When the leadership team met in January to plan out our upcoming year’s activities, one of the things I really wanted to focus on in 2020 was member engagement. I’ve heard from others during the time I’ve spent on the leadership team here that, while the Houston Astronomical Society has a great number of amenities for members available to them, we could do more to interact with our members outside of our monthly meetings. During that planning session, I had a series of member events - socials at bars and restaurants, field trips, and so on - that I wanted to start arranging for this year and beyond, and I had challenged all of the leaders to help us ideate on other things we could do to help in this endeavor. I wanted to make sure that we were doing more to pull people in – especially our new members – to this hobby we all love. I don’t think I’ve ever run across anyone who wasn’t absolutely fascinated by space and wanted to learn more about it but taking that next step into a real lifelong journey into learning about the cosmos was always the hardest part. That’s where a club of like-minded individuals, like the Houston Astronomical Society, could help novices take that leap into becoming lifelong amateur astronomers.
Well, I don’t need to mention that certain conditions arose this year that threw our plans a curveball. With the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world and hitting our area especially hard, many of those events we had planned have fallen completely by the wayside. As we scrambled to figure out how to continue providing value to our members and operating our club with this new reality in place, we’ve had to postpone a lot of those in-person events for the safety of everyone involved. We even had to change how we did everything – from conducting our monthly meetings to how we interact at the dark site. And unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for us to start planning to get together in person for all of the things we did before.
But just when you think things won’t turn around, Mother Nature gives us a pleasant surprise. Almost out of the blue, Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) came out of nowhere and gave us all something to be excited about. I’ve seen a number of people who were, at best, casual astronomy fans all of the sudden gush with excitement about the comet. And it’s everywhere! I probably receive a dozen requests daily for help in finding a good spot to observe the comet or for “real-time” requests over email or social media in locating the comet while that person is out at a darker location looking for it.
As I was driving to a place on the northwest side of town the other day to observe the comet with my family and a few other H.A.S. members, I noticed a crowd of people gathering on the rooftop of a parking garage as I was taking the flyover from I-10 to SH99. There must have been 30 people on the roof of that evening, from various walks of life, all wanting to catch a glimpse of this transient visitor from the outer reaches of our solar system. Every one of them, gathered on a random rooftop in west Houston, united together in this chance to see, explore, learn, and grow as human beings.
And then I was reminded of why we love astronomy. As dire as things may appear to be here on this big, blue marble we’re on, there’s so much more out “there” that goes on, regardless of what is happening here on earth. As daunting as our problems here may seem, the machinations of the universe still go on, no matter what it is we’re dealing with as human beings. And maybe that’s what bring us together and helps us engage with one another, even in this time of social distancing and strife. Not a chance to get together at a bar or restaurant to talk about astronomy, but a chance to see it all happen in action.
While we cannot plan those socials for our members and guests yet, Mother Nature has provided us a great opportunity for our members to engage with one another and for the public at large to engage with us. And though we cannot stand shoulder-to-shoulder to watch the comet with our friends or even random strangers, the pictures being shared on social media and the conversations people are having about their encounter with Comet NEOWISE over these last few weeks hopefully start many more people on their lifelong journeys to becoming avid amateur astronomers. And once things are “back to normal,” whatever that may look like, we will be ready to do all of those things we planned for at the beginning of the year.
Until then, clear skies!