Monday, August 04, 2008


How to Make Your Star Party Almost Heaven

What makes a star party a success? A continuing success? And what does silly ol’ Unk Rod know about it anyhow? I’ll admit right off the bat I’ve never been involved in organizing a dark-site hoedown; prob’ly never will be (though I do dream of an Alabama Star Party occasionally). Your Uncle is way too lazy for that job. I do go to a lot of star parties every year, though; probably more than the average Joe or Jane Amateur, and that maybe qualifies me to at least offer my sometimes misguided opinions as to what makes a good star party good.

"What the hail is Unk going on about now? We all know what makes a star party great, don’t we? What makes one of these perennial amateur astronomy dark site gatherings go—be it a regional 100 observer affair or a national 1000 telescope one. DARK SKIES, right?" Yeah, that’s what I used to think when I started doin’ the star party circuit more years ago than I like to admit.

Putting few decades of partying under my belt, however, has taught me a thing or two about the star party game. Dark skies are good, yeah. Any star party needs to offer observing better than what most of its attendees put up with at home if it’s to be a long-running success. Heck, even the Riverside Telescope Maker’s Conference—err, excuse me, “RTMC Astronomy Expo,” one of the first big events, and one which has never been about dark sky observing, probably features better viewing than what most of the members of its Southern California audience have back home. Howsomever… There are, believe it or no, things that are as important to the health of your star party as inky black skies, and without which even the darkest of dark parties won’t be around for long. What does your star party need beyond good skies? People and Place.


I’ve never been to what I’d call an “unfriendly” star party. I've been to a couple where my welcome could have been warmer, but never to one where folks seemed outright hostile. As I’ve said many times to anybody who will listen, I think most amateur astronomers are the nicest, best, and smartest people around. But just being nice to the people you meet on a star party field, taking pains to make even newbies you don’t know from Adam feel at home, is not quite enough. Star party friendliness needs to institutionalized and your audience’s needs and wants must be met if you want to see them next year.

Where does star party friendliness start? Why, it starts at the front gate, Skeezix. I don’t only mean making sure every registered guest who shows up has a registration packet and a meal ticket ready to go, either. I’ve been to a couple of events that shall remain nameless that made getting onsite harder and more intimidating than penetrating a Strategic Air Command base at the height of the Cold War. The registration tent is your GUESTS’ (remember that is what they are, always) first contact with your star party.

When new arrivals walk up, don’t frown, act bothered, and grunt in your best Commandant Klink voice, “PAPERS PLEASE!” And that's exactly why the couple of star parties I've been to that I'd rate "less than friendly" have stuck in my mind. Not because of the demeanor of the people on the field, but because of the attitudes of the staff people doing the greeting/registration. I know when I've received this sort of reception, I conclude, "They don't want me here much, so I will definitely not be back next year."

The first words out of your mouth should be “Welcome to the Hoot Owl Star Party; we are so glad you could make it.” If your new arrivals are not registered, and your event has a “no walk-ons” policy (not a good policy in my opinion unless you are genuinely strained for field space/accommodations/infrastructure), sure, you’ll have to turn ‘em away. Rules is rules, but at least act like you’re as disappointed as they are. Give ‘em a brochure, smile, and say “see you next year.” And maybe consider changing that rule next year.  Much better? "We can't let you in on the meal plan, that has to be arranged in advance, but there's space in the bunkhouse and plenty of room for you to set up on the field, WELCOME!"

If a guest walks up with a problem, work to resolve that problem right away; if you can’t fix it, find someone who can—immediately. Most of all, don’t make your guest stand there fidgeting while you discuss your critical opinion of the latest episode of Big Brother with your pals (has happened to me once).

One of the most important things a star party can do both for itself and for amateur astronomy is to help out with our somewhat challenged demographic. Do you appeal to young families? That is, do you have kid/spouse activities (and please don’t assume every non-astronomy spouse is a woman)? Are these things presented as integral and important elements of the star party, not as half-heartedly done afterthoughts? One thing I really, really like to see is raffle prizes just for kids (and maybe for spouses, too). Modest enough gifts so it’s no problem to see that every single Little Person and spouse gets a small memento of some kind, even if it’s merely a NASA Space Place coloring book or a coffee mug. Sure, doing that might mean you have to cut back a wee bit on your main prizes, but it is worth it. How to ensure Joe or Jane Amateur comes back next year? Leave Mister or Missus non-amateur spouse with pleasant memories. Every time Jane Amateur’s hubby looks at that Possum Holler SP coffee mug he “won,” he’s gonna remember the great time he had, and how nice it would be to go back.

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, fancy prizes, the LX200s and Nagler eyepieces, are a Big Deal, ain’t they?” I dunno. I’m frankly not sure cutting back on the big prizes is such a bad idea, even if giving out plenty of kids’/spouses’ gifts doesn’t make that necessary. I actually prefer raffles where there are many small prizes to ones where there are two big scopes and a NASA poster. Not only do more small prizes leave more guests satisfied, it cuts WAY back on the hurt/bad feelings. You’ve likely heard this before: “Know why the Hoot Owl AS folks always win the big prizes? It’s cuz they are in the club that sponsors the star party.” Personally I don’t worry about prizes much. In the course of three decades of star partying, I have won a grand total of one flashlight and one Vixen dovetail bracket (Miss Dorothy is another matter; she rakes in prize after prize).

I mentioned them hallowed Star Party Rules a paragraph or three back, and yes, every star party needs ‘em in order to keep things running smoothly and ensure everybody has a good time. What kinds of rules does a good star party have? Not many. If your Organizing Committee has a rule-making session, you’ll no doubt come up with a bunch, and your committee will no doubt have the star party’s best interests at heart. But you don’t want your guests to start feeling that the gist of the thing is, “That Which is Not Compulsory is Forbidden.” Your job is to go through the list of existing/proposed rules and weed-out any that are not 100% necessary and bearable.

What kinda rules? There are, luckily, just a few categories. Light rules are usually the easiest to formulate; it’s purty simple, after all, “no white light after dark.” Well, maybe not quite so simple. It may be advisable to specify dim red lights only. A lot of people are now toting 10,000 candlepower red flashes and headband lights that feature 25 ultrabright LEDs that will do about as much to preserve dark adaptation as a poke in the eye with a green laser. Good luck doing better than “I know dim when I see it” when putting this one on the stone tablets, though.

The most important thing here is friendly enforcement. No, you don’t want some goober to show a light and spoil dark adaptation and (possibly) photos. On the other hand everybody (admit it) occasionally makes a mistake and flicks that fancy new Astro-Gizmos flashlight to “white” by mistake, turns on a PC without the red filter in place, or—DOH!—opens the trunk of their vehicle without having disabled the light. Screaming is not necessary. A chorus of PUT OUT THAT LIGHT! from all and sundry is not overly becoming, not necessary, and is often more distracting that a brief flash of white light—to say nothing of what it does to a novice’s inclination to come back next year. It should be made clear in the Official Rules that star party staff will enforce light rules. And do that.

Two recent light rules issues that have caused a right smart amount of controversy for star party organizers and guests concern laptop screens and green lasers. Laptop screen “enforcement” should be handled just as you do flashlights: red-filtered and not too bright (whatever that is). Some star parties have talked about placing imagers and other PC users in their own corner of the field, but that may not be desirable, or friendly, or necessary if laptops have adequate filters over their screens and, maybe, are in easy-to-make enclosures so that even filtered screens are not visible most of the time.

Green lasers? That’s your call. Some star parties allow ‘em, some do not. It’s my belief that it is clear, when you study the issue, that it is not likely a laser will spoil somebody’s astrophoto. I admit they are distracting, and all too many light saber users simply cannot keep them pointed at the sky. If you think green lasers are a problem, treat them like any other lights: not red equals not allowed.

Vehicle rules vary from star party to star party. Some events permit vehicles on the field, some only allow them there for loading and unloading, some restrict them to certain areas. My preference is to allow them to be parked around the perimeter of the observing field if there is space; it’s sometimes handy to have your car close at hand (I’ve waited-out blowing rain in my vehicle a time or two). One other very important vehicle commandment is required: “no driving off the field after dark.” Even with “just” parking lights on, this is way too distracting and harmful to dark adaptation. Not to mention dangerous—I saw an astronomer and scope nearly run down one night by a newbie who just had to go home. No driving off the field except in an emergency and as approved by star party staff.

Course, use common sense in enforcing vehicle rules. I once had my wrist slapped for driving away from a star party with my car’s running lights on—despite the fact that I was, “a,” parked on an access road; not the field, and, “b,” that it was completely cloudy at the time and for the remainder of the evening!

Whether your star party allows dining canopies or camping tents on the observing field itself will, like vehicle parking, mostly be dependent on how much space you have available to play with. If there's enough, being able to at least erect a canopy or a Kendrick Observing Tent or similar sure is nice, especially for those of us running computers. Don't let tents squeeze out scopes, of course.

Probably least important are the "conduct" rules. Why least important? Most amateurs are well behaved. We are not schoolchildren, and there is no need to treat us as if the field is Bluebird Elementary—or Stalag 17. One conduct rule that’s being adopted at more and more venues is “no smoking” on the field. In the beginning this was usually limited to “no pipes or cigars,” since the smell of even a good stogie is offensive to quite a few folks. As cigarette smoking has become less fashionable and more people are concerned about the supposed health issues of second hand smoke, however, I expect more and more star parties to ban ciggies as well.

As an ex-smoker, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, you don’t want to appear to be anti-smoking Nazis. On the other, second hand smoke ruins many people’s enjoyment of the night sky, and may not do much good for optics as well as lungs. As with all other rules, the secret is friendly enforcement. If a guest is smoking where/when she/he shouldn’t be, politely remind the person of the rule and maybe suggest they step off the field for some quick drags.

In some cases, alcohol may be an issue as well. Usually, that is only the case if your location prohibits alcohol on site—a church camp or State Park, for example. My inclination? Rather than saying “Dump that out!” maybe just whisper, “be discreet.” We are, again, adults, most of us (way too adult, some of us). What if alcohol is causing a problem? Somebody’s drunk and stumbling on the field or being confrontational in mean-drunk fashion? That’s easily covered by a single broad and useful directive: “Attendees are required to obey the instructions of star party staff at all times.” If someone’s imbibed too much, escort them back to the cabin, or out the gate as appropriate.


Sure, I love TSP, The Texas Star Party at Prude Ranch. Can’t get enough of it. The skies are Grrrreat. So are the people. But, you know what? There is a third leg to the star party “tripod” that’s as important as dark skies and friendly folks. Facilities; place, that is. TSP has luckily got both good infrastructure and accommodations (if you can get a room on the ranch and are not forced to tent camp, that is) in addition to its super-dark skies, but what if y’all organizers have to choose? Dark or comfortable? Maybe I’m just getting old, but these days my version of tent camping is staying at the Chiefland Holiday Inn Express. I suspect I am not the only one, either. There’s something to be said for a cool/warm room, a hot shower, and a soft bed after a long night’s observing run.

There’s more to the place part of the star party formula than just wanting a comfy pillow under my punkin-head. A star party is more than observing. It’s also more than hanging out with your mates. Some of my most valuable star party experiences have been those times I’ve sat-in on a presentation by a fellow amateur who knows more than I do (which includes almost everybody) and learned a thing or three. Being able to do that indoors, sitting on a bearable chair, watching a PowerPoint presentation projection on a real screen is way more fun than trying to figure out what somebody is saying while you sweat, sit on a stump, and watch a 35mm slide show dimly projected on a bed sheet nailed to the side of the shower house.

“Place” is every bit as important as activities in bringing back non-astronomer spouses and kids “next year”—maybe even moreso. Sure, if What Must Be Must Be means I have to genuinely rough it in return for an otherwise good outing, I might do that (the Chiefland 2002 Spring Picnic was the last time I tent-camped, so that oughta tell you something). Spouses not interested in observing—or at least not interested in looking much? Prob’ly not. That does not mean your site must offer the amenities of the Ritz. Clean cabins (with family cabins available if possible), RV hookups aplenty, some kind of meeting/chow hall, and real bathrooms (not just portapotties) and showers are required in my judgment for a long lasting endeavor.

Does the above sound like a tall order? It is really not. There are plenty of state parks, private camps, and similar operations that feature these things and who will be only too happy to host y’all (most of these camps and parks are literally desperate for users in the fall and spring). Yes, it does mean you may have to compromise on skies. If I have a choice between the Hopping Armadillo State Park with showers and cabins, or your Uncle Ezra’s back forty whose only feature is hot and cold running coyotes, you know which one I’ll pick, even if Ezra’s skies beat the pants off that state park.

What else makes a good Place? Not required but very desirable in this day of go-to scopes and laptops on (almost) every observing table is AC power on the field. Being able to run all night long without having to haul out 200 pounds of trolling motor batteries derned sure will attract my business to your event. I understand that providing power, or much power, on the field is not always possible. I can accept that without much heartburn. I’m used to lugging batteries everywhere with me. I do insist you provide sufficient working AC outlets to allow me and everybody else to recharge said batteries in time for the next evening. Did I say I hate portapotties? Not always. If cabins/bathhouse are a fair walk from the observing field, it might not be a bad idea to station a number of ‘em around the observing field (far enough away so your guests don’t get a constant whiff).

Anything else? One big thing: vendors. If there’s an amateur who don’t like to buy astro-stuff at a star party, I have yet to meet her/him. For those of us who live out in the boondocks a fur piece from an astro-emporium, a star party dealer’s table is a huge treat. We actually get to look at and handle the gear we are going to buy, not merely squint at minute pictures on the ‘Net. What can you do to encourage vendor participation? DO AWAY WITH VENDOR FEES if your event has ‘em. I don’t care if you have always charged sellers to setup, make it free for one and all. Now. With gas at almost four dollars a gallon, diesel higher, and most dealers driving hundreds if not thousands of miles, you need to give ‘em a break. Don’t feel much sympathy for Acme Eyepiece and Chain Saw Incorporated? Remember, your guests are also paying those fuel prices, and good dealers provide an encouragement for them to fill up the cavernous gas tanks of huge Dob-totin’ Suburbans and head your way. It should go without sayin’ that you need to provide a covered, secure area for your vendors.

I could go on and on, of course. But rather than listening to me blather on some more, why not get yourself, your scope, and maybe your family out to a star party that does it right? In addition to the aforementioned Texas Star Party, one that fulfills these requirements in spades is the one I just got back from, the Almost Heaven Star Party atop West Virginia’s Spruce Knob Mountain.

They’ve got the skies, sure, some of the darkest star party skies this old boy has ever seen east of the Mississip. They have also got the people. Attendees and organizers alike are among the friendliest and most considerate I have ever encountered. Place? Their Mountain Institute-run location is remote, but provides most of the things that lure back both spouses and decadents like silly ol’ Unk year after year. Most of all, though, this one is just run right: with efficiency, intelligence, and kindness. There are plenty of good star parties—no, make that great star parties—and I’ve had the good fortune to attend many of them, from Chiefland in the East to the Idaho Star Party in the west and many more inbetween, but for now my model of THAT’S HOW YOU DO IT! is Almost Heaven West Virginia.

I tend to agree. I liked the NSP alot, but electricity was hard to come by and when the Resort started treating us like crap, I didn't go back. The Resort had a resturant that we could escape into during the heat of the day. But they closed it down until evening. NSP usually has 100+ highs during the day. The Resort was also the only place that could guarantee electrical hookups, which I require for my cpap. So I now am just going to the Iowa Star Party, who will at least let me recharge my marine battery every day.

Stellafane could learn a lesson from RTMC by allowing commercial vendors in. They are so set on pushing glass and ATM while ignoring the fact that the majority of amateur astronomers buy commercial telescopes instead of making their own.

Matthew Ota
Rod, One of your best Blogs of all time. You sure set readers straight on the complexities of astrophotography and on the rumors and outright falsities of SCTs. Thanks for taking the time to inform all your readers and those who are suggested to read your blog. Thanks, John Huntsberger
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