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Star Struck 

Scoping out the biggest Vermont astronomy event you’ve never heard of

Published August 11, 2010 at 10:04 a.m.

Nothing in the slumping town of Springfield points the way to “Stellafane.” Without detailed directions, and the small sign affixed to a tree on the second dirt road, you’d never find the oldest “star party” and telescope-making convention in the U.S.

Every August, atop a dark hilltop just outside this southern Vermont town, roughly a thousand amateur astronomers and telescope makers gather to share their heavenly hobby. Since its 1926 founding, Stellafane — which translates as “shrine to the stars” — has quietly grown into a geek fest of epic proportions, a Woodstock for stargazers.

Why Springfield? Because it’s the birthplace of Arctic-exploring, telescope-building Russell Porter, who firmly believed anyone — even women! — could build a contraption to bring the night sky closer. While employed at Springfield’s once-famous Jones & Lamson Machine Company, Porter started teaching telescope-making techniques to some of his coworkers. They formed a club, the Springfield Telescope Makers, that founded Stellafane 75 years ago.

With the exception of a few years during World War II, the group has met every summer since on Porter’s “Breezy Hill” property — now an 80-acre convention site the 120-member organization owns outright. Although the event is no longer top secret, Stellafane doesn’t seek publicity. And the pricing, at 40 bucks a head, discourages casual visitors.

No advertising was needed to draw a crowd to last weekend’s convention, which featured three nights of clear, dark skies and a keynote speaker from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Like Tom Spirock, who served as my “star party” guide, most conventioneers would come even if the prediction was for “Stella-rain,” as the event is nicknamed in wet weather. Forty-one-year-old Spirock, who works for a company that makes computer equipment for military vehicles, hasn’t missed a cosmic convergence in 25 years.

My retired astrophysicist father told me about Stellafane. But he never actually attended the summertime gathering. Outside of a few early-childhood viewing sessions, I don’t remember him looking at the sky much. It’s been sort of a lifelong embarrassment, being the daughter of an astronomer, to admit I can’t tell Vega from Venus. Stellafane was an opportunity to test the romantic rep of my father’s profession.

Spirock, known as “Spock” for his cool, Vulcan manner, wasn’t at all surprised to hear about my dad’s apparent dispassion for “observing.” He explained the difference between pros like him and the amateurs who attend Stellafane, noting the two groups don’t interact much.

“Most professionals don’t look through the telescope,” Spirock said, “not on the job, anyway. They’re not into it for the fun of it.”

Oddly, though, amateurs contribute to professional astronomy more than dabblers in almost any other science. “Amateurs discover planets, they discover comets,” Spirock noted. Seventh graders in California recently discovered a cave on Mars. “There are so few professional astronomers, and so many stars.”

The Springfield Telescope Makers spend as many hours looking down as gazing up. You can’t be a voting member of the club until you’ve made your own mirror — the most crucial component of a functioning telescope. It has to be precise within a half of a millionth of an inch to accurately “image” the object being observed.

This focus on the mechanical aspects of astronomy makes Stellafane unique among American “star parties.” Porter believed a hands-on approach to the instrument was the best way to understand the science, so the mirror-making tradition lives on in Springfield. Spirock couldn’t wait to get me to a glass-grinding demonstration — one of many daytime activities for Stellafane’s hands-on galaxy gazers.

Even spouses, such as Kim Cassia of Monroe, Conn., aspire to Stellafane’s unique rite of passage. “My husband is the astronomer,” said Cassia, who spent all day Thursday checking in vehicles arriving from all over the East Coast. “But I’m making a mirror.”

Her husband’s story is more typical of the Stellafane crowd, which appears to be predominantly fifty- and sixtysomething men who grew up during the space race. Dennis Cassia’s mother bought him a telescope in 1962, and after the boy found Saturn by accident, he got interested in “what else was out there.” Throughout his career as a professional firefighter, Cassia kept his hobby to himself.

“I get all my camaraderie up here,” he said, adding that even the “super-famous” people who attend Stellafane are almost always accessible and “down to earth.” Former moon-walking astronaut Alan Bean was last year’s featured speaker. “Everybody up here gets you,” Cassia offered. “They’re all different, but they’re all the same. They know why you’re here.”

It might be an exaggeration to say Stellafane is a Russell Porter cult, but the astronomers and telescope makers carrying on his work hold the dead man in very high esteem. Is it a coincidence that Dennis Cassia keeps an unlit cigar in his mouth — just as Porter does in a photograph that memorializes his mirror-making technique?

That image is one of the first you see in the museum devoted to Porter, which consists of four windowless rooms — and a turret telescope — in the basement of the Hartness House Inn in downtown Springfield. The underground chambers used to be a Prohibition-era speakeasy, according to Spirock.

I’m not sure how that reflects on James Hartness, a former governor of Vermont who lived in the mansion when he owned the Jones & Lamson Machine Company. He brought Porter back to Springfield after the last of his arctic explorations and put him to work at J&L. Porter invented an optical device called a “comparator” that dramatically improved the plant’s manufacturing precision.

Porter traveled eight times to the frozen north, using astronomy to hone his navigational skills. One voyage ended badly, though, and the whole crew had to wait two years to be rescued. Always innovating, Porter spent the time painting and drawing the natural environment, using every medium available: pencil, pastels and watercolors.

Some Stellafaniacs theorize Porter designed the turret telescope, a bunker-like structure that resembles a concrete submarine, because he didn’t want to be cold ever again. The design allowed him to observe the sky in a climate-controlled environment. Porter built a turret telescope on Breezy Hill, but he also made one for Hartness. It looks like a whacked-out sugar shack on the lawn of the inn.

The museum was open for two three-hour stretches over the course of the Stellafane convention. Otherwise it’s locked, with no sign to indicate its contents. Porter biographer Bert Willard is keeper of the collection. The owners of the Hartness House also know the combination to the lock and, when asked, will take guests through the men’s-room door, down two long, narrow corridors lit by bare bulbs and into Porter’s world.

What’s there? Porter’s arctic artwork and the original telescopes made by the first members of the club — even the original poster Porter made to publicize the class. Mirror “blanks” and grinding abrasives are on display, as is Porter’s whimsical garden telescope. Although they didn’t sell well at the time, originals now go for as much as $20,000 on eBay, according to Spirock.

In one corner of the second room is the telescope that stood on Boston Common when Porter was in school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went to Norwich and the University of Vermont for engineering before he studied art and architecture at MIT. Rumor has it the Boston Common ’scope fueled Porter’s astronomical interests.

Unfortunately, the huge, cutaway drawings Porter executed for the 200-inch Palomar telescope aren’t in Vermont; they’re at the California Institute of Technology. Famed artist Maxfield Parrish raved about them, noting the way in which Porter conveyed the internal working of the instruments, essentially envisioning how they should be built. “I doubt if there are drawings anywhere which can in any way compare with these for perfection in showing what a stupendous piece of machinery is going to look like when finished,” he wrote in the forward to James Fassero’s 1947 book, Photographic Giants of Palomar. “Their creation should be world news.”

At the very least, a genius inventor like Porter should be much better known in his home state of Vermont.

Stellafane is well represented in the subterranean museum. Photos document the construction of Porter’s hilltop hut, aka the Pink House, before color film was around to capture its Pepto-Bismol hue. Just last year, the modern-day Springfield Telescope Makers matched the unorthodox shade and repainted it. Also a permanent fixture: A carving on the north gable proclaims, “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.”

Back at Breezy Hill on Friday, the Pink House was packed with people. The hut’s ship-cabin interior lends itself to congregration, and the low ceilings and big fireplace make it easy to imagine chilled astronomers coming in to warm their fingers and toes.

Porter’s sketches of the club’s original members still adorn the walls. A chunk of the first Palomar mirror sits on the mantel. A snapshot of the guy who discovered Pluto, seated at one of the Pink House’s long wooden tables, is casually tacked up on the wall.

Down the hill, Norm Fredrick of Claremont, N.H., was demonstrating solar projection in the Porter Turret Telescope — another daytime activity at Stellafane. He had the telescope rigged so you could see sunspots on a circle that represented the star. Storms on the sun, which are cooler than their surroundings, show up as dark marks.

Fredrick was incredibly patient as he explained how the outside mirror on the 12-inch telescope relays the sun’s image inside the domed enclosure.

“I love teaching people, showing them the wonders of the universe,” he said.

Probing the depths of the galaxy might sound like a solitary endeavor. But, aside from a few guys camped on the far reaches of the property — “I don’t get these skies back home. I’m selfish,” said Joe Kehoe of Massachusetts — it was just the opposite at Stellafane.

I’ve never met so many sociable stargazers, all of whom were more than willing to talk to a reporter who was not from Sky & Telescope. I chatted with Wayne Hilliard of Shaftsbury, who informed me that everyone at Stellafane is nice until you shine a white light on their telescope: red headlamps are de rigueur.

I heard from Walter Wheeler about his charismatic mentor, Walter “Scottie” Houston, who died in 1993. He’s one of Stellafane’s “wise old men,” as Spirock calls them, who earned himself a permanent plaque on a boulder in the camping area named after him.

I caught up with John Martin, Stellafane’s volunteer building and groundskeeper, as he was descending from a tractor outfitted with a bucket loader. The multitalented local astronomer maintains the hilltop campus.

Voting “members” of the Springfield Telescope Makers can access the land, and the equipment, whenever they want. John “Hollywood” Gallagher said that 10 years ago he used to drive down from New Hampshire, observe for a couple of hours in Springfield, and then get up and go to work the next day. He’s an anesthesiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

It was the moon landing that got Gallagher hooked on astronomy. “After it was over, my little brother said, ‘OK, I’m going to bed.’ I stayed up, enthralled by the whole thing.”

Although he’s less enthused about telescope building, Gallagher toes the Porter line. “There is something about looking at the stars with a mirror you made yourself,” he said.

Meredith Muller will soon have that experience. She’s an astronomy and math major at Bennington College. For her senior project, she’s making a telescope. “I’m aluminizing it myself,” she added.

Muller was on the job during Friday’s mirror-making workshop. She’d sprinkle her glass disc with abrasive silicon-carbide powder, then rub a similar-sized disc of different material against it. The circular motion eventually wears the glass into a concave shape. It’s tedious, dirty, physical work — nothing like the cool, elegant image of people observing celestial bodies.

But Muller looked like she was enjoying the process, even when a piece of glass chipped off the side of her disc. She also seemed OK with being the only young, female astronomer around. The outspoken 22-year-old was interrupting men who were old enough to be her father. Like most geeks, they responded enthusiastically to her brainy-girl spunk.

Spouses aside, women are definitely in the minority at Stellafane. For all the bearded, Apollo-era men in attendance, it could pass for a convention of summering Santa Clauses. I spotted at least two men wearing red suspenders and shorts.

“It seems like they’re all named Wayne, Dave or John,” Muller noted with a chuckle. “You just call out one of those names, and someone is sure to respond.”

It’s hard to keep track of which astronomer is which during actual stargazing. At Spirock’s urging, I’d gone out to buy a flashlight at Shaw’s in anticipation of the Thursday-night observing session. He supplied the red tissue paper that turned the torch into a darkroom-safe glow.

Trouble is, I couldn’t see a bloody thing with the red light. Dennis Cassia escorted me from my car to the observing area below the McGregor Observatory, but, once we left the road, I was blind, unsteadied by even the slightest topographical irregularity. Would my astronomy adventure end at Springfield Hospital?

No one else seemed to be having this problem. Cassia told me that astronomers actually develop their night vision; they learn to see in the dark.

It was better inside the McGregor, where little red lights strung around the room and the base of the telescope made the space feel festive. The roof had already been rolled backward — it’s on wheels — to expose the rare Schupmann telescope, the “tube” of which looks like a heating vent.

A team of unidentified stargazers trained the ’scope on the glittering sky above.

“Where are we going?” a voice called out of the darkness.

“Arcturus,” someone else offered, referencing the star to which the Big Dipper points. Another yelled out “Vega,” which is also bright in the summer sky. But Gallagher, who I later learned was directing the computer, took us instead to Izar.

“It’s a double,” came a professional-sounding explanation over by the eyepiece — “a very close double.” Once the double star was locked in, we queued up to look at it. There was no pressure to rush through the focusing process, or the oohs and aahs. Spirock predicted that on Saturday night, the line of eager observers would extend out the door.

What did I see? Two blurry blobs squished together. I had a little trouble determining the color — one apparently blue; the other, gold.

“Look at that. Jesus Christ,” someone shouted when a meteor streaked across the sky. “That left a trail.” Subsequent shooting stars generated cheers, as if we were all rooting for the same team at a sporting event.

“Milky Way,” remarked another disembodied voice. “You don’t see that in New Jersey.”

Next on the astro agenda: M13, named for French astronomer Charles Messier. Following Gallagher’s command, the telescope slowly set out to find the Hercules Cluster, a group of stars that float around the galaxy together.

Since the telescope was pointing almost straight up, I had to position myself under the eyepiece to get a good look. And I saw what appeared to be a lovely diamond brooch stuck inside a kaleidoscope. Sparkly, for sure, but basically a pattern of pinholes.

“Where are we going?” Muller yelled out. There was no mistaking her voice.

The answer — Ring Nebula — prompted another question from her. “What constellation is it in?”

“Lyra,” a male voice responded.

After getting a good look at the Ring — I think — I staggered down the hill to the open observing area, where dozens of stargazers peered into ’scopes of all kinds. If I had been able to see, I might have noticed one was constructed from a beer keg. Elsewhere were instruments that incorporated Legos, a bowling ball and a peach can. These homemade telescopes — a testament to Porter’s inventiveness — are what Stellafane is all about.

There was no missing John Vogt’s 10-foot creation, mounted like a cannon. The more important number, however, is 32 inches — the diameter of the telescope’s mirror. In astronomy, size matters. Vogt spent three years making the first mirror for his telescope, but a careless vendor cracked it. He spent another three years crafting the replacement.

On Thursday night, Vogt’s scope was pointed at the Veil Nebula, with the eyepiece near the top of the tube. Plenty of observers, including kids, ascended a wobbly ladder to get a look. I found Dave Mitsky’s description of the view the next day on an Astronomy magazine reader forum:

“I climbed the ladder … and saw NGC 6960, the western segment of the Veil Nebula, through a 21mm Ethos,” Mitsky posted. “It was the best view I’ve ever had of the ‘Witch’s Broom.’ I was able to detect a faint pink hue in the nebulosity. A few other observers indicated the same.”

Wow. So that’s what that was.

Al Nagler, who owns a company called Tele Vue Optics, was set up right next to Vogt, offering M27, aka the Dumbbell Nebula, and Jupiter. All four moons were lined up on one side of the planet, like a string of little pearls.

The only thing that could tear me away from Nagler’s show was another stranger in the dark promising a “Blue Snowball Nebula.”

All at once Mitsky announced, “2360 satellite going into Lyra.” He keeps track of such things. There was no sign of the Perseid meteor shower expected this week, but someone thought they saw Aurora — the northern lights.

Sharing the darkness with complete strangers leads to a weird intimacy that I’d say is unique to astronomy — if it didn’t remind me so much of summer camp. Or maybe an outdoor concert. There’s a lot to be said for a group admiring the same thing at the same time.

When I got tired of squinting, I went back to the big picture — the night sky, without magnification. I could hear Nagler explaining to a young child how light travels. The boy was looking at Andromeda, which is two million light years away. That’s six trillion miles multiplied by two million years. Far.

I’m not sure I get all the optical engineering, but I was in no less awe for my ignorance. On a warm summer night, surrounded by the excited voices of astronomers, Stellafane seemed as close to heaven as you could get, with or without a telescope.

Stuck in Vermont

Want to see astronomers at Stellafane in action? Check out Eva Sollberger's video from the event in this week's Stuck in Vermont.

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Paula Routly

Paula Routly

Paula Routly came to Vermont to attend Middlebury College. After graduation, she stayed and worked as a dance critic, arts writer, news reporter and editor before she started Seven Days newspaper with Pamela Polston in 1995. Routly covered arts news, then food, and, starting in 2008, focused her editorial energies on building the news side of the operation, for which she is a regular weekly editor. She conceptualized and managed the “Give and Take” special report on Vermont’s nonprofit sector, the “Our Towns” special issue and the yearlong “Hooked” series exploring Vermont’s opioid crisis. When she’s not editing stories, Routly runs the business side of Seven Days — overseeing finances, management and product development. She spearheaded the creation of the newspaper’s numerous ancillary publications and events such as Restaurant Week and the Vermont Tech Jam. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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