There's nothing quite like the feeling of sharing the view through a telescope with someone who has never used one before. Once you've seen a telescopic view of amazing sights like the rings of Saturn, the craters of the Moon, or even a distant nebula through a telescope, the sky becomes much more than a sprinkling of stars; it take on new life as a treasure trove of sights to discover and explore. Most backyard astronomers have a favorite story or two about showing a friend or neighbor one of the many wonders the night sky has to offer for the first time. Through their many community outreach efforts and activities, the generous folks of the St. Louis Astronomical Society have taken this a few steps further to truly bring the joys of exploring the night sky to the local public. We recently caught up with the SLAS and spoke with member and St. Louis Library Telescope Program coordinator Don Ficken for an update:
When we last spoke with SLAS president Jim Small in 2014, members of the SLAS and local libraries had helped make 18 Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Telescopes available to the local community. How many telescopes are currently available through the St. Louis Library Telescope Project?
We now have 88 telescopes available in St. Louis area libraries. Our next expansion is scheduled for July 2016. We already have several orders in hand.
What features of the Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector helped the SLAS decide to use it in the library telescope program?
We like the telescope because it is powerful, easy to use and durable. The public is astonished with what they can see through the telescope with just a little guidance from us. We teach the patrons how to use the telescope during our "star parties" and they are amazed how quickly they can learn to operate it. Amazingly, we have experienced no major issues with the telescope which has helped both the libraries and our society members feel better about expanding the program.
Have you noticed an increase in star party attendance and/or society membership since the St. Louis Library Telescope Program began?
We have more than doubled our star parties as a result of our library telescope program. Hosting the events at the libraries places us directly into our local communities which helps to build our community relations. Importantly, we take advantage of the library's marketing efforts to promote the program which helps boost attendance. Particularly members that are new to our society love the program because the telescope is easy to use and makes them feel confident working with the public.
Have any new members or visitors mentioned the library program as a reason for their interest in the SLAS?
Our society's membership increased by 16% last year. This is a refreshing change after years of flat membership counts. We believe the library telescope program has been an important factor in both attracting new members but retaining our existing members.
When the SLAS hosts a star party event, what are some of the most popular targets people enjoy observing?
We host all of our library star parties directly at the libraries as we get greater participation sometimes with people who were unaware of the program but just happened to be dropping by the library for other reasons. Due to the often bright parking lights, we tend to focus on brighter objects such as the Moon and, of course, the major planets. But we are often able to get good views of double stars, such as Albireo in Cygnus the Swan, and Messier 13 located in the constellation of Orion. Often a simple tour of constellations in the night sky can be fun.
Are there any interesting stories you'd like to share about introducing someone in the community to stargazing? In other words, are there any particularly memorable reactions from "first-timer" star party attendees you'd like to share?
One of my favorite stories is when I found myself swamped at a star party with visitors wanting to look through my telescope. It happened that I had just provided a young couple with an extensive tour of the night sky because, at that point, I was not busy. Neither had ever used a telescope. Being in bind, I asked the young couple if they would mind to give the public a tour of the night sky using my telescope and providing the same explanations. This would allow me to provide an impromptu tour of the night sky to the long line waiting to use the telescope. They agreed and did a terrific job. I have used this technique many times since that experience which proves operating telescopes and learning basics about the night sky is not that difficult.
What makes public outreach activities such as hosting star parties and preparing telescopes for the library program worthwhile to you and your fellow SLAS members?
The public is very appreciative when we volunteer our time, equipment and knowledge to give them a tour of the night sky. We get a lot of "wows" when someone looks through an eyepiece for the first time. The public is almost in disbelief that they are really looking at something that far away. I see smiles on the faces of both the public and our members at every star party. I think these smiles say it all.
What advice would you give someone who may be interested in helping to start a similar library telescope program in their own community?
Many of our members did not believe that a 4.5" reflector used by the public in the bright lights of town would be attractive to anyone. But they were wrong as most people have never looked at the Moon through a telescope and are delighted to find one that actually works. For clubs or groups wanting to get in the program, it is important to train the library staff so they are comfortable with program, hold regular star parties at the libraries so the public can learn how to use the telescope and have a reliable maintenance program so the telescopes remain in top working order. Don't underestimate the number of volunteers it takes to support the program and do it right.
Are there any other pieces of advice, updates, or other comments about the SLAS and/or your ongoing outreach efforts you'd like to share with the Orion community?
Our latest venture is preparing the St. Louis area for a Total Solar Eclipse that will occur in the U.S. on August 21, 2017. Missouri happens to be one of 12 states in the direct path of totality. Our society is using our local library network to raise public awareness and address safety issues for this event that has not happened in St. Louis since the year 1442.