2020 – Looking for Silver Linings
By Joe Khalaf
Like most of you reading this, I, too am looking forward to putting 2020 in my rearview mirror and hoping that 2021 brings about a much better outlook than we’ve had for the last 9 months or so. We continue to see a profound impact from COVID-19 on millions of people – physically, economically, and mentally – and the devastating losses of life continuing to mount as we see another resurgence in various parts of our country. Here at the Houston Astronomical Society, we have known several members who have come down with COVID-19 but fortunately, I am not aware of anyone who has lost their life in our club.
When 2020 started, our club leaders gathered in January for our annual planning meeting. This is when we come together to outline our goals and pans for the year, and to see how we can better serve our membership. My goal in 2020, was to boost member activities and retention going into 2021. We had many great ideas coming out of that meeting for new club socials and other in-person events, but like so many other things this year, those have been completely upended because of COVID-19.
So, what did we do when faced with new restrictions on meetings and doing things the way we’ve always done them? We adapted - and adapted rather quickly. We moved our meetings to an online format using the Zoom platform. While this doesn’t quite give us the same ability to socialize as we do in-person, several long-time members have reached out to me to say that, because of work schedule or their distance from our meeting place at the Trini Mendenhall Center, the Zoom meetings are the only way they could make it to these H.A.S. events. Our Novice and General meetings now get club members to attend from all over the country, and we’re now looking at how we can provide both an online format, as well as an in-person one, once we are allowed to safely resume our meetings at the Mendenhall Center.
We’ve also made several changes to our policies at the dark site near Columbus. While our restrictions were fairly broad and encompassing to begin with, we’ve slowly eased some of those to allow individuals and family members to use the bunk houses and observatory, with time built in-between reservations to prevent any possible cross contamination. And Membership chairperson Rene Gedaly has recently started the Dob Shed Café on third quarter moon Saturdays, while implementing rules to ensure safe social distance out there while we wait for a cup of coffee on these colder nights.
When COVID-19 really started to hit the US, I worried about many of the broader issues that affected our country and our world, but I was also very concerned how it would affect our club and our members. Would membership decrease? How would amateur astronomy as a hobby survive? Can we still do public outreach events like we’ve done in the past? Well, if there is a silver lining to all of this, our club, despite all of the challenges that COVID-19 has presented, has not only grown, but it’s thrived. Despite not being able to do many of the things we outlined in that January planning meeting, our membership has grown by 50% this year alone, and we continue to see a steady increase in new members every month. We’ve also introduced new avenues of engagement with our members, such as our online VSIG (visual observing special interest group) meetings monthly and our New Member Orientation sessions to help folks get accustomed to everything the club has to offer them.
If there’s a silver lining to all of this, it’s that not only has amateur astronomy grown nationwide as a result of the pandemic, but it’s booming – so much so that astronomy merchants are having a difficult time keeping telescopes on their shelves. H.A.S. is growing, too, and will continue to evolve and adapt to serve our members through these times and beyond. Just show up to the dark site on any clear prime weekend and you’ll see dozens of new faces amongst the crowd out there, many of whom are just starting their journey as amateur astronomers.
Your leadership team will continue to ensure the safety of our members while we get through COVID-19, but we will also look for new, innovative ways to engage our members and our community moving forward. And though we can’t wait to put 2020 in our rearview mirror, we look forward to all of the great things to come in 2021 and beyond