The sun has set, the moon has risen and folks are out, but they’re not at the movies, a restaurant or a ball game — instead, they are gazing intently at the night sky, some with binoculars and others through high-powered telescopes. What they see varies from person to person, but all have a chance to peer at the celestial bodies inhabiting the Central Texas sky during one of Central Texas Astronomical Society’s monthly star parties and observatory open-house events.
The Central Texas Astronomical Society holds star parties simultaneously at various “dark sky” sites throughout Central Texas, including areas near Waco, Belton and Clifton.
The dark sky locations are outlying areas without the light pollution commonly found in major cities, the better to view constellations and galaxies that only reveal their beauty to those who leave the city life behind. The most permanent viewing location is that of the Meyer Observatory at Turner Research Station between Clifton and Gatesville, though Overlook Park at Stillhouse Hollow Lake is a frequent monthly location for star parties.
Volunteers from the Central Texas Astronomical Society host the star parties as well as monthly open houses at the observatory for children and adults of all ages. “We try to get people interested in astronomy and educate the public, ” said Aubrey Brickhouse, CTAS president. “We talk about CTAS and what people can expect to see that night, and offer a night sky overview, pointing at various stars with a green laser pointer to orient people. Then, they can look through a telescope at specifics.”
Pam Fulton, a one-year member of the Central Texas Astronomical Society and volunteer at open house events and star parties, was influenced by astronomy at a young age. Her brother, who kept a moon globe in the 1970s, gave her a star map. Her family often took road trips at night, so Fulton grew up gazing at falling stars from her passenger window. A self-described “science buff” who grew up south of Houston, Fulton often went with her family and visiting guests to nearby NASA, which further whet her appetite for astronomy. “I like to know how everything works, ” she said.
The society has developed a two-day Astrolearn class in astronomy for people like Fulton with an eager interest in the stars, with classroom instruction during the day and a hands-on “lab” at night. Brickhouse teaches the daytime portion of Astrolearn, happy to pass on what he knows about astronomy. “I enjoy working with other people, and helping them learn about the night sky, ” he said.
Brickhouse’s fascination with astronomy began when Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first orbiting satellite, in 1957. “As a teenager, I could see it at night, get a radio and listen to its pulses, ” he said.
Brickhouse did not begin as an astronomer, though. His career began with the Air Force as an airborne radio controller from 1960 to 1964. He did, however, brush indirectly with outer space when he worked six months for the International Latex Corporation designing the space suits for the Apollo moon mission. Brickhouse recalled one day on the job when he was having donuts and coffee on a break.
“This unassuming, quiet man asked, ‘Mind if I sit with you?’” said Brickhouse. “He introduced himself as Neil Armstrong. No one knew who he was back then, because it was before he became the mission commander. He was a humble guy.”
After living in several states including Delaware, Michigan and upstate New York, Brickhouse came to Texas with his wife Pat in 1987 as a marketing director selling laser and inkjet printers for Texas Instruments. He continued in the same role after their printing division was sold to a Virginia company. When he retired in 2001, he began to pursue his other hobbies, including collecting and repairing vintage radios and television sets and educating himself in astronomy through Coursera University’s free online classes. In 2005, Brickhouse joined the Central Texas Astronomical Society and became its secretary, then its treasurer, finally becoming president in January 2013 after former president and friend Dean Chandler stepped down.