Sunday, August 23, 2015


AHSP 2015

I knew there would be a 2015 edition of one of my favorite—maybe my absolute favorite in some ways—star party, the Almost Heaven Star Party held at Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia. Yes, I knew there’d be an AHSP 2015; I was to be one of their speakers, and I had my airline tickets. But part of me just didn’t see how there could be one.

The reason was that a guiding light, perhaps the guiding light behind the star party, Phil Wheery, was taken from us some months ago. If you didn’t know Phil, I’m sorry you missed him. In addition to being an outstanding amateur astronomer and a great organizer, he was just a great guy. Over the course of my life, I’ve met few people as kind and generous as Phil. Without him, I wondered if AHSP could ever be the same.

Well, I was going to find out. Early on Friday morning—seriously early—I set out for Mobile Regional Airport to catch the 6 a.m. redeye for DC. In order for me to get to the airport in time to catch a ride with the AHSP person who was going to take me up the mountain, I had to do the early one. Oh, I probably could have made it to Dulles in time to catch my ride in easier fashion by driving to Pensacola for the non-stop to Washington, but that came at a price:  the Bayway.

In order to get to Florida, you have to cross Mobile Bay, and you do that via a stretch of I-10 that runs over a long two-lane (each way) bridge across the Bay. There’s a  tunnel, too. In the summer, and particularly on Fridays and Sundays, traffic can be backed up for miles and miles with tourists going to and coming from the Alabama and Florida beaches. Not fun. Even if the traffic were clear on the return leg, I’d have to drive at least 45-minutes to get home from Pensacola, and when you are tired out from star partying that isn’t much to look forward to.

So, the 6 a.m. flight out of Mobile it was. Outbound wasn’t that bad. I don’t expect U.S. Airways, America’s version of the notorious Soviet airline, Aeroflot, to be anything but terrible. Their gate personnel are among the most confused and unfriendly I have ever encountered. I know that, so I was not disappointed. I’ll admit I am still scratching my head, however, at the fact that a well-before-noon flight wouldn’t have freaking coffee available onboard. Oh, well; it is what it is.

Deck outside the Main Yurt...
I expected the first leg of my journey, Mobile to Charlotte, to run late. It always does with U.S. Air. I was a bit worried about my connection, and I was correct to be, as I arrived at the gate for the Charlotte – Dulles flight just before the doors were supposed to close. For once I was lucky. I went up to the podium and inquired as to whether boarding was over, and learned it hadn’t even begun. This one was running late too. I learned that, by the way, not from the Gate Agent, who just stared at me and said nothing, but from a fellow traveler.

Anyhow, in about another hour and a half I was landing in Washington, retrieving my suitcase, and meeting up with ace observer and AHSP staffer Donna Blosser. Donna is not just a very nice woman; she is a committed and talented deep sky observer, so naturally we had a lot to talk about on the way up. The journey seemed a lot shorter than the three and a half hours or so it consumed, and almost before I knew it, we were turning off for the drive up to the Mountain Institute (TMI) Spruce Knob site. We stopped at the Registration Tent where I got my packet and my T-shirt, and was directed to meet up with AHSP’s Kathryn Scott, who would get me settled in my room.

The last several years, I’ve been in the dorms, but this time I was back in a small yurt. Yep, you heard right, “yurt.” The trope used for all the TMI facilities was buildings in roughly the shape of Mongolian yurts. They are not tents, but they do look like something you’d find on the steppes of Asia. My yurt, the same one I’d stayed in the year a tremendous thunderstorm threatened to sweep the observing fields clean of scopes and tents, had been repaired and rehabilitated and was comfortable enough.

Next step once I was unpacked to the extent I was going to unpack, was to walk down to the Main Yurt to see what was going on. One thing that was going on was that NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, AHSP’s parent, more or less, organization, had set the facility up with Internet access. I was warned it was kinda slow, but I found it to be quite good. When you don’t have a telescope onsite to tinker with in the daytime, the hours before dark can be long ones, so I was happy to be able to surf the ‘Net.

Another nice surprise was seeing my old friend and former Editor at Sky & Telescope, Bob Naeye. Like me, Bob has been speaking at AHSP since forever, almost since the event began, and he wasn’t going to let a little thing like his retirement from the magazine stop him from continuing to do so. Retirement had obviously agreed with Bob who, like me, retired early and good on him.

My usual travelling companion...
Supper was next. And you know what? This year, more than any year before, I was happy with the food. Maybe because I have turned the page on my diet (amongst other things) and was down with the vegetarian and other health-conscious food choices the TMI people always offer at least as alternatives. Some of the (good) sweet and sour chicken and a salad and I was a happy camper. Literally.

After the meal, it was time for the first major talk of the event, which was Bob holding forth on the Hubble Space Telescope’s achievements over its now surprisingly long lifetime. It’s a story I know well, and because of that and because of my weariness from the trip, I was afraid I was going to nod off during Mr. Naeye’s presentation, but, you know what? That darned Bob did such a good job that he kept me awake. Kudos.

After Bob wrapped up, I strolled onto the deck of the Main Yurt to have a look at the monitor out there, which was displaying satellite imagery and the Clear Sky Clock (err… “Charts”). It didn’t look absolutely horrible, but it didn’t look good either. Lots of light blue squares in the transparency row for Friday evening. So what? I, like everybody else, headed for the spacious observing fields anyway.

There, I spent a little time with AHSP honcho and NOVAC Vice President Chris Lee and his charming wife, Erin. As we chatted, that TMI magic began to happen. The clouds started to disperse with the setting of the Sun and we were soon looking at a burning Milky Way. There may be slightly darker spots east of the Mississippi than TMI, but I haven’t visited them. If deep sky observing and imaging is your goal, I don’t think you can do better than AHSP unless you travel to a western desert.

Not that I did much observing. Oh, I looked through a scope or two, but mostly any views I had were through the extremely modest instrument I’d brought along, a 6x30 Celestron monocular (which did a surprisingly good job on the summer Milky Way and M22) while I was firmly ensconced in a lawn chair setup outside the RV of NOVAC President Terry Cabell and his wife, the incomparable Pat. What I mostly did was sit and talk and drink the wine Pat had laid out (the Northstar Merlot was a big surprise and a treat).

One of the best things about AHSP is the kindness and friendliness of the people I encounter there. If I mentioned everybody who was nice to me this year, I wouldn’t have space for anything else. However, I do want to give a shout-out to just a few of the many people who went out of their way to see I was happy and taken care of. In addition to Terry and Pat and Chris and Erin, there was star party dynamo Elizabeth Erickson, whose good humor and enthusiasm never fail to cheer me up. There was the aforementioned Kathryn Scott who made sure my trips up and back down the mountain were as easy as possible. Finally, Donna Blosser had, I'm sure, rearranged her schedule just to fetch me from the airport. I could keep going, but you get the picture.

The only person missing was Phil. Or was he? If he wasn’t quite there with us on the field, it was as if he were at least looking down on us from the Great Beyond. This year’s star party set a record with three beautiful nights. Coincidence? I think not. I believe ol’ Phil was watching out for us from his spot Out There, which no doubt has far darker and even more star-spangled heavens.

In my hoodie, wearing a ballcap, I was comfortable out on the field for quite a while, but inevitably, the cold—it was in the 50s in August if you can believe that—began to seep into me and it was time to say goodnight and hike back to my yurt. Which I did, falling into a sleep that didn’t end till after 8 a.m. the next morning.

Yep, the days can be long at a star party when you don’t have any astro-gear or much else to mess with. Luckily, there were more good presentations in the afternoon, including Elizabeth Warner’s fantastic talk/demo on capturing asteroid occultations with video cameras. So inspiring was her talk that it made me want to get involved in occultation chasing.

Naturally, I also had my own talk to prepare for, so while the afternoon dragged a little bit, it wasn’t too bad and was punctuated by more good food including excellent burgers (sans buns for me, natch) for supper.

A little scary, if pretty...
You can bet I had a look at the heavily laden tables of the event’s sole vendor, Hands-on Optics. There was plenty of good stuff there, but nothing I just had to have, so I kept my credit card in my wallet. Oh, I could have bought something, but my current mindset is against buying more astro-junk. Much better would be actually using what I already have, which is way too much anyway.

Then it was time to go on. My talk this year was “Observing the Old Fashioned Way,” which concerned my at least temporary desertion of computers and cameras and electronics for time honored visual looking with my simple Dobsonian, Zelda. I wanted this talk to be fun. As I told Terry on the field the previous evening when our discussion turned to star parties and conventions and amateur astronomy in general, the most important thing we can do for ourselves and our fellow amateurs and new recruits is to show and tell how much fun amateur astronomy is in addition to all its other good points.

I think I accomplished that. I had plenty of slides and I believe I conveyed some good information for both newbies and those who’ve been away from eyepieces for a while, but I also believe I did it in a manner that was light, even for me. I flipped through my slides at a good pace, and was done in what was a hurry for me, just under an hour with questions.

Then it was time to worry. At sundown, the sky was looking awfully putrid. Almost scary at times. Clouds were just boiling out of the west-northwest. I suspected the scent of skunk was in the air. So much so that I told Chris I thought I should move my SCT collimation workshop from the field to the Yurt.

Surprise. Almost unbelievably, the clouds began to drift away just as it got dark. Oh, there were lightning flashes to the north and to the south, but they were always way north and way south and never got close. Saturday was another charmed night, and was at least as good as Friday had been.

Me? At 9 p.m. I trotted back down to the Main Yurt. I could have done my workshop on the field, but I didn’t want to confuse things by changing the location again. In the end, I believe that was a good decision. Being able to explain the supposedly black art of SCT collimation in a lighted room with slides and diagrams showing how to adjust a scope was probably more beneficial for most of my audience than trying to show them how to do it on a dark field would have been. Next time, I do hope to do a hands on, but I was satisfied with the workshop, anyway.

Doing my thing (photo courtesy E. Erickson)...
Then it was back to the field for good times with old friends and good times with new friends. I never really got chilled Saturday night. It was damp enough, but maybe not quite as damp as Friday had been. The cold didn’t seem to seep into my bones as quickly as it does on a more humid night. I was also much more rested. I hung in till about twelve before saying night-night.

Since my flight would not be till early evening Sunday, for once I didn’t have to rush around in the morning. A leisurely start to the day with a welcome breakfast, a little email reading, and visiting with my fellow AHSPers made for a more relaxed departure day. I talked to Erin Lee, who'd kindly volunteered to deliver me back a Dulles, and we decided it might be good idea to hit the road at 11:45 a.m., since the air transport system had had big (computer) problems Saturday, and we feared it would be badly snarled Sunday, too.

It was a pleasant drive back to DC with Erin and her son, Patrick, an outstanding young amateur astronomer, and I was in a good mood. Till we got to Dulles, that is. The traffic jam out front looked like what you’d normally see just after/before a big holiday. Good thing we were several hours early. I said my goodbyes and began the process of trying to get through security. I finally made it through the crazy long lines, and plunked myself down at the gate. I had a couple of books, and Dulles has good options for dinner, so all-in-all the wait was not onerous.

The pain didn’t come till Charlotte. The time for the departure of the Mobile flight, 9:40 pm, came and went. I asked about it at the podium, and after the particularly unfriendly and clueless U.S. Airways drone stared at me for a while, marveling at my NERVE at asking, I was told we’d board “in a few minutes.”

Hah. It was to be over an hour before they let us on the aircraft. Why? They finally fessed up. One of the crew, a particularly irritating cabin attendant, had lost her luggage and they were hunting all over the airport for it. I wondered how long they’d have held the flight if I’d lost my bag. In the end, I put it down not so much to arrogance on the part of the U.S. Airways folks as to the fact that most of them, and especially the gate personnel, almost to a man and woman, just don’t seem to know what they are doing.

I made it home just after one a.m., and thanked my lucky stars I don't have to drive all the way downtown anymore. That wasn’t all I thanked my lucky stars for. Those lucky stars had shone over one of the best Almost Heavens I have attended. It shouldn’t have been that way, realistically, but NOVAC stepped up to the plate and hit a homerun. I’ve also got to say, “Thank you for looking out for us this year, Phil.” Other than that? “See everybody up on the mountain next year!” 

No Perseids? That was the only salvation at the Saskatchewan Star Party for me. Heavy smoke from forest fires in Oregon and Washington state killed the contrast and a strong low pressure system took care of the rest. At least the Wednesday night was crystal clear and many spectacular meteors were to be had......Dwight
There were a couple of tremendous fireballs and quite a few other Perseids...if you stayed up late.

I was too tired and/or cold to stay up late enough to see anything I couldn't dismiss as "sporadic." LOL
Only took a small scope myself and then barely used it. Opted to just lie down with my head poking out of the tent and staring up at the stars on Saturday night!
US Airways... In the mid-90's I was coming back to Birmingham from New York through Charlotte. I changed planes in Charlotte and was waiting at the gate for the flight to Birmingham to arrive. It finally landed and promptly stalled on the runway. They let it sit there for about 30 minutes and then towed it to the gate to let the panicking people off that were arriving. The mechanics came out while we sat watching and after a while they got it started. Fortunately, they decided to take that one to the hanger and got us another plane.

What a beautiful tribute to Phil.

It was SO nice to see you again this year! -- E. Erickson
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