by Mallory Moad
For thousands of years, the human race has been captivated by outer space. And ever since Galileo got a close-up look at the moon, stars, and planets through his telescope in the early seventeenth century, it seems we just can’t get enough of those celestial bodies. They’ve been celebrated in paintings, songs, and films. In 1889, Vincent Van Gogh presented his interpretation of the galaxies with his now famous painting, “Starry Night.” In 1909, pioneering filmmaker George Melies took the audience on “A Trip To The Moon.” By 1964, Frank Sinatra was singing about how he wanted you to “Fly Me To The Moon” with a shout out to Jupiter and Mars. Fifteen years later, the B52’s were referencing not only the moon but five planets and the Van Allen belts with their inimitable musical style in “There’s A Moon in The Sky (Called The Moon).” You can’t beat that kind of popularity.
That’s all fun and fanciful, but for Central Valley Astronomers of Fresno, space is something to be taken seriously.Established in 1952, Central Valley Astronomers, or CVA for short, is a group of astronomy enthusiasts with a common goal of sharing their interests and knowledge with each other and the public. According to club historian, Larry Parmeter, it began with a dozen amateur astronomers who shared a passion for stargazing and its associated equipment (activities included learning how to grind your own telescope mirrors) but wanted a more formal organization in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley. Over the years it has evolved into a fully-fledged non-profit organization with an emphasis on education, social events, and public outreach. Monthly meetings focus on specific topics and feature presentations by CVA members or professionals in the field. During the spring, summer, and early fall, weather permitting, star parties take place at Fresno’s River Park shopping center. On the last Friday of the month, telescopes are available for the public to view planets, stars, and everybody’s favorite, the moon (up close and personal), and club members are more than happy to answer questions. Larry Parmeter says, “Children are especially invited. I let children look through the telescope as long as they want. If that stimulates their sense of imagination and wonder, then let them be.” CVA member, Steve Harness enjoys the diversity of the crowds and appreciates the opportunity to share his expertise. Star parties also take place at Eastman Lake and are open to everyone as well. Free of buildings, light pollution, and other disruptions common in urban settings, it is a perfect location for galactic viewing while remaining within driving distance of the Fresno/Clovis area.
Membership has grown and now stands at fifty men and women ranging in age from late thirties to early eighties. Each and every one of them is fascinated by the mystery and allure of space and has a story about what sparked that interest.“Remind me to bring a simpler scope next time.” Garrett Weimer, one of the founders of CVA, was wrestling with an unwieldy telescope at a recent star party. According to his wife, June, who frequently accompanies him on CVA events, “He only has fifty million of them.” As Garrett continued to wage war with uncooperative gear, she went on to relate how his interest in astronomy was the result of a twelfth-grade physics class. He grew up but never lost the attraction to sky-watching, spending fifty-two years teaching astronomy at Fresno City College. But when conducting classes online became a requirement, Garrett discovered his animated, dynamic style wasn’t compatible with a computer screen. He has since left the classroom but that has allowed him more time to devote to CVA.
Ryan Ledak is a music teacher by day, astronomer by night. Interested in astronomy since he was a kid, Ryan says it’s “knowing there are other worlds besides ours” that got him hooked and keeps him intrigued. He joined CVA four years ago after an extensive internet search. Enthusiastic with a playful sense of humor, he clarified that contrary to popular mythology, the moon is not made of cheese. “It’s actually barbecued spareribs.”“When I was a kid, my parents gave me a telescope.” When Warren Maguire looked at the moon that night, a lifelong relationship with the skies began. Warren now serves on the board of directors for CVA and owns a variety of telescopes that are way more complicated and expensive than his first. But that one has a special value – it was a gift in more ways than one.
Alan Englund has been a member of CVA off and on since 1985. He caught the astronomy bug when he bought a telescope at a yard sale. What was the first thing he saw? “Saturn!” He progressed to bigger telescopes, one of which made the trip from the Bay Area to Fresno in the back of his Firebird. It was a tight fit and required some trick driving but desperate times call for desperate measures. Alan has discovered a curious side effect to his involvement in astronomy: he is no longer afraid of the dark.
“It’s the science, the beauty, and the gadgets.” That’s how Fred Lusk describes the three elements of amateur astronomy. A member of CVA since 2000, he’s following in the footsteps of his father, an engineer and teacher of astronomy who was also active in CVA. Fred recounts how he purchased a Jeep, not because he’s fond of that make of car, but because his telescope fit perfectly.A member of CVA for two years, Dave Morrow’s interest in the cosmos goes beyond viewing. With an elaborate setup that is a telescope/camera hybrid, his passion is astrophotography/photographing deep space. Using GPS, star charts, and plate technology with a technique that is old-meets-new, Dave is able to produce photos of star clusters and galaxies that can’t be seen, even with a regular telescope. “To be able to see this blows me away!” he exclaimed as images appeared on the screen of his laptop. He described the process as “not easy and not cheap,” but it’s definitely exciting and impressive.
Membership in Central Valley Astronomers is open to everyone, regardless of age or experience. Yearly fees are reasonable and affordable, just $15 for students, $30 for an individual membership, and $35 for families. You don’t need to own a telescope or even a pair of binoculars to join, just curiosity and interest.
Although sharing a common love for the universe is the reason most members of Central Valley Astronomers initially joined, there’s another benefit, one that may be even more essential than field trips and discussions about gear: camaraderie. As Steve Harness says, “They’re a great bunch of people. They speak highly of their families and are supportive of each other.” Lasting friendships have been made, experiences shared, and memories created.
And that is out of this world.
For more information about Central Valley Astronomers, including membership, a calendar of events and the Young Astronomers Program for ages 13–20, visit www.cvafresno.org. You can also follow them on Facebook.
My name is Mallory Moad, and I believe when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s … astronomy!