I have the very good fortune to be among 16 or so astronomy volunteers nation-wide volunteering to the National Park Service. Our charter is to go to National Parks and Monuments on an individual basis to work with the staff at each park to:
- Help establish a permanent astronomy program
- Provide slide show type programs to the park visitors in an effort to develop interest in astronomy and to present the growing problem of night sky light pollution
- Guide park visitors through the night skies with telescopes and binoculars
The National Park Service's Night Sky Program is based in Ft. Collins, Colorado. The staff at the program office coordinates our visits with each National Park or Monument. Our assignments range from 2 weeks to 4 or more weeks in duration at each park.
Over the past 3 years I have had the opportunity to volunteer at several parks and monuments and have had literally hundreds upon hundreds of people listen to my programs and look through my telescopes.
During the daylight hours I provide a 1 hour outdoor program for children where we lay out a scale model of the solar system, talk about distances, sizes and time. When not giving a formal program, I set up my solar telescope in a conspicuous area and let visitors look at the sun. On several occasions I have had park visitors come to my program, look through my telescopes and then show up the next night with newly purchased binoculars and a star chart.
I know I am making a positive impression when people look through my telescope at whatever I am showing and say "that's incredible" or "awesome!" I like to start my telescope viewing by letting the park visitors look at Jupiter or Saturn and then I change to a double star followed by a globular cluster. If time permits, I also offer views of open clusters or the Cat's Eye Nebula. Through the binoculars I point people to the Andromeda Galaxy, the Pleiades or the moon. While visitors wait in line to look through the telescope I use my green laser pointer, "draw" Ursa Major and tell stories from Greek mythology, Native American culture and Chinese folklore all related to that constellation.
There are major rewards for my participation in this volunteer program. I meet people from throughout the world while making a positive difference in their vacations. Additionally, I get to spend several weeks exploring a national park by day and pursuing astronomy at some of the darkest places in the United States.
The night skies are dark at our National Parks and Monuments (Craters of the Moon NM)
All of us in the Night Skies program donate a lot of time, our astronomy equipment and several hundred dollars in travel costs. It is expensive to be a volunteer in this program, but, none of the 16 of us volunteers would give it up!