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To Apollo and Beyond

by Perry Pezzolanella

July 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society and this August marks 30 years of membership for me. It all began Wednesday, August 9, 1989, 7:30 P.M. I went to my very first meeting with my new friend, John Ossowski, which was only the second one for the newly formed club. That meeting was held at the solar classroom at Hamilton College and was all about telescopes. There were telescopes everywhere outside the solar classroom. The sky was perfect for viewing that evening – clear skies and warm.

Life can present opportunities in unusual ways and it was an interesting twist of fate during the Summer of ’89 that started it all. John had come over to my house during my annual garage sale and informed me that a new astronomy club had just been organized! His wife had come over first and saw an old, homemade telescope that I was selling. She went home and told John who came over to meet me for the first time and to take a look at the telescope. I told him I was up at 3 A.M. a few weeks earlier to watch a star being eclipsed by Saturn’s rings. I also told him how I would wake up at 3:30 A.M. in the icy cold to see Halley’s Comet. He knew I had to join the MVAS. John never bought that telescope, and I ended up spending $10 for MVAS dues; it was money well spent!

The past 30 years have been full of memories for me with my favorite event occurring in February 1998 when I escaped the snow and bitter cold to view the #1 astronomical event of all, a total eclipse of the Sun in Aruba. I was also treated to endless views of the Southern Cross and the Southern Milky Way on those balmy, 80-degree Caribbean nights. There was also the time in October 1997 when I actually sat and spoke with John Dobson in Vestal, N.Y. He gave me some sound advice - buy a bigger telescope, which I have done twice: a 4” Orion SkyView Pro refractor in 2003 and a 4½” Stellarvue refractor in 2005. He also gave me his autograph, and was very pleasant to talk to. I coordinated a big project called Venus Watch during June 1991. A group of us in the club tried to determine when Venus was at half phase. I gathered everyone’s observations and calculated the date. This project was so successful that my name and MVAS made it into the January 1992 issues of Astronomy and Sky and Telescope!

I have done about two dozen monthly programs. The very first, titled “Sketching Celestial Objects” during the January 1990 meeting went over so well that it served as a catalyst for my monthly reports and sketches on what I observed. MVAS members flew to the planets vicariously starting in 1996. During April of that year I presented “Venus: Journey to a Seething Inferno”. “Mars, Martians, and the Modern Mind” followed in April 1997. Then it was “Fire and Ice: Mercury and Pluto” in May 1998. Eventually there were main programs about Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and a fully-dedicated monthly program for Saturn’s moon, Titan. As the years flew by I presented these worlds again, all updated with the latest discoveries. Hands down the best was Pluto. This awesome world had back-to-back main programs two years in a row: a pre-encounter program in June 2015 and the exciting post-encounter program in June 2016. The days of the noisy Kodak carousel full of slides was forever gone with the arrival of my home computer in 1997; PowerPoint presentation software is much more versatile.

Nearly 330 articles have graced the newsletter, Telescopic Topics, during the past three decades, allowing me an opportunity to share my knowledge of the universe. Many of these articles are on the MVAS website, and compiled into a book titled Perry’s Universe, which continues to expand like the real universe. Also, published in the newsletter was a special 12-part series on Pluto entitled “Perry’s Pluto Page” during 2015 devoted to its history, current knowledge, and future discoveries. I was also given the chance to help make a video on amateur astronomy back in 1993, which aired on TV on the Public Access Channel, but the most memorable of my public outreach for the club came in 2003. I was invited to a taping of “A Mohawk Valley Moment” at WIBX. The 12-minute recording aired on the radio several times starting on August 30 that year to talk about space exploration and to promote our club’s public star party featuring the closest approach of Mars to Earth in 60,000 years that weekend at Lee Town Park. It was by far the largest turnout ever at a star party with over 500 people attending and staying as late at 1 A.M.!

Many awards have come my way and many friends have moved on. Some of my friends have taken me to velvety dark skies and given me endless ideas and advice, or aided me in finding that elusive Messier or NGC object. Banquets, Star-B-Ques (and a few Rain-B-Ques), and Astronomy Days at Jay-K, Sangertown Square, and the Utica Zoo each have a single, unique memory that sets each year apart. Each star party has a memory whether it is an asteroid, Pluto, Comet Hyakutake, Comet Hale-Bopp, aurorae, brilliant meteors, heat lightning, comet impact on Jupiter, Saturn’s Great White Spot, a frozen observatory door, or a nearby barn fire. More recently have been annual trips to the Viz Lab at Colgate University with thanks to Tom Balonek, Joe Eakin and their team for awesome presentations in their state of the art planetarium where during one of our visits we felt as if we rode a roller coaster in the skies of Titan!

I was the MVAS “Y2K President” in 2000 after being director from 1996-98 and vice president in 1999. It was during 1999 that another chapter was written with the construction of the Apollo Observatory under dark country skies in Clinton. This was such a fun time as I saw so many asteroids that a few club members thought I was insane. After seeing about 400 of my 501 asteroids there, who would not? Even more fun were the star parties and personal observing sessions with friends such as trying to find Pluto with Kevin Kopek until 2 A.M. on a work night, unexpected fog rolling up the hill out of nowhere ending observing, and a thundershower popping up suddenly on a clear evening chasing me out before it poured. The best personal memory was getting my car stuck in the snow at Apollo one January evening and Ron Bornick pulling me out with his trusty tractor! I really needed to observe asteroids after a big snowstorm! Observing Mars on several evenings with everyone in 2003 when it was closest to Earth in nearly 60,000 years was fun. We proved it was not as big as the Moon! September 7, 2002 has the best and funniest memory at Apollo when a beautiful, bright, pulsating aurora erupted during our members’ star party. We all cheered it to keep going, except for one person. Apparently, aurora can ruin astrophotography of deep sky objects and Kevin Wigell wanted it to go away! He lost as it continued to grow and brighten to our delight!

While Apollo would eventually close when the property was sold in 2017, another new chapter had already started in late 2011 when ground was broken at the Waterville Public Library for the new Barton-Brown Observatory; it officially opened in November 2012 with the formal dedication in June 2013. At long last MVAS has an observatory that will hopefully outlast all of its current members. This has also been the new location for the summer Star-B-Ques and many more memories to cherish. Liquid nitrogen ice cream anyone? Plus, it is a great place for giving main presentations with professional equipment to inspire our youth, our future astronomers.

Who knows what memories lay ahead for me in the decades ahead? A road trip to see the total eclipse of the Sun on April 8, 2024 is a good bet, and with retirement on the horizon by then, I will eventually have more free nights for observing and hopefully feel more awake and alert to enjoy them. Now if only we could have more clear nights in my retirement!