For most of the history of the human species, up until relatively recently, we understood our place in the world, and indeed in everything that exists, by looking to the stars. For centuries humans navigated the globe via the night sky. Ancient geometries allowed the European explorers to traverse the world, establishing trade routes. Before that, ancient civilizations incorporated astrology into their religious traditions. For billions of people and for centuries, the stars were divine and the nighttime sky was holy. In the nighttime of the techno-societies of the modern era, we mostly look down to the false light of television and smartphone screens.
Not so for the stargazers of the Westport Astronomical Society. Just yards from the Merritt Parkway in Westport, tucked amid some of the most expensive homes on the planet, sits an old military installation that’s been reclaimed for a wonderful set of relentlessly curious enthusiasts, geeks and nerds (all terms used with love). Formerly a site for the radar associated with the Nike missile-defense system during the Cold War, the collection of old, no-frills buildings is now the home base of the astronomical society’s observatory, which has the largest telescope in Connecticut accessible to the public.
On Wednesday nights with clear skies, the Westport Astronomy Society opens its doors and its telescopes to the public. As it gets darker, cars fill up the dusty parking lot to get ready for the show. The show, of course, is the one that unfolds above our heads every night of our lives, if we would only have the patience and time to stop and look.
The society’s president, Dan Wright, still remembers the first time he saw Saturn through a telescope when growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “It just sunk in. I mean, I sucked in every one of those photons … I think that they changed me, so I’ve been chasing photons like that ever since,” he says.
On a recent summer night when (in addition to the light pollution of Fairfield County) the light of the stars competes with that of fireflies, both Saturn and Jupiter are putting on a show. There are two telescopes available for stargazing. Both use a simple, centuries-old technology — the Newtonian telescope — in which two mirrors of varying size reflect light into an eyepiece. The 12½-inch telescope (the devices are defined by the size of the mirror) is located in the dome of the observatory, and on this night is trained on Jupiter.
The observatory dome alerts the visitor to the scrappy, grassroots nature of the astronomy taking place here. As a holdover from the years in the late 1960s and early ’70s when the observatory was abandoned and mostly used for partying by the youth of Westport, there are two bullet holes in the dome. Perhaps in order to better commune with the stars, someone has also helpfully scrawled BOWIE across the inside of the dome. One suspects the late “Starman” would be pleased.
To look through a Newtonian telescope, and to see Jupiter, with its atmospheric swirls and Giant Red Spot and the four Galilean moons, is to produce shivers. This is only the first of the night’s revelations. The 25-inch Newtonian on the grass outside is pointed at Saturn, the undisputed star of the show. Children and adults alike are lined to look through the eyepiece of the massive, 14-foot-tall telescope. Upon climbing a small staircase to look at the planet, they descend with a look of wonder.
Like Wright, Paul Chunov is a Saturn guy. It was as a youngster in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he first looked at the planet with its rings and got hooked on astronomy. Chunov, like all the other society astronomers, approaches the task of stargazing with a mixture of wonder, obsession (the name of the 25-inch telescope, by the way) and reverence. Looking at the rings of Saturn, clear as if they were right in front of you, it becomes obvious why the celestial bodies were once worshipped so widely. “It’s very humbling,” Chunov says. He descends the stairs from the telescope with a smile across his face. With half-sincere, half-joking relief, he affirms Saturn’s existence. “It’s still there,” Chunov says.
Igor Sikorsky, who founded the aircraft manufacturer just up the Merritt Parkway from the astronomical society and where Chunov is retired from after a career in flight control, was himself a keen astronomer and admirer of the stars. “The astronomical heaven includes another most important and concrete reality, namely the unknown and unimaginable carrier of gravitation. It is the mysterious agent which transformed the primeval chaos into an orderly, majestic universe,” he said in a 1949 lecture called The Evolution of the Soul.
Wright, too, takes the long view. “This is all something that, even though when you look into space, it’s huge and massive, we’re all part of it. We’re standing on a rock zipping around all of it. And I love that because it really does make me feel connected to it,” he says.
The Westport Astronomical Society meets every Wednesday from 8-10 p.m. at 182 Bayberry Lane in Westport. There are lectures on the third Tuesday of every month. If the recent solar eclipse has you looking skyward, you can join members of the society at the 80th annual Connecticut Star Party in Goshen from Sept. 22-24.