientist working at or in concert with a university and usually possessed of an advanced degree. It was at this time that amateur astronomy as we recognize it began to develop.

Slowly, as the 20th Century came in, amateur astronomers began to change. We went from being like Herschel and the semi-pro amateurs who followed him, people like Carrington, scientists on the cutting edge of discovery, to being more casual sky watchers. We, most of us, went from being geographers to tourists, from ornithologists to bird watchers.

This didn’t happen overnight. It took nearly half the 20th Century to complete, but happen it did. There is still a place for the amateur in the science of astronomy, but not like in the 18th and 19th Centuries. By the time of George Ellery Hale, the local Universe had been mapped and its objects cataloged, and the easier questions had been answered. The next level of inquiry required lots of telescopic horsepower, rigorous training, and money.

1950
The change in amateur astronomy was sped up by the amateur telescope making movement in the United States in the early decades of the last century. Thanks to ATMing, some rather eccentric souls—so their fellows thought, anyway—were discovering stargazing was fun. You didn’t have to have a lot of money or be able to do calculus to have rewarding fun in our avocation—heck, you didn’t even have to be able to add 2+2. If you could cobble together a telescope and turn it on the sky you were one of us. Sure, people like Leslie Peltier still contributed to the science of astronomy, but it would be ridiculous to assert they were on the level of Hubble and Shapley.

If you ask me, however, the real amateur astronomy, the amateur astronomy we know and love, wasn’t fully aborning until the 1950s. What was also aborning in the 50s? Kids, lots and lots of postwar kids, the Baby Boom Generation. And here is the key:  as those kids were beginning, so was the Space Age. By the end of the decade, Sputnik was flying, NACA had become NASA, and space was on the minds of just about everybody. Especially on the minds of starry-eyed kids. Many of these space-crazy kids (and adults) wanted a telescope, but they didn’t want to make a telescope like Uncle Albert Ingalls did; they wanted to buy one readymade.

Want to know how much things changed for us in a mere ten years? Page through the January 1950 issue of Sky & Telescope (I hope you were prescient enough to get The Complete Sky & Telescope DVDs while you could). Much will be familiar to today’s readers, like the Sky Gazer’s Almanac (if in plainer form), but one thing will be different: the ads. Or the lack of them. No inside front or back cover full-pagers. Not even a back cover ad. There are a few small interior advertisements aimed at amateurs rather than astronomy educators, etc., but not many. The closest thing to what’s in today’s magazine is a small advertisement for a small Tinsley refractor (yes).

Now, let’s go to December 1959. This is much more like the amateur astronomy we know and love. There are plenty of ads directed at amateurs, if nothing like today. There’s a beautiful Criterion “Custom” Newtonian, and the back cover is occupied by a much drooled over Unitron refractor. By 1959, everybody had, by prewar standards anyway, plenty of money to spend and suddenly there was a small market for telescopes.

Oh, there were still plenty of amateur telescope makers, since larger aperture telescopes like that 6-inch Criterion, were too expensive for most kids (and adults). But the amateur astronomy of Unk Albert’s day, one where almost everybody used small store bought refractors or ATMed 6-inch Newtonian reflectors to observe the Moon, planets, and double and variable stars, was passing. It was disappearing just as the amateur astronomy of the semi-pros that came before had disappeared.

All through the 70s and into the 80s and 90s, the above continued. More amateur telescope buyers, fewer amateur telescope makers. It wasn’t really that the increasing availability of increasingly less expensive larger telescopes seduced amateur telescope makers from their passion. Most of us building scopes weren’t ATMs by choice.

Like me. If I’d been able to afford an RV-6 or Edmund 6-inch Newtonian reflector in 1970, much less a Unitron 4-inch refractor, I’d never have even thought about building a 6-inch reflector. But I couldn’t afford one of those scopes. I knew the only way to continue on in astronomy, for me at least, was to take it to the next aperture level, and the only way I could do that was by building, home-brewing, a scope. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t overly interested in grinding mirrors and lapping the threads of pipe mounts, but it was the only way.

1959
As the 1980s came in, ATMing had become a far less important part of our avocation, and no longer defined us as it once had. That was despite the popularity of simple, relatively easy to build Dobsonian telescopes with their cardboard tubes and plywood mounts. While Dobsonian builders caused an uptick in scope making in the 80s, that didn’t last. As soon as commercial Dobsonians became widely available, observers flocked to them. Those commercial Dobs were part of the equipment boom in amateur astronomy that began in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. It was caused by two things:  we Baby Boomers had money now, and there were (slightly) more of us in astronomy.

By the 90s most of us Boomers had appreciable disposable incomes. In that decade, we were entering in upon our peak earning years, and many of us didn’t think twice about dropping a measly two grand on a C8, for example, something that would have seemed impossible for most of us in 1970.

Our ranks also grew somewhat (after shrinking following the temporary influx of new people caused by Halley’s Comet). While retirement was still a distant speck on the horizon, some Boomers had begun casting about for something to do as their careers wound down toward that, and remembered how much they used to love the stars and how much they’d dreamed of a big telescope in the 60s and 70s. They realized they could now have that big telescope, went for it, and dived back into amateur astronomy as if all those intervening years had been but a dream.

The commercial astronomy market wasn’t just growing in the 1990s; it was changing. For one big reason, of course: C-H-I-N-A. It began with a somewhat silly little telescope, the Short Tube 80. Orion, the original Orion, Tim Giesler’s Orion, had noticed these short f/5 80mm achromats, which were being made by this Mainland China firm, Synta, and decided to give them a chance in their catalog (badged “Orion,” natch).  The rest is history. Soon everybody and his or her brother or sister wanted one. Tons of amateurs, novice and advanced, enjoyed these simple and refreshingly different wide field refractors.

The 80 f/5, humble as it was, represented a quantum leap for the Chinese scope industry, which before the Short Tube 80 had been pretty sad and invariably ridiculed by U.S. amateurs (remember the pitiful Simmons 4-inch Newtonians?). What is remarkable is that Synta went from the ST 80 to the SkyWatcher Esprit APO refractors in less than two decades, other Chinese firms were not far behind, and PRC telescopes went from being laughed at to being respected by us. Sometimes grudgingly, but respected nevertheless.

1958
The entry of China, who naturally undercut the prices of U.S. telescope makers easily, had two major effects. The amount, the crazy amount, of astro gear available to us exploded. And the mainstream, middle-of-the-road U.S. telescope industry imploded. While top of the line telescope makers like Astro-Physics were secure in their niches, old-line mid-price firms like Celestron and even once top-dog Meade failed and are now wholly owned by Chinese companies (perhaps the same Chinese company, as you may decide if you venture to unravel the convoluted interrelationships of Chinese industries).

So, we found ourselves in the second decade of a new century:  sitting fat, dumb, and happy with more powerful astronomy gear than we ever dreamed of possessing. Many of us even had time to use it now. Only one thing began to bother us. When we’d look around at club meetings, it was obvious we were a graying bunch. Oh, a few younger people would occasionally wander into the avocation, but many of them were only young in comparison to us Boomers, and for most clubs and star parties, new young folks were few and far between. How long has it been since you heard of a club with a thriving Junior Section?

Why no kids? I, like many of you, had palliative excuses. “The youngsters are there. They just don’t join astronomy clubs. They go to online astronomy forums when they want to hang out with their fellow amateurs. They are busy with school. Plenty of twenty-somethings would love to be in astronomy but just don’t have time with careers and kids.”

Those are the things I used to tell myself, but after years of paying close attention to our demographic, not just at clubs and star parties, but online, and teaching undergraduates at a university, I came to the conclusion that my excuses were wrong. There really are fewer youngsters who are interested in astronomy. This has been going on for at least thirty years, if not forty years, and is accelerating.

It’s human to want to pin the blame for something bad happening. And that is just what I did next. Why aren’t the kids interested in astronomy? “It’s the darned video games. Or the cell phones. Or maybe today’s kids lead such structured lives thanks to their Gen X and Millennial parents that they don’t have time for astronomy.”

While all the above things share part of the blame for the lack of youngsters in our hobby, they do not constitute the whole problem, and aren’t the root cause of the scarcity of young amateurs. I suspect that if there were fewer “distractions,” there would be more kids in astronomy, but maybe not quite as many as you would think.

An epiphany came to me late one sleepless night. It cut me like a knife and at first I didn’t want to believe it, but by morning’s light it began to look more and more like that sometimes-sought after and sometimes feared Ground Truth:

The amateur astronomy of the last fifty years was an aberration. It was brought on by a special and unlikely to be recreated time in our history, the now past Space Age.

Short Tube 80
More than anything else, the race to the moon, the fascination for the Great Out There made palpable by Project Apollo and which extended even into the early Shuttle years (though with much diminished intensity), was what initially attracted many of us. Could something like that come again? Perhaps, perhaps if there were a pedal-to-the-metal push to land on and settle Mars it could. Unfortunately, while I’d love to be proven wrong, I don’t see that happening. Not in my lifetime for sure, and I am skeptical it will happen during the lifetimes of my children.

So…what? So, amateur astronomy is doomed? Yes, it is. Well, not really. Amateur astronomy as we’ve known it over the last fifty years is doomed, I believe. It can’t help but be. Our ranks will begin to shrink, and as they shrink, the ad pages in the magazines (possibly virtual pages before long) displaying the tons of products that have defined our astronomy will also shrink in number. This may be accompanied by a large increase in Chinese telescope prices, both because of (recent) political forces and because of rising wages in the East. So, amateur astronomy is gone? Bye-bye? I didn’t say that.

A different amateur astronomy will go on at a reduced level. Heck, anyone who looks up at the stars in wonder is an amateur astronomer. Assuming you can see those stars; light pollution will suppress our numbers, though not as much by far as the departure of the Boomers. Again, amateur astronomy’s decline will be the natural result of the Space Age receding into the past and becoming a subject only for the history books and the (boring) reminiscences of grandpa and grandma.

What will the next amateur astronomy, say the amateur astronomy of the 2060s, be like?  Unless we wind up, to quote Kim Stanley Robinson, “On Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars!” and everybody is suddenly gaga over space again, I suspect much like the amateur astronomy of the 1920s - 1940s. A minor pursuit followed by a small number of special people. Many of whom will be making their own telescopes (probably printing them out on a 3D printer).

“Tell me, spirit, are these the shadows of things that must be, or the shadows of things that MIGHT be?” What can we do to prevent the end of amateur astronomy as we know it? Not a darned thing, I suspect. If you were to lend Elon Musk 100-billion bucks or so, that might prime the space/astronomy pump again. Frankly, I’m not even sure that would do it, though.

There's also those distractions I mentioned. In addition to the coming of the Space Age, there was another factor in the amateur astronomy boom. Yes, it coincided with the (even by today’s standards) technological marvels of Apollo, but few of those technological marvels had yet filtered down to us little people. There was an almost total lack of the distractions mentioned above.

Not only were there no home computers in the mid-1960s, most of us didn’t even have color televisions yet. For us kids, it was three (maybe) black and white TV channels, the books in the library, or get up a game outside with your friends. Maybe you could listen to a record on the stereo if you didn’t play Paul Revere loud enough to annoy your parents. The phone was hardwired into the wall, and Mum and Dad yelled at you to GET OFF if you were on too long with your boyfriend or girlfriend. You are not gonna get that lack of distractions again, campers, unless something truly bad happens, and I suspect that astronomy will be the least of your concerns if it does.

Am I sad about all this? I’m not sure. I know I would miss much of today’s astronomy: the never-ending club meetings on Cloudy Nights (.com) and Astromart, the pages and pages of Sky & Telescope “Hot Products,” and going crazy deep into the Universe (heck, I got tired of seeing PGC galaxies). On the other hand, a slower, simpler sort of amateur astronomy, an amateur astronomy concerned with what you can see with simple scopes does have its appeal.

At any rate, I don’t have to worry about it. I won’t live to see how this plays out. By definition, me and my fellow Boomers won’t be around for the New Amateur Astronomy, be it good or ill. All I can do is wish it well and meditate on all the Space Age Fun we had!

Comments:
The average age of the Fort Wayne Astronomical Society is probably north of 60. I, unfortunately, agree with you 110%. Am I sad about that? Yes, but I also feel grateful for having lived through this incredible time. Thanks for voicing what many of us were experiencing.

Mark
 
Rod, I believe you hit the nail on the head, regarding the future of amateur astronomy. I would add, though, that the lack of interest by the younger generations is paralleled by the drop-off in their participation in outdoor activities, such as camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing. There are too many other distractions, too much inconvenient for urban dwellers (the VAST majority), and too much of a learning curve and (possibly) of financial investment to really get into these activities.

As you know, amateur astronomy has always been a solitary hobby for many, if not most observers. Get beyond the casual outing to observe the Perseids, a quick telescopic view of Saturn, or (for us northerners) an evening of northern lights--and the interest really drops off. I didn't know of ANY fellow DSO-hunters out there in my area, until I happened across Astro Bob on the internet, who lives in Duluth.

Perhaps, the online astronomy communities will replace those of the shrinking astronomy clubs. I actually feel more connected to fellow observers than I EVER have since I started out in this hobby in the late 1960s as a very young lad, inspired by the Space Age. I just haven't met these folks in person.

For those of us who love astronomy, the availability of equipment and knowledge out there makes this a FANTASTIC time to be an amateur astronomer --even as the night skies get brighter and our numbers fade.
 
See also: amateur radio.
 
Rod M, As bad as i hate say. I think you are very right. will w
 
Hi Rod,

As a Gen Xer, I am not quite so pessimistic. As you point out, astronomy is a somewhat solitary pursuit. I belonged to my local club for a time, but it was a small club, everyone was considerably older than I am, and as the father of young kids, it took time I couldn't afford. So I stopped going. But I still observe. maybe when my kids are older I'll go back to the club, we'll see. I am also a beekeeper and belong to the local club, where in the few meetings I have gone to, I have observed a similar dynamic. The people who show up are almost all baby boomers. However, I know beekeeping is booming, even amongst younger people. So I wonder if it isn't just that the idea of the club is dying? I don't disagree that total numbers are declining, I'm just thinking it might not be as bad as you fear.

Mike Simmons
 
We still have a big but old club and a state park that welcomes us, so every observable night there is always a few there. Combine that with in yard imaging and I am still in the game - but less than 10 times a year. Young folks - a few are in the club and we use part of the dues to support science camps and we have about 15 scopes I think in the "library" for check out. But Rod is right on as far as general interest, and soon I would expect the prices to start climbing - we are seeing in the photo industry now that a lot of the unsold inventory is gone. I think there will always be a few amateur astronomers but even dobs will become expensive if and until something, like Rod says, drives the interest again. I'll be the first to admit that after the M's and 400 of the H's I've lost a lot of the desire, but I'll keep the ol'C8 until I have no interest and I have never needed nor will I ever need a different scope. I am a bit older than you Rod, life looks different this side of 60 and onward:)
 
I am afraid you are more right anyone hopes. That's not to say that astronomy will go away. There is interest in astronomy by the youth. These astronomy summer camps are popular: http://cepas.qc.ca/camps-dete/sejours/ but it's not part of the mainstream culture as the space race was. And it's not like astronomy has been evacuated from the popular consience. This ad campaign still shows that astronomy has pull http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/subaru-goes-stargazing-dreamy-campaign-made-canadas-royal-astronomical-society-171319 even with a website https://www.subaru.ca/WebPage.aspx?WebSiteID=282&WebPageID=20822

Our challenge is to put astronomy in the popular consience again. This time, instead of exploration, we need to think connection with nature just like bird watching does.

But you are right, even with all the outreach that we are doing it a tough ride.
 
With the current mind set of the old guard I agree (not you Rod). Most Astronomy clubs are a bunch of old folks, most of who are just miserable sods.
The hobby is targeting the same old methods as it did 40 years ago. The potential audience has moved on. It's more virtual, technology based with online communities. The traditional Astronomy club has the same life expectancy as ice cream in Yemen.
Look at how much garbage EAA got from the old guard? It's not real leading the pack if it's not my eyeball on an eyepiece it's not astronomy.
Most of this they have brought on themselves. Embrace the technology not complain about it. Checkout a live EAA broadcast sometime.
Then we have the you have to learn to star hop crowd, sorry folks with technology there is zero need anymore. FOlks learn from osmosis but not through regimented learning.
The old methods and the old guard with their closed viewpoints are what's hindering the hobby from moving forward.
They remind me of Neil on an episode of the Young Ones ( UK series and Neil was the manic depressive hippy). He used the line "Don't try to off yourself using crusifiction, no matter how hard you try you can get the last nail in. Kinda sums up how some of the old guard are killing the hobby.

 
Totally agree with you, Rod, and I would add the internet now makes it "unnecessary" to put time and money into looking at the objects in the night sky when you can google images to your heart's content.
Then as someone noted here in the comments, clubs per se, are "out" and "meet-up's" are "in"... no commitment, no pressure. We have an astronomy "meetup" group in Bend, Oregon with nearly 200 "members" but if you hold a meeting... maybe a dozen... or less... most with little or no knowledge or desire to expand their horizons... one and done...
I am a boomer and my interest was sparked because of the space race. But as the next few years come I will be more and more hard pressed to stay up late and endure the cold! LOL ! Equipment I have, waning enthusiasm, too!
Thanks for your blog! I read it every week !
 
I generally agree with your sentiments here, and I also don't see any real way out.

But I think there is a way, if not to stem the tide, to perhaps delay the inevitable. Beyond concentrating ever more on outreach programs, one solution is libraries. I was just reading this S&T article where some clubs are working towards getting all of the branches of their local libraries equipped with loaner scopes, specifically the Orion Starblast.

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/stargazers-corner/library-telescope-program-update/

If there is a way to get young people interested in astronomy, I think this is it. If you can actually get a scope in their hands, they'll become amateur astronomers.
 
Rod, that was a very good microeconomic analysis of the hobby and its attendant industries! You are right, these changes are probably permanent: ubiquitous information, online community, more activities indoors/online/on screen than outside, less of a sense of awe in looking at the night sky/more light pollution/more urbanization, etc., etc. As an English major, I am going to attempt to wax poetic and compare it to Shakespeare. Regardless of format or generation, there is still something there at the core of amateur astronomy that is profound and timeless and true. In the absence of another "dawn of the Space Age" the ranks of amateur astronomy will grow smaller and will be populated increasingly only by those who slow down/look around enough to connect to what was and has always been there at the core. Whether we connect in a club over barbecue and/or online like right now, those are the people I would want to be in conversation with anyway. Great post!
 
Two thoughts, Rod: I began really getting interested in amateur astronomy around 1970, as a high-school aged kid. Living in the Chicago area, I could attend the meetings of a few different clubs. What did I find there? Middle aged and gray haired men; as a kid, my student friend and I stood out. So, in other words, I found clubs that looked a lot like the old crowd we’re complaining about today. But 40+ years later, my club (which spun off of the high school club I was in) is still going strong. The dying-off that seemed to be happening already in 1970 hasn’t happened yet.
Secondly, I think you should also consider the scourge of light pollution. Another change over the time since 1970 and today is that back then, in my suburban city, you could still see lots of stars, and even the Milky Way if you found a locally dark spot. Today, young people growing up here really wouldn’t have a hard time totally missing the fact that there are stars and other objects in the night sky.
But when we do connect with kids, by bringing our telescopes to the park where they hang out, or getting them to come to our observatories, they are just as floored by the discovery that they can look out into the universe as kids have always been. Maybe they won’t jump up and buy a ‘scope or join the club -- maybe that will wait until they reach middle age. But they certainly won’t as much if we don’t keep showing them the heavens -- especially since they now have such a hard time seeing them on their own.

 
I've been thinking about this a lot since Rod first posted it. I even posted an initial comment on his Facebook page noting that I have seen many excited kids at star parties at our local "International Dark Sky Park". I began my amateur astronomer life back in the early 1960s as a teenager in a small town. There was no local astronomy club and I recall only one other person in town who had a telescope (and he was my age). So I did most of my amateur astronomy stuff on my own. I wonder if that is still the situation with many kids today; they live in small towns, isolated from clubs and even star parties. Yes, they may use the Internet for some activities. When my ETX web site was active (1996-2013) I received many emails from teenagers, either asking a question about their ETX telescope or wanting purchase recommendations (that they would give to their parents). Perhaps the young astronomers are out there, and some may go on to get an astronomy or astrophysics degree (like I did) or maybe they just still enjoy the night sky on their own or with friends (like I do).
 
I tend to agree with what I think Richard Lighthill is saying above (about 'googling images', etc.) In a sense I think that [amateur] astronomy has sort of worked itself out of a job; as long as amazing images from Hubble and the like are readily available online, and as long as we now pretend to know everything about everything already (as witnessed by the narratives of a thousand Discovery Channel documentaries), and as long as the night sky over our heads gets ever brighter, what's the draw to owning a telescope or observing with one's own eye? Where's the wonder of exploration? The first pictures from Hubble inspired wonder; the 1,000th was just meh, for a lot of people. I'm reminded of the scene from Apollo 13 where the PR guy grouses about being dropped by the networks -- "One of them said we made going to the Moon about as exciting as taking a trip to Pittsburgh." Have we made exploring the universe like a trip to Pittsburgh with our glossy space-probe photos and snazzy CGI-riddled documentaries?

It's certainly not my own perspective: As a 40-something child of the shuttle program and Halley, I still enthusiastically pursue new hardware, make some myself, and spend most of my free moments on CN or observing -- not to mention passing on my interest to my kids. But it's understandable in others, I think.
 
Dear Uncle Rod and other Boomers,

28 year old millennial here, who just wanted to give you some hope for the future.

I've always love ALL things space, and now finally have the career and free time to explore it as a hobby. I am admittedly the first of my peers to find the money, time, and interest to invest and explore this eccentric hobby, but I am infecting the others.

I fixed up Pa's old 114mm f/8 newtonian, and then quickly moved on to an 80ED f/6 triplet, on an EQ6, which I love.


I will do my best to spread the hobby and keep my generation and the next with are eyes up to the night sky.

If anything its easier to share the hobby than ever before as I flood my social media with the photos I've taken (ASI1600-mm-cooled).

If anything I would predict that a second wave of amateur astronomers is coming. . .

Sincerely,

Dr. Rossini
 
I think Rod, that you've come very close to the unspoken truth that many of us have simply never wanted to hear. Living and born in Ireland, I've been fascinated with astronomy since childhood, weaned on Patrick Moore's Sky at Night programme on the BBC.

I entirely agree with the previous poster's assertion that contemporary science documentaries with hyper-real representations of the cosmos thwart the dimension of the imaginary. Less is always more: the maxim 'show, dont tell' isn't always true.
For me there's no doubting that this unique phase of amateur astronomy which Ron has dissected nails the gnawing unease I've felt for some time, just as many of you seem to have unconsciously sensed if I am not misguided.
Certainly the flowering of amateur astronomy in America in the period Ron so ably describes, and the specific form it has taken represents for me one of those distinct, culturally-specific flowerings that really couldn't have manifested without the powerful post-war momentum and flux of social advancement, technological change, political determination and spur of scientific progress that caught America and the world in a shared dream of solidarity and a vision of progress which sent a thrill through the heart as we watched from afar (or so it seemed). Sadly that optimism seems to have foundered badly. That's how it seems to me, anyway.
It was a great moment, but the shift it has taken is interesting and potentially reaches out to many more people. There's a hell of a lot of telescopes out there. All that has to happen is for them to find their rightful ,owners. It's not over yet. Yeah, there is a sense of loss,It's been great to have been along for the ride. Hey! Who says it's over!?
 
Although the Space Race and Star Trek and even Model Rocketry were all in their golden ages in the 60s, the vast majority in my high school and neighborhood (just like today) did not embrace amateur astronomy. I believe it is the sheer number of boomer kids that has skewed the numbers of amateur astronomers that we have seen over the last 50 years.

Few in the general population have the astro fire in their belly. But that few became a larger few with the boomers just because of the sheer number of kids that became adults as the population boomed. The percentage of those with the fire has remained the same but the numbers were/are larger because of the population spike. When the boomers are gone the numbers will go back to what they have always been. I think the percentage of those interested in astronomy and amateur astronomy has and will forever remain the same, it’s only the numbers that rise and fall with population.

Predicting the future is tricky but I’m more positive than Rod’s article indicates. I am always surprised and delighted to see lots of kids and young folks at our public star parties. Most are thrilled at what they see. I also noticed an enthusiastic group of young professionals that were overjoyed when their Space X rocket booster returned to earth and landed vertically back on earth. The smiling faces on those young people spoke volumes

Bob

 
I believe the future of Amateur Astronomy is in our hands. We can steer it to success or let it fail. None of us were born into Astronomy. We are in it today because sometime in our childhood or early life something happened and we were introduced to Astronomy. I don't believe young people are not at all interested in Amateur Astronomy. True many are not because they never heard about Astronomy ever but quite few may have been introduced to Amateur Astronomy. In my opinion a few of those young fellas could stay interested but may not and can not participate in any activity for justifiable reasons. It happened to me when I was at the beginning of my career. I got a job, I soon got married which lead to our first child. Soon it restricted my taking part in any astronomy event or investing in any equipment. I did not have enough money to spare because I wanted my son to get the best in everything. Equipment buying is also not easy. One can not simply buy a scope and stop. This hobby makes us spend more and more in acquiring more and more accessories and it goes on. Not easy when you have a family with growing kids. Astronomy simply had to wait for its turn.

I finally realized my Astronomy dreams after I retired from my full time employment. That gave me time to spend on this hobby and also with my grand kids.

My grand-daughter joins me in stargazing today. I hold stargazing or outreach sessions at her school. Many kids of her school and their parents are regulars and take keen interest in the activities. I feel strongly that some kids are showing great interest and have the promise of becoming future astronomers. Sure, as they progress in their schooling astronomy may not remain in their prime focus. However the seed of astronomy will remain sown and one day in the future in their life may start germinating into making a budding amateur astronomer. They too will face similar difficulties as I did. They too may get into serious astronomy only when they reach retirement age. In my opinion it is perfectly OK to find gray haired people at Amateur Astronomy events. That is how it works in today's life style. By no means ever does it indicate that this hobby is dying.

I also participate in star parties. Star parties are only for self pleasure. I go there to do what most amateur astronomers do - observe the sky. It does not happen at school out reach sessions where we don't observe but try to share the sky with public to make them get interested into becoming future astronomers. Yes, conducting outreach sessions is one great way to spread our hobby among youngsters. If there are no outreach sessions there is no future to amateur astronomy.
 
33 years old spanish astronomer here. Times just change. I, like many, live on a big city and don't want to travel 150kms on a weekend to have a good sight, or attent to local meetings where noobs (old and young) talk about basic issues. I actively participate on online forums full of knowledgeable and collaborative people and share passion with hundreds of other amateurs. And observe and photograph from my own penthouse almost weekly, fighting downtown CL. Bright objects like moon, planets, doubles, open clusters and brighter DSOs are a joy to observe on a binoviewer, googling photos will never replace that feeling, and with a planetary camera panets and small DSOs are also a joy. I also attend one or two star parties on summer and there are hundred of people there, many of my same age.

I think amateur astronomy scene will shrink as it's a complicated, expensive, hobby. But I don't think it'll dissappear as observing the sky on your own is somehing every human being loves (has some evolutioary explanation) and it cannot be replaced with online or remote technologies.
 
I'm thinking you are right. I am 37 and have had telescopes (at least one at any one time for the most part) since I was 8. Recently I picked it up a notch and got back into it in a more actively and bought three more scopes. I went to my first astronomy club meeting only 5 months ago. I get information I need online. I think what is disappearing is the physical club, and not just for astronomy. Younger folks have distractions, but one of those is astronomy - online. I can take a photo of Jupiter or Saturn and have people from 2 or 8,000 miles away within minutes. Our little hobby is global, as is the marketplace for equipment. As places gain in wealth (places like China, and the countries that will replace it as producer countries once incomes get too high for certain types of production in China). Increased global wealth will ensure our hobby lasts well beyond our shores. I look forward to I hope decades more of equipment availability and advancements.
 
In the western countries Uncle Rod's long post is correct. It can be simply summarized as follows. The bay boom is demographic anomaly. The degree of interest in amateur astronomy of the baby boomer cohort is also an anomaly.

For the next 20 years or so the amateur astronomy market will decline.

Possible fresh interest from emerging economies (e.g. India, China) is a a possibility but it is not clear that the emerging space programs in those countries is triggering the same wave of interest that happened in western countries in the 60's.

Meanwhile, the shape and feel of amateur astronomy itself has changed. I have tracked the hobby via Sky and Telescope going back to the 40's. The hobby seems to have gone through at least 4 major stages;

1. 30' to mid 60's with limited commercial products and a lot of emphasis on home made equipment and basic visual DSO observing. Planetary observing was valued and we saw emergence of ALPO etc.

2. mid 60's to mid' 80's with much more commercial product especially SCT's as well as the emergence of Dob's. Visual DSO observing starts to go much deeper. Space satellites and probes start to reduce planetary observing cache.

3. mid 80's to 2010 peak earning power of baby boom = peak equipment choices and vendor community. Technology adds Goto's and CCD and DSLR and capability for world class imaging compared to previous era's.

4. 2010 to 2030. End of the space race/baby boomer era. Many fewer vendors; glut of used equipment, disappearance of astro magazines and most clubs. Hobby contracts by roughly 1/2. Innovation slows as market contracts. Micro-vendors replace major brands. Cloudy Nights, Astromart, remnant of Astro leagues and astro mags merge and consolidate. Hobby changes drastically.






 
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