Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

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The Wonder Years

by Perry Pezzolanella

The big questions that I am often asked are how I became interested in astronomy and what my earliest experience was. Fortunately, both are easy questions with memorable answers. My early days of astronomy coincided with the early days of the Space Age. It was impossible to miss the Apollo Moon landings which were of such great pride that they wheeled a TV into our classroom interrupting our lessons to watch astronauts walk on the Moon! The main core of my interest in space exploration is the planets, and astronomy in general. The foundation was laid as spacecraft started exploring the Moon, Venus, and Mars. I wondered what it would be like to really be on the surfaces of those nearby worlds as well as the rest of the planets. The 1960’s was a wild decade, but for someone like me who was younger than 10 years old, it was exciting growing up knowing we could walk on the Moon and maybe even Mars by 1985.

The earliest memory of stargazing for me is a little fuzzy and fragmented, but still well-remembered when one night the Full Moon suddenly disappeared! To a 7-year-old trying to comprehend the world around him a total lunar eclipse was fascinating. The bright Full Moon during a mild spring evening on April 12, 1968, was high up and the weather cooperated enough that I can state from my distant memory that it was clear. I remembered going out the front door and into the driveway checking the Moon on several occasions as the eclipse progressed. The Moon appeared to shrink every time I looked and then it was gone! Looking carefully, I could see it was still there as the Man in the Moon glowed eerily back at me in a bloody reddish light. It was nearing midnight and I can vaguely remember seeing the Moon re-emerging and brightening, but I do not know if I saw the Full Moon fully return later that night. This is the earliest of my astronomical observations and it has not faded much over time as I always refer to it as “The Night the Moon Disappeared”.

Solar eclipses are dangerous to look at except during totality and at age nine I was already intelligent enough to heed the warning for the dramatic total solar eclipse that swept up the U. S. East Coast and into Nova Scotia on March 7, 1970. I remember the daylight growing quite dim at the same time I was watching the eclipse live on TV since it was only a partial eclipse in Utica. The partly cloudy day here was just enough to view the Sun, but I only looked at reflections of the very thin crescent off the car and windows, but I did not stare even at those. It was fascinating to realize that the Sun was only a thin crescent. I would not have to wait long to see another good solar eclipse, so I learned how to see it safely.

My parents bought me a 60mm Tasco refracting telescope from Montgomery Ward for Christmas, probably 1969 or 1970 as I had it in time to see Mars at its closest approach to Earth since 1956. I was 11 during August 1971 and it shone like a beacon above the huge movie screen at the drive-in theater. We may have been watching Planet of the Apes or something like that, but I was transfixed on how bright Mars was. I was always fascinated that it could harbor life, even if it was only lichen and moss. I turned my gleaming white telescope towards Mars for the first time one evening, focused on it, and saw …nothing. Mars appeared nothing more than a tiny fuzzy peach. There were no polar ice caps, no dusky patches, no canals, nothing. As much as I tried over the course of many evenings, I saw nothing and gave up. Little did I know that Mars was suffering from a massive global dust storm. Mariner 9 arrived in orbit around Mars in November 1971 and saw nothing but the top of the giant volcano, Olympus Mons. So, I actually observed the greatest Martian dust storm of all time, which still stands to this day, and never knew about it at the time.

The best partial solar eclipse in the early years occurred on July 10, 1972, as totality crossed Canada over Hudson Bay and into the Maritimes. The late afternoon clouds thinned out enough to create a softened, frosty Sun that turned into a beautiful classic crescent. Using cardboard with holes in it I had fun projecting images of the crescent Sun everywhere. It was a good thing the weather cooperated as I would not see another crescent Sun until May 30, 1984.

Another big event remains memorable for being something that never was, but I vividly remember the frigid evenings during January 1974 searching for something that didn’t materialize. Comet Kohoutek was supposed to be one of the greatest comets of all time, the Comet of the Century. I had never seen a comet before, so I was filled with anticipation. The promises made in 1973 fizzled as soon as 1974 began as Comet Kohoutek never became active enough to be seen with the unaided eyes. The mention of this comet has always elicited failed expectations, and at least for me, it has been the poster child for any celestial event that fails to live up to expectation.

Failure is not an option when you are young and observing the heavens. As I neared my 15th birthday, I had advanced enough in life intellectually to prepare for and to experience the best total lunar eclipse for years to come during the night of May 24-25, 1975. It was only my second one since April 1968 and I was old enough to stay up all night to observe the entire event. The weather overachieved as it was a very warm night in the middle of a rare May heatwave that reached 93º for several days. There was no air conditioning so sitting outside at night and watching the eclipse unfold was the best way imaginable to beat the hot house. The clear, calm, muggy night made the perfect conditions for sketching this lunar eclipse, which were the very first sketches I had done. The sketches were detailed enough to see the shadow progress across the Moon and to reveal a reddened Moon looking like a donut at mid-totality. It was a little over seven years since that night the Moon disappeared, and I had come a long way in gaining a full understanding of what I was witnessing and how it was all related to my place in the Solar System. I had to wait a little over seven more years to see another total lunar eclipse on July 6, 1982.

March 1976 was a cold and stormy month, so I was unaware of a comet that turned out to be spectacular. The coming of Comet West was never hyped up after the Comet Kohutek flop, so I never saw it. It graced the morning twilight with a huge, bright wide, fan-shaped tail. Comets seemed to elude me, but the 1980s would change that in a generous way beginning with Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock in May 1983.

Observing took a big turn when we moved out of our small duplex on Oriskany Street West during July 1976 and into our very own home on Thorn Street not far from Utica College. I traded the tiny yard in a cramped neighborhood with light polluted skies and a dusty boulevard for a huge, sprawling yard on a small side street with skies dark enough that I could make out the Milky Way! I had yet to observe any of the planets and Mars needed a redo after the 1971 flop, plus I still needed to see what a comet really looked like. There was much to do and a lifetime ahead. I wasted no time after the big move to really begin exploring the heavens. Those early years were the wonder years of my stargazing and 1968 was the year that began a lifelong journey exploring the Solar System and stars!