Club members’ knowledge is out of this world.
Photos: Nicole Hamel
Interest in space exploration is lifting off, and that has space enthusiasts floating on cloud nine.
As well it should, says Mark Graybill, an aerospace engineer, amateur (but very experienced) astronomer, program director and member of The Villages Astronomy Club. “It’s definitely begun to heat back up again,” he says. “I’ve not seen activity like this since the ’60s.”
What’s equally exciting for Mark is just how many people are interested in the solar system, and various topics surrounding the space program and new technologies. That, he says, is where The Villages Astronomy Club comes in.
The 27-year-old club organizes events like “Starry, Starry Night,” in which members set up telescopes, answer questions, and give people an opportunity to glimpse the heavens.
“I love sharing with people because there really is a hunger to know more,” Mark says. “And as just an ordinary person who’s not in astronomical circles, it’s hard to get information and it’s hard to really have a chance to ask questions of someone who’s an astronomer or who works in the field.”
“It’s wonderful to have so much interest from people. I’ve experienced that my whole life since I’ve done this. It’s the main reason astronomy is one of my hobbies,” Mark continues, explaining that his hobby has spanned decades.
“I’ve been interested in astronomy since I got a book on astronomy when I was four. I fell in love with it, lived with it, and then, the following Christmas I got a telescope, and It was the space race, so whenever I’d set my telescope up in the front lawn, people would literally stop their cars and ask me to show them where the astronauts were going to land,” Mark recalls. “I was just a little kid, but I thought, ‘Well, OK, if they’re asking me, I guess I need to know this.’”
Fast forward to 2021, and Mark says there is similar interest in things Elon Musk and NASA are doing, and what’s still to come.
“We are going to see a lot of great new applications here on earth and a lot more exploration. NASA will be able to spend much less money launching things and that means that they’ll be able to hopefully get more space probes out there. I’m looking forward to getting probes back up to Titan and we’ve also been talking about going to Uranus and Neptune,” Mark says.
Burt Salk, who has been a member of the club for 15 years, says he, too, is excited about the future of space exploration and sharing information with the community, especially children.
That’s why he led the club in developing a portable exhibit called a solar walk that can be experienced during the day.
Burt says the solar walk gives people a tangible idea of the vastness of the universe.
“For example, it took nine months for us to go to Mars. It took 10 years for the probe that went to Pluto to get out from earth and get there,” Burt says. “It’s hard to explain that to people, but the solar walk puts it in more understandable terms.”
The Astronomy Club focuses on countless topics.
“Besides stargazing, we have telescope workshops where we exchange information on how to pick a telescope, and how to use a telescope, what some good accessories are and things like that.,” Mark says. “We also have presentations on the direction space exploration is going, like the new rockets Elon Musk is developing out there in Texas, about the possible colonization of the moon and Mars and basically anything that’s of any interest, like the different types of stars and how they’re formed. We’ve had recent presentations on pulsars and the life cycle of a star.”
Burt says one of his favorite topics is the possibility – or for him, the certainty – of life in other galaxies.
“You just need to understand the dynamics that when you look through the telescope, are you going to have that kind of ego to say that you are totally unique?” Burt asks.
Whatever one’s interest, Burt says there’s so much to consider.
“The dynamic of what our club is doing embraces all of the sciences. It is not just looking at the stars or looking through a telescope. It’s much more than that.”
Pre-pandemic, members were meeting monthly at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month from September through June at the Laurel Manor Recreation Center.
Until face-to-face meetings resume, the club is utilizing Zoom, and anyone can log in to participate in discussions. The Villages Astronomy Club Facebook group is also open to the public.
For more information, visit vlgastroclub.org.