A Rambling, Spotty History of the Austin Astronomical Society (AAS) ...
Hastily prepared Jan 13-14, 1996, by AAS member Brian D. Cuthbertson
The Austin Astronomical Society was founded in August 1969 (a month after the first manned lunar landing of Apollo 11) by Austin residents and University of Texas students interested in astronomy and the space sciences. The AAS was not the first astronomical society in Austin; it had at least two recent predecessors which were no longer active. These included the Capital City Astronomers in the 1950s, and the Forty Acres Astronomy Club in the early 1960s. The latter group may have been strictly a University of Texas club, since the term "Forty Acres" is the informal name of the main campus of the University of Texas at Austin.
The Natural Science Center Era (1969-1971)
Promoted and organized by its activist first president, James Wertz, the AAS was initially sponsored by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. The Society held its first meetings on the second Tuesday of each month at the old Austin Natural Science Center, at 401 Deep Eddy (adjacent to Deep Eddy pool). The Society's objective was to organize astronomical activities that would appeal to persons of all ages and science backgrounds. The initial size of the Society was about 50 members. This size would not increase quickly, though there was a slow continuous turnover in the membership itself. From the very beginning, monthly meetings and observing sessions were Society staples.
The earliest Society meetings reflected popular interest in the space program fostered by the Apollo lunar flights. They featured NASA films like Mariner IV, and Color Photography in Space, and films of current astronomical interest, such as Optical Testing of the McDonald 107-inch Reflector and What are Quasars?. From the beginning, however, the Society found itself in a very envious position among astronomical societies: Proximity to the University of Texas with its big astronomy department, one of the country's largest, provided a huge reservoir of speakers on current research topics of every type. The ever-changing combination of films, member presentations, and U.T. speakers kept most Society meetings interesting, and got the Society off to a good solid start. The Society newsletter, the Sidereal Times, also helped hold the Society together, and ultimately served as a historical repository of Society activities.
The typical monthly observing session, somewhat inaccurately termed a "star party", was described in a 1969 report by member Bill MacBeth as an activity "at which members meet at a country site for a twilight picnic and evening of observing with their own telescopes, many of which are homemade." The first Society observing sessions were held in the gravel parking lot of the Park Springs Church, a small country church some 4 miles south of Manor, east of Austin. The site provided dark skies at a convenient distance from Austin, but it was strictly an ad hoc substitute for a long-term observing site.
In addition to its regular monthly activities the Society also became involved in other less frequent public outings. The most prominent of these, which continues today, was the Society's participation in Safari, the Austin outdoor natural science fair held each spring at Zilker Park. A report on the Society's first participation in Safari, in spring 1970, was typical of many that have followed since:
"Activities included several telescopes set up for showing sunspots, movies shown in an Army quonset hut and various astronomical publications sold at the booth in the center of our exhibit. The movies were observed by 231 people Sat. and 392 people Sunday. Movies shown were Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Lunar Samples. A total of 21 Star Charts and 3 Observer's Guides were sold."
In addition to Safari, the Society also began promoting astronomy to the public with various activities. For example, the December 1969 newsletter reports that:
"The observing party at Hancock Center was a big success, as far as nonmember participation was concerned. There were long lines waiting to look at the Moon and Saturn through one of the four telescopes brought by members."
These early activities were the beginning of a long tradition of public educational outreach by the Society, which continues today. Subsequent activities have included countless observing sessions for schools, Scout troops, the general public, and talks by Society members to other groups, both in Austin and the surrounding area.
For Society members there were also other activities available. Some early members, led by Hoy J. Walls, were actively interested in telescope making. This led to a series of mirror-making and telescope-building classes in the early 1970s. At the same time, close ties were formed with the University of Texas Astronomy Department due to the large number of University of Texas students in the Society (so many in fact that during a few early summers no meetings were held when those students were gone).
In August 1971 these two developments converged when Dr. Harlan Smith of the U.T. Astronomy Department gave the Society permission to move its observing site to the U.T. Bee Caves Research Center, a few miles southwest of Austin on Bee Caves Road. The site was informally referred to as the "NIKE site" due to its original function as a NIKE missile site protecting Bergstrom Air Force Base during the Cold War years of the early 1960s.
The Society was given custody of one of the large concrete missile pads, as well as a small adjacent former guard house which provided heat and power. In return, the Society agreed to provide telescopes and members to conduct occasional observing sessions for U.T. undergraduate astronomy classes. This was considered a small price to pay for being handed such a choice observing site. The first of many Society observing sessions for U.T. students was held the next spring, in March 1972.
Because the NIKE site provided a protected permanent environment, Society interest immediately arose, especially among the telescope makers, in placing a large, permanent instrument there. Consequently, August 1971 also marked the first meeting of a committee to design and build a telescope to be located permanently at the NIKE site. The design ultimately chosen was a 12.5-inch Newtonian reflector, to sit on a concrete pier under a roll-off shelter on tracks. Design and fabrication of the instrument began quickly, aided both by the knowlegeable telescope builders, and by Society members who were U.T. engineering majors with access to U.T. student machine shops.
The Farm & Home Savings Era (1972-1981)
By 1972 the Society had grown a bit to 60 members, and interest arose in finding an alternate meeting place. The old Natural Science Center facility was small, and meeting conditions were often less than ideal. Consequently, in November of 1972 the Society moved its meetings to the Farm & Home Savings building. This building was on the west side of Lavaca just south of 15th Street in downtown Austin. The new second floor meeting room was bright, open and modern, providing a nice atmosphere for Society meetings.
Meanwhile, work on the new telescope had slowed down somewhat due to design changes and disagreements, delays, and other complications. Despite this, work on both the telescope and the NIKE site continued throughout 1972, leading to an initial test-installation of the new telescope at the NIKE site in March 1973. Following completion of the telesope and shelter, the formal dedication of the telescope took place in January 1974 at the NIKE site, where Dr. Harlan Smith gave an invited talk to the Society. After its dedication, the telescope and NIKE site became a focus of Society activities for over two decades, hosting countless public and private observing sessions. The NIKE telescope has provided hundreds of people with their very first views of the planets and the deep-sky wonders beyond, thereby paying back many times over the effort invested by the Society to build it.
The decade of the 1970s was a busy one for Society members quite apart from work on the telescope and the move to new quarters. In the early 1970s, close ties with the U.T. Astronomy Department led to many joint observing expeditions to observe "grazing occultations" of the Moon by bright stars, under the leadership of Dr. David Dunham of U.T.. The purpose of a graze trip was to precisely time the on-off blinks of a star as it grazed the Moon, passing in and out behind mountains. Such timing information could help refine both the position of the Moon and that of the star. In addition, it occasionally led to the discovery of close stellar companions. The typical graze trip involved setting up a line of as many as a dozen observers with their telescopes in a direction perpendicular to the predicted graze path. Distances between stations were typically several hundred yards. When the event occurred observers at one end of the line might see no occultation at all, while those at the other end might see only a simple occultation (one disappearance and reappearance). With any luck, those in between could time a whole series of occultations, which when assembled later, would provide an exagerated profile of the lunar mountains and valleys through which the star had passed. Usually these events lasted from a few seconds to a few minutes.
Under Dr. Dunham's energetic leadership, dozens of such graze expeditions were undertaken by Society members in the central Texas area during the 1970s. Because the observing lines were typically set up along back country roads, they were occasionally the focus of interest by local residents, including law enforcement officers. One sheriff, for example, wanted to know if the equipment was being set up to time a drag race. This author remembers being approached at his observing station by a suspicious rancher just as a graze was starting, and spending the next ten minutes explaining what a graze was and how interesting it was to observe, while the event itself passed unrecorded. But the rancher did walk away pleased after a good look at the Moon. Progress comes in small steps sometimes.
Not all such trips were limited to central Texas. In December 1972, just after the Society's move to Farm & Home Savings, Dr. Dunham drove a van load of Society members and their equipment to Mexico City. The purpose was to link up with members of the Mexico City Astronomical Society to observe the passage of the Moon through the Pleiades star cluster, early on the morning of New Year's Day, 1973 in the Mexican desert south of Monterrey. The long trip went well, until a bank of clouds moved in just long enough to obscure the actual event! Never deterred, Dr. Dunham would lead yet another Society group to observe an annular solar eclipse south of Acapulco a year later in December 1973.
Plenty of other activities also kept Society members busy during the 1970s. In January 1974, coincidental with the inauguration of the Society's new telescope, the Society hosted public observing sessions of Comet Kohoutek in conjunction with the U.T. Astronomy Department. One of these sessions was under a full moon on the LBJ Library lawn. Later, in April 1974, another long-standing Society tradition began with the first announcement of an after-meeting pizza session at a nearby pizza parlor. Although the site of these convocations has changed periodically, this sacred tradition continues today after most Society meetings. Another Society activity, which did not survive the 1970s, was an annual summer meeting/camping/observing trip to Paleface Park on the northern shores of Lake Travis. On these outings, Society members would gather at the site on Saturday afternoons to talk, swim, picnic, and spend the night observing on the shores of the lake, returning home Sunday morning. Increasing crowds, noise, and lights at the park gradually reduced the appeal of this retreat, which ceased by the end of the decade.
Numerous other highlights also marked the 1970s. In August of 1975, Society member George Haysler almost discovered Nova Cygni 1975 at the NIKE site. His discovery, as it turned out, was beaten only 10 hours earlier by Japanese observers. The year 1976 saw Society cooperation with the Scouts, when both spring and fall observing sessions were hosted for the Girl Scouts at one of their camps near Lake Travis. In March of 1977 the Society participated in the national observance of Astronomy Day with an exhibit in conjunction with the U.T. Astronomy Department on the U.T. campus. Later that year, in September, members trekked up to Waco for an evening's observing with the 16-inch telescope at the observatory of Russell Smith. The next month, October, saw the first episode of another a favorite periodic Society activity: the first County Line BBQ dinner/star party. Members would gather at the County Line restaurant, on the road to the NIKE site, for a Texas-sized BBQ meal, and then continue on to the site for a digestive evening observing session. Though not as frequently observed today, these dinner/star parties were thoroughly satisfying gastro-astronomical experiences for all who attended.
1978 began with one of the most unusual meetings ever held by the Society. The January presentation was by Ray Stanford of Project Starlight International, a central Texas group dedicated to responding to UFO sightings and investigating the general UFO phenomenon. With members about equally split between those fascinated by the subject and utter disbelievers, the meeting dynamics were truly something to be remembered.
September 1979 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Society's existence. The September meeting featured Dr. Frank Bash from the University of Texas, who spoke on star formation. Perhaps appropriately, the September Sidereal Times reported on the first annual Texas Star Party out at McDonald Observatory in west Texas, organized by Society president Deborah Byrd. The report noted that 75 people attended. The Texas Star Party would eventually evolve into one of the premier national star parties, and control would revert to other organizations; but it was the Austin Astronomical Society which initiated it in 1979.
1980, the end of the decade, marked a continuation of Society activities that were by now well-established. Several Society observing sessions were held for U.T. student classes during the spring months. During the summer, more star parties for the Girl Scouts were held at Pace Bend Camp on Lake Travis. And the Society organized and hosted the second Texas Star Party in west Texas on August 15-17.
The Austin Community College Era (1982-1994)
By 1981 Society membership had increased to around 70, and meeting place problems were again brewing. Farm & Home Savings wanted to convert its meeting room for other uses, and so the Society was again obliged to look for an alternate meeting facility. A solution was provided by Dean Becker, a new Society member and a teacher at Austin Community College (ACC). Dean found the Society a meeting room at the old Austin High School, now an ACC campus, just west of downtown Austin. The ACC meeting room would serve the Society well for a dozen years, as it grew from 70 to about 100 members by its 25th anniversary in 1994.
One subtle aspect of this growth was the slow but sure transformation of the Society from one very much dominated by U.T. students in the 1970s, to a true city society. This transformation was inevitable, since many of the founding members, being students, eventually graduated and moved on to other parts of the country. Those that remained became a minority in a Society increasingly dominated by enthusiastic members from Austin at large. By the time of the ACC move, this transformation was well under way.
The Austin Community College era brought another slow but sure change in character to the increasingly city-oriented Society. More activities involved non-University events, and fewer requests came from U.T. for support of student classes. Connections with U.T. remained strong, however, and the University continued to provide outstanding speakers at many of the Society's meetings. Perhaps the highlight of these presentations was the April 1983 Society talk on cosmology by Nobel prize-winner Stephen Weinberg, then at U.T.. Later, in 1988, the Society apparently decided to drain the University of all current knowlege on quasars. In the fall of 1988, three consecutive monthly presentations were given on quasars by U.T. Astronomy Department faculty members. Perhaps fittingly, there was not another quasar talk given until the fall of 1995!
As before, star parties and public observing sessions continued. In 1985 and 1986, the Society hosted public observing of Halley's Comet at McKinney Falls State Park just southeast of Austin. The events drew out the public in large numbers, clogging the park entrance roads with vehicles. In August of 1989, the Society hosted a public lunar eclipse observing session in Zilker Park, again producing ample crowds. Although the weather cooperated only grudgingly, the event was popular enough that it was covered on local television news reports.
The Halley's Comet session at McKinney Falls State Park was the preamble to what would become a longstanding Society relationship with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. In April 1987 occurred the first (recorded) McKinney Falls star party, an event co-sponsored by Society members and park officials for the benefit of the public. This would be the first of many such public events at McKinney Falls, including a special observing session for no less than comet Austin, in May of 1990. Public sessions at McKinney Falls continue periodically today as time permits, thanks to the energy and interest in public education of Society members.
In a similar vein, and perhaps because of the success of the McKinney Falls sessions, the Society decided to do a reprise of its 1979 launch of the Texas Star Party by launching the spring edition of a "Central Texas Star Party" at Pedernales Falls State Park (west of Austin) in April of 1991. This was followed by a second Central Texas Star Party that fall, in November. The Central Texas Star Party has since become a regular Society event, attended not only by Austin Society members, but also by visitors from other Texas astronomy societies and enthusiasts from outside the state.
November 1991, however, was tempered by the announcement of the death of Dr. Harlan J. Smith, who had been one of the Society's key supporters at U.T. As a tribute to Dr. Smith, the Society's 12.5-inch NIKE site telescope was rededicated as the Harlan Smith Telescope, and a plaque noting the fact was affixed to the telescope's concrete pier. The dedication took place in May 1992 at a NIKE site ceremony with featured speakers Dr. Frank Bash, chairman of the U.T. Astronomy Department, and Deborah Byrd, a past Society president and (at the time) well-known producer of Star Date, a popular radio program on astronomy.
In addition to hosting observing sessions, during this period Society members embarked on occasional trips. Among those noted in the Sidereal Times were a 1987 Society trip to the Ft. Worth Museum of Science and History, and a March 1990 group trip to the new George Observatory near Houston. Interest also returned to telescope making. Society member Larry Forrest, owner of the local optical company Glass Mountain Optics, hosted a telescope-making class in the 1970s tradition of Hoy Walls. Class accomplishments were proudly summarized and displayed at the Society's August 1992 meeting.
1992 also signalled the start of another popular Society event. In July of that year the Society hosted the first "Family Astronomy Night" at the small community of Dripping Springs, just west of Austin. Over 500 people attended this event, which has since remained an annual Society activity. Also in 1992 the Society extended its public outreach efforts even further afield in the state park system, with the "Night Sky Appreciation Program" at the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City in October 1992, an event repeated in 1993.
By 1994, with the continuation of such events as Safari, the Central Texas Star Party, the third annual Dripping Springs Family Astronomy Night, more public programs at McKinney Falls State Park, and other educational outreach activities, in addition to regular meetings and star parties, the Society reached its 25th anniversary as busy as it had ever been. The anniversary was celebrated at the September meeting with a dinner at the Austin DoubleTree Hotel and a retrospective review of the Society's first 25 years.
The Cockrell Hall Era (1995-present)
By the Society's 1994 anniversary, membership had grown to some 100 members. This growth, along with ACC's capacity-reducing renovations, meant that the familiar ACC meeting room was beginning to reach its limits. So for the third time in its history the Society began a search for a new meeting location. This time, the Society's long-standing good relations with the University of Texas paid a dividend. The Society obtained permission to meet in Cockrell Hall on the U.T. campus, where regular meetings were moved in March of 1995. The spacious lecture hall in a relatively new U.T. building insured more than adequate space for future Society growth.
But the Society had more than a meeting room change to consider. The venerable NIKE site observing location was steadily succumbing to Austin's growth. Observing had slowly deteriorated over the years, and conditions were no longer considered adequate by the Society's more serious observers. Discussions were held regarding acquisition of a new permanent observing site, and interest began to focus on Pedernales Falls State Park west of Austin. The park is far enough from Austin to sport dark skies, but still close enough to be usable on a semi-casual basis.
In the fall of 1995 these plans were given a sudden sense of urgency when the Society learned it was the potential recipient of the donation of a research grade telescope. One requirement of this donation was that the Society permanently house it and use it for public outreach efforts in teaching astronomy. The NIKE site was not considered a viable site for such a telescope. Consequently negotiations began in earnest with several Texas State parks. Then attention was shifted to a site owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority located on the shores of Lake Buchanan near Burnet. This site offered excellent dark skies, and a contractual arrangement was achieved with the group managing the park to erect an observatory for the Society in which to house the Ealing telescope. The Spring 2000 Central Texas Star Party marked the official opening of the observatory to the public. The new Eagle Eye Observatory houses the refurbished Ealing telescope and a 14-inch Newtonian on loan from a member. Efforts are underway to refurbish the original Society 12.5-inch telescope, and this will eventually reside in the new observatory.
Despite this major new project, the Society's normal round of events has not diminished, and the long tradition of public outreach continues — an ongoing presence at Wild Basin assisting with the Moonlighting and Star Gazing sessions, hosting the Spring and Fall Central Texas Star Parties, regular monthly meetings at Cockrell Hall, semi-annual public star parties at the LBJ Ranch, co-sponsorship of the Night Under the Stars with the Dripping Springs Breakfast Lion's Club, plus specially-planned star parties for private groups, organizations, and schools, and joint meetings with area clubs. As of January 2000 the Society also runs monthly public star parties for the general public at the new Eagle Eye Observatory at Canyon of the Eagles Park. Membership in the Society now exceeds 250 and continues to grow.
Throughout all the changes in membership and meeting place, the Society's focus remains remarkably constant, centered foremost on education in astronomy and the space sciences. As a result of Society activities, hundreds if not thousands of central Texans have had their eyes opened to the wonders of astronomy and the universe in which we live, certainly a bountiful harvest from that first small meeting after the Apollo lunar landing of 1969.
As a member of the AAS since 1970, it perhaps appropriately fell on me to provide this brief history of the AAS. However, it is impossible for any one person to provide a truly unbiased view of the Society's past existence. I for example was much more active in the Society's early years than I am now, and consequently I have been uninvolved in many recent activities and Society projects. As such, my rendition of recent Society history probably suffers and may gloss over or omit entirely things that should properly have been mentioned. For that I apologize and invite Society members to make this initial history a living document, amending it and extending it in the future as time and inclination permit. With a very few exceptions, I have deliberately omitted many names I could have mentioned. There have simply been far too many worthy contributing Society members to attempt to mention them all in an abbreviated history like this, and so I have decided to omit them altogether rather than offend some by mentioning others. The Society has been a truly remarkable social organism; I do hope it survives to celebrate a 50th anniversary in good health in the year 2019.
Brian D. Cuthbertson
Sunday, 14 January 1996
AAS Archives Available on CD-ROM
The historical archives of the Society are now available to members on a CD-ROM for $3.00-$4.00. For more information, contact Brian Cuthbertson.