Stargazer Group, Planetarium Turn Focus Upward
In 1946, a strong solar storm caused the Aurora Borealis —generally only visible at higher latitudes — to appear as far south as Virginia. Valley local Jack Wine remembers the “tremendous display” of lights, as well as the confusion it caused.
“A lot of churches called prayer meetings,” he recalled, chuckling. “They thought the world was coming to an end.”
Wine, however, wasn’t frightened. Just 12 years old, he already understood that the white and green lights were a naturally occurring phenomenon, not the apocalypse. Interested in space since he was “very small,” he credits his grandfather for his education in the night’s sky.
“My grandfather taught me the constellations when I was six years old,” he said. “He had no [formal] education, but he was a smart man.”
After years of personal research, as well as two decades writing a monthly space column for an area newspaper, 79-year-old Wine remains passionate about his childhood hobby.
As the co-director of the Stokesville Observatory for the Shenandoah Valley Stargazers — a non-profit astronomy club that provides educational opportunities for members or locals — he’s tried to instill a similar appreciation for the solar system in others.
“He’s done so much to educate and increase interest in the stars,” praises SVS secretary Betty O’Shea. “He’s taken Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, classes, all sorts of groups [to the observatory].”
Raised in New York City, O’Shea’s never been one to take the Valley’s night views for granted.
“When I came here and saw thousands of stars and the Milky Way, it just blew my mind,” she recalled. “I joined the Stargazers and the rest is history.”
Wine, however, thinks many locals “never look up” and thus miss the beauty above. O’Shea says their “little group” is doing its part to ensure that changes.
“We will teach you how to run your telescope, how to identify your stars,” she says. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Shanil Virani, director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University, thinks it’s great the SVS is trying to increase public enthusiasm towards space, saying there is a general lack of appreciation for the accomplishments of NASA.
He points to the lack of fanfare surrounding the anniversary of the first moonwalk, which occurred July 20, 1969, as evidence.
“Can’t you imagine our ancestors looking up at the moon and wondering what it even was?” he asks.
“The landing of humans on another body for the first time was not just an American success; it was a huge triumph for us as a species. Yet we don’t celebrate it.”
Virani worries this sends a message to the youth that space is boring.
However, with questions about the mysteries of black holes or the possibility of life on other planets, he insists astronomy is anything but dull.
“It’s not boring,” he says. “It’s remarkable.”
Interested In Visiting?
Weather permitting, the Stokesville Observatory will be open to nonmembers Aug. 3 and 10.
According to Wine, Saturn is in position to be viewed this August, and the Perseid Meteor Shower will be Aug. 10.
For directions or membership information, visit valleystargazers.com.
Recently upgraded, the $2 million dollar John C. Wells Planetarium on the campus of James Madison University offers free shows, designed for both children and adults, and “star talks” Saturdays during the academic year.
For more information, visit jmu.edu/planetarium.