Sunday, February 19, 2012
My Favorite Star Parties: ALCON 2003
Still in the dark? OK, I’ll spell it out for you starting with what an “ALCON” is. That acronym stands for “Astonomical League CONvention.” If you are the greenest of greenhorns and don’t know what the League is, listen up and Unk will edumacate you. The Astronomical League is the national organization for amateur astronomy in the U.S. of A. If you are an amateur radio operator, a “ham,” the Astronomical League is the equivalent of The American Radio Relay League.
Well, sorta. The AL is somewhat younger than the ARRL, not having got off the ground until just after World War II. I don’t think anybody, including the AL staff, would disagree with me if I say the Astronomical League is not nearly as powerful (or effective) an organization as the ARRL, either. There are a couple of reasons for that. First off, unlike ham radio, we are not government regulated. You don’t need a license from the Feds to be an amateur astronomer. Not having to deal with legislation directly affecting our avocation means we have less need for a strong national organization.
“But Uncle Rod,” you say, “isn’t the struggle against light pollution a cause that affects our hobby? And involves law-making?” Well, yeah, but… The Astronomical League devotes some time and resources to the problem, but the IDA, the International Dark Sky Association got there first, and is the principal amateur astronomy group working in that arena.
That’s half the equation. The other half, I’m convinced, is the nature of amateur astronomers. While there is considerable crossover between amateur radio and amateur astronomy, the average amateur astronomer is probably less gregarious than the average radio amateur. While some of us, like Unk, spend most of our time observing with a club, many of us do our viewing alone and may not even belong to an astronomy club. These folks are happy to be left alone to enjoy the sky on their own and don’t see the need for a local, much less national, organization. I think these people are wrong, but, as I have often said, the most wonderful rule about amateur astronomy is that there are no rules as to how it must be practiced.
What was the first thing I looked at in Sky and Telescope when I was a youngun in the 1960s? The ads for Edmund, Cave, Unitron, Criterion and the rest, of course. After that, it was always “Amateur Astronomers,” S&T’s news column about the activities of, well, amateur astronomers, which frequently talked about the League. This was a pretty big deal in those simpler times. Me and my buddies in our little club, The Backyard Astronomy Society, often thought about sending THE MAGAZINE a news story about our doings, but that smacked of hubris. The BAS in “Amateur Astronomers” along with the League? No way!
And there it remained with me and the AL for quite a few observing seasons. When I joined my first big peoples’ club, which was an affiliate of the AL, I learned a little more about the organization and began to keep up with its doings in its quarterly magazine—really more of a newsletter—The Reflector. I glommed onto the fact that by belonging to an affiliate club I was now actually a member of the Astronomical League.
I’ve been fairly generous with my criticism of the Astronomical League in recent years. Maybe even overgenerous. Mostly my complaint is not about what it does, but that it should do more. A common theme at club meetings all over the country when it’s time to pay the club’s AL dues is “What does the League do for me?” The answers including the Observing Clubs, fighting light pollution, and youth development are all good ones, but the AL needs to do more to make itself an indispensable part of Joe and Jane Amateur Astronomer’s life if it is to remain relevant. Maybe we oughta talk about that some Sunday.
Despite my carping, I am a League supporter. Always have been. I still read The Reflector when it drops through the mail slot. I sometimes even look forward to it. And until 2003 there was always that sweet old dream: someday I was going to an ALCON where I could hang out with hundreds of fellow amateur astronomers and talk astronomy and telescopes all the live long day.
So it was that on the Tuesday afternoon before the convention began, Miss D. and I hit I-65 for the trip north. We didn’t feel like driving into the night, and our reservations at the Embassy Suites didn’t begin till check-in time Wednesday, anyway, so we would stop somewhere close to the Tennessee line. Which turned out to be the little burg of Enterprise, Alabama. Why there? It was just outside the ring of Huntsville traffic, and we spotted a nice-looking Best Western Motel at the town’s exit.
Nashville is for sure a big city, and in 2003 most of its Interstates were being worked on and were torn up, but even without GPS we didn’t have a lick of trouble finding the Airport Embassy Suites. It reminded me a lot of the one I’d stayed in in Anaheim, California back in the 1990s: older but nice, with the standard waterfall/fishpond and greenery in the lobby and a nice open space for FREE DRINKS AND HORS D'OEUVRES in the evening. Our suite was similarly nice: obviously older but well maintained, with an expansive view of the lights of Nashville in the distance.
Checked into the hotel, it was time to check into the convention. The convention registration tables in the lobby were staffed by the uber friendly membership of the Barnard – Seyfert Astronomical Society and let me say right here that these men and women were professional and efficient as well as friendly, and it was due to their hard work that ALCON 2003 ran like clockwork.
Where to after registration? ‘Twas too early for the free drinks and nibbles, so Unk naturally gravitated to the Dealers’ Room. There was plenty to see there; everybody from the Starry Night software people to Scott Roberts and Meade had a booth. The best thing was the people, the friends old and new we ran into and made right off the bat. There was editor extraordinaire Kelly Beatty from ‘Sky and Scope, BSAS President Mike Benson, ALPO Director Richard Schmude, and even our fellow Possum Swamper, Judy Anderson. Bill Burgess (Burgess Optical) and wife Tammy had a table and were showing a huge assortment of binoculars and a couple of sweet looking refractors. Finally, there was that other editor extraordinaire (and imaging guru) Richard Berry, who I hadn’t seen since the notorious TSP ’97.
Who else? There were plenty of rank-and-file amateur astronomers. Working, serious amateur astronomers. What was the greatest thing? Unlike the old days, this did not resemble the Sons of the Desert convention in the old Laurel and Hardy movie. There were plenty of women in attendance, women astronomers, that is.
There was also my virtual friend, Shawn Grant, a well-known Tennessee amateur who at the time was (in)famous as sci.astro.amateur’s (the amateur astronomy bulletin board that came before Cloudy Nights, younguns) resident troll-clown. Shawn injected just the right amount of comic relief into what might otherwise have been a too-serious affair. He did his best to keep things jumping with his rascally jests—I understand he managed to FREAK Richard Berry OUT with his men’s room antics—but his other personality, that of knowledgeable, accomplished observer came through despite his best efforts.
There had already been some presentations, but by the time we arrived and checked into the hotel and the convention, got settled in our room, and wandered around a little they were all done and it was time for that ALCON tradition, the star-b-que. This big group meal would be a particular treat this year, as it would be held out at Vanderbilt’s Dyer Observatory. We didn’t even have to figure out how to get there; we were ferried out in big busses. Dyer was a lovely and historic facility that housed a still operational (for teaching purposes) 24-inch reflector with Perkin-Elmer optics.
Following a super-tasty catered barbeque dinner that we consumed in the observatory library, we listened to a couple of speakers tell us all about the AL’s big project, the ISS-AT, the International Space Station Amateur Telescope. In retrospect, it’s a little sad not much has happened with the amateur space telescope over the intervening nine years, but I understand there is still a working 16-inch ground-based prototype-demonstrator in Arizona, and with the forthcoming demise of the HST now that servicing missions have ended there may be life in the ISS-AT yet.
Naturally, we all wanted a look at and through the 24-inch after supper, and when the ISS-AT presenters were done that is just what we did. This was, of course, THE YEAR OF MARS, the opposition to end all oppositions, and we turned the scope there. Alas, due to clouds and poor seeing, the Angry Red Planet looked more like the Soggy Orange Pizza. Kelly Beatty and a few other folks stuck it out for a while, but conditions were never sufficiently good to allow Dyer’s big scope to strut itself. Miss D. and I figured we’d better get back to the hotel, anyway. Long day, and my presentation was scheduled for the morrow.
Come Thursday morning, it was time to get my act together. I was scheduled to go on at 10:30 with my talk, “The Past, Present, and Future of the Schmidt Cassegrain.” I was pretty pleased to be presenting on Thursday; all my worry and preparation would be done early and I’d have all day Friday and Saturday to hang out and have fun.
I was done with my talk, but that didn’t mean I was done with talks. The speaker lineup in 2003 was awesome: Richard Berry on them newfangled CCD cameras, Ron Wodaski on how to process CCD images once you’d got ‘em, Don Parker on imaging Mars. Don’s talk was scheduled so he could immediately hop on a plane and get back to Florida to get more of July’s enormous Mars. All the talks were good, but of particular interest to the Rodster was Lonnie Puterbaugh’s presentation on imaging the deep sky with video cameras. I’d tried Solar System photography with my camcorder and was excited to hear it was now possible to get the dim stuff with user friendly video.
There was so much to listen to and learn that I found myself spending 8-hours a day in convention sessions of one kind or another. The facilities and A/V equipment were top notch, which made it easy for everyone to do their best. The only slight hiccup came Thursday evening, when the big talk had to be crammed into the dealer room. The large space we’d been using for presentations was devoted to a plus-size models’ convention that night. Ah, well.
I keep talking about the Dealer’s Room, so it should come as no surprise that Unk bought something. How could I not, my birthday being right around the corner? I looked longingly at the Starry Night software but demurred. What I was using at the time, SkyTools 2 mostly, was more suited to the kind of deep sky work I was interested in. What could I not resist? The 15x70 binoculars Bill Burgess was selling for an insane 50 bucks. I got a pair, which turned out to be excellent, and which I am still using—dang near every clear night—today.
Late Thursday afternoon, Miss Dorothy and I headed for the snacks and drinks, as many mixed drinks or beers as you wanted and “snacks” that really amounted to a full buffet. My talk was done, my binoculars were safe in the room, and I could now relax, which D. and I did in the company of Kelly B. Rod filled his ear with a stream of whiskey-fueled semi-nonsense about the current state of amateur astronomy. Oh, if only Little Rod could only have listened-in; here was his future self at an ALCON shooting the breeze with a Sky and Telescope Editor!
Dorothy and I did not over-do on the afternoon hors d'oeuvres, since we wanted to get out of the hotel for supper, even if we didn’t go far. Just a mile or two from the Embassy Suites we spotted what looked like and turned out to be a very good Mexican restaurant. We had a great time with the food—and the margaritas. One of my few regrets about this trip was that we did not get out and see more of Nashville. Other than the trip to Dyer and this visit to an eatery, we spent all our time in the hotel. Silly ol’ Unk was just amateur astronomy crazy and could not be pulled away from THE CONVENTION.
Just because I was at the hotel all day and night, don’t mean I was in the hotel all day and night—or night anyway. What’s an amateur gathering without a star party? Yeah, we’d seen a little at Dyer Observatory, but we wanted more, especially those of us who’d bought new toys—like Unk’s binoculars. The ALCON organizers arranged to hold an impromptu observing run in the hotel parking lot Friday night. The light pollution would probably be bad, but at least I’d get to try my binocs, YEEHAW!
After the last session of the day ended at 10 p.m., we adjourned to the parking lot for some informal observing. With Nashville and the Nashville airport close at hand the sky wasn’t anything to write home about, but we had fun anyway. The kind hotel staff had turned off the parking lot lights, and that helped a surprising amount. My new binoculars worked great, and I was amazed by what we could see with the scopes a couple of vendors set up, but what took the cake was Lonnie Puterbaugh’s Stellacam.
Lonnie’s camera, which I believe was the (then) new Stellacam II, was hooked to his LX200 10-inch and literally blew us away with what it pulled out of the nasty skies. Not only was there plenty of light pollution, there was a full Moon in the sky. Nevertheless, the video camera didn’t just show the Omega/Swan Nebula, it pulled in scads of nebulous wisps all over the field. M13, M22, M51, M81, M82, all were astonishingly detailed despite the conditions. Then and there I promised myself, “I am gonna get me one of them things.”
Saturday was good and bad. Good in that there were many more excellent talks; especially, Kelly’s “Where Have All the Young Astronomers Gone?” Wish you’d been there. The only bad was that as late afternoon came on there was no denying the CON was winding down. There was only one big event to go. Following yet more drinks and hors d'oeuvres, there was the annual AL Banquet.
Not only was the food amazingly good for hotel convention fare, the banquet’s keynote speaker, Martin Weisskopf from the Chandra X-ray Observatory program, gave an exciting talk about the newest of NASA’s Great Observatories. There was more, of course, including the AL’s yearly Young Astronomer Award and a door prize give-a-way (as usual Unk didn’t win a blessed thing), but Dr. Weisskopf’s talk put the perfect cap on ALCON 2003.
I couldn’t help being sad as we filed out of the hall. It had been a wonderful and intense week, one for the books. Even now I occasionally find myself recalling with amazement: “I spoke at an ALCON!” Would I go back? Sure, I would, whether as a speaker or a listener. Danged right I would; even though I haven’t. The CONs over the last eight years have all had one of two things, and sometimes both, in common: too far away, interfere with work. Even if I never get to another ALCON, that’s OK. My long-held dream was fulfilled, and I know how lucky I am to have had that happen, muchachos.
Next time: Old Betsy Rides Again...
And that was it for me and ALCONs, muchachos. While we enjoyed ourselves in Nashville, there's never been one close enough to us again for us to contemplate attending. It was a good enough time, but not good enough to be a major, costly vacation.
Oh, I was asked to be a speaker at a fairly recent one in Washington DC. 'Twas quite the no-go. It wasn't just they wanted me to speak but would not pay a dime of my travel expenses, it was that the slot I was offered was, again, on fricking Thursday morning. I felt rather disrespected. By this time, 2016, I was not the biggest fish in the astro-game, but I was far from the smallest, either. I told them in a polite way (reasonably) that they could stick their "offer" where the Sun don't shine, and that rung down the curtain for me and Astronomical League Conventions, I believe. So be it.
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