How I Got Into Astronomy


John Nusbaum’s interest in amateur astronomy began with a love of cosmology a couple of decades ago. Here he tells his story:

I studied theology in college and have always been interested in the “big questions” As a result, I found myself naturally attracted to astronomy and cosmology. While you don’t have to get out under the stars to think about cosmological issues, I became intrigued with the idea of actually observing very distant and very old objects.

My very first telescope was a Tasco (yes, a Tasco!) 4.5″ reflector that I purchased at a pawnshop in early summer of 1995. The scope was pretty beat up, but I managed to get it working. The views through it were not too bad once I bought a couple of decent eyepieces.

That first year I learned to find my way around the sky. I was able to find many of the brighter Messier objects and also enjoyed reasonably good views of Jupiter and Saturn. Each new moon weekend, I would look forward to heading out to Savage and learning more and more about the night sky and the treasures it held.

I was fortunate to observe with Bill Bryson on many of those weekends. Everyone should be so fortunate to have a person like Bill as an observing buddy! I watched what he did and did the same thing!

After a year or so of observing with my pawnshop telescope, I was ready for a larger scope. I had decided that a 14.5″ Starsplitter or 15″ Obsession was just about the perfect telescope for a guy like me … but then I saw an ad in the old Starry Messenger for a used 20″ F4 dob with Galaxy Optics for about the same price. A couple of days later I was on my way to  pick up the scope!

My two “starter” scopes!

I have to confess, I was pretty embarrassed to go from a Tasco to having one of the largest scopes in the club! I sure didn’t know what I was doing at first! A couple of you out there witnessed the struggles.

But with persistence and a little help from my friends, I managed to go where only a few others have gone before … Hickson Compact Galaxy Clusters, Palomar Globular Clusters, Abell Galaxy Groups, faint and obscure Planetary Nebulae, Supernovae, and even globular clusters in the Andromeda Galaxy!

The biggest change that has taken place in my observing in the last 2 or 3 years has been the transition from astronomy as a hobby to astronomy as a lifestyle.

My buddy Tom Deitz and I have become astronomical gypsies in search of clear dark skies. These days we are much more likely to be observing from Spruce Knob or Cherry Springs  than Mickie Gordon or Savage.

The reason we call it a lifestyle is because it takes a good deal of planning to make the trips to dark skies and it requires special arrangements with work and family. Planning your schedule around the phase of the moon can be done, but not everyone is able to do it. It is hard to say where this hobby will ultimately take me.

For now, I find observing to be a very practical way to stay engaged in thinking about the big issues.

I continue to be very interested in stellar evolution (planetary nebula and supernovae) and the large-scale structure of the universe (galaxy clusters and superclusters). I find that the reality behind what I see in the eyepiece informs the way I think about life: The elements from which we are made were forged inside of stars and the universe is unimaginably vast.

That certainly is a lot to think about. By John Nusbaum

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