An Early History of the Saint John Astronomy Club
The Dark Ages
Prior to 1987 there was no one place for amateur astronomers in the Saint John and surrounding area to meet and greet, compare notes, brag, show off spiffy new toys, etc., etc., etc… For the most part, none of the amateur astronomers knew the identities of any of the others. You knew others had to exist, because “ASTRONOMY” magazine always sold out, but unless you had the time to stake out the newstands, the others would remain anonymous.
Then Halley’s comet made its return. This event put astronomy in the news, generated sales for thousands of “SEE THE UNIVERSE AT 600X” telescopes, and led eventually to the formation of the Saint John Astronomical Society, now called the Saint John Astronomy Club.
I had dabbled with astrophotography prior to Halley’s, with some limited success, and was determined to acquire a photo of the famous visiter by myself. I captured Halley’s inbound from the outer solar system as it passed through Aquarious; a 50mm shot with a little blue-green comet aimed head down to the horizon. This was January ’86. The photodeveloper that I took the film to was so pleased to actually see the comet on film, that he printed a stack of the picture as a giveaway. He knew that I bought and wasted a lot of film getting my pictures, and I assume he wanted to tempt others into buying and wasting a lot of film, too.
As luck would have it, one of the prints caught the eye of Len Larkin, a longtime amateur astronomer. Len was a Life Member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), had built his own telescope, and knew how to find things in the sky. Len got my name from the photodeveloper, and invited me on an observing run. That first meeting reminded me of Mad Magazine’s “SPY vs SPY” ; intersections, directions, distances, vehical descriptions. We continued these rendezvous through the spring and summer, meeting at remote sites away from city lights. It was 3 or 4 months before we met with the benefit of white light. I discovered Len was prematurely white haired, Len discovered that my son, a semi-regular at our observing sessions, was a redhead.
It was Len who felt that there was a need for an astronomy club in Saint John and it was Len who set up the inaugural meeting at the old New Brunswick Museum on Douglas Ave.. Len did the posters, placed the Public Service announcements and contacted as many bodies as he could think of.
The initial meetings included amateur astronomers, wanna be astrologers, Trekkies (they weren’t Trekkers yet), UFO-logist, sci-fi fans, and a bag of assorted mixed nuts. By late fall, the herd had thinned to mostly astronomers, and the fledgling club was meeting 2nd Thurs of the month at the Saint John Craft Center. By April of 1987 the Saint John Astronomical Society had its first elected board of directors, and the rest is history.
The Saint John Astronomical Society (SJAS) and the Halifax center of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) held a joint camping/observing weekend at Fundy National Park. This was the first time the Halifax center had been to Fundy. This first weekend eventually evolved into “NOVA EAST” , which is currently held in Nova Scotia. “ASTRO ATLANTIC”, which takes place at Mount Carleton Provincial Park in northern New Brunswick, can also trace its roots to this same camping/observing weekend.
The SJAS gets its logo, which depicts the night sky in April, the same month the club was offially formed.
SJAS makes its first foray to Mount Carleton Provincial Park. The park is a five hour drive from Saint John, and a forty minute drive from the nearest street light; an excellently dark, clear observing site. In spite of, or possibly because of the remoteness of the park, the trip to Mount Carleton has become an annual journey for many current and past members of SJAS.
SJAS has a spin-off club. Since many of the members in SJAS live well east of the city, a second club is formed in Hampton under the guidance of Malcolm Baxter. This is not a hostile split, just a recognition of the fact that not everybody cares to drive for 40 minutes to go any meeting. The two clubs have about 1/3 of their members in common, and many events are planned jointly.
SJAS loses its home at the Saint John Craft Center. It moves to the old DVA Hospital, then Tim Horton’s, then the Rockwood Park Interpretation Center, then Tim Hortons, etc.
The Saint John Astronomy Club (the name got changed, but I’m not sure exactly when), the Hampton Astronomy Club and Astro Club Borealis in Edmondston, N.B. have the first meeting to establish a provincial body to represent all of the astronomy clubs in the province. New Brunswick Astronomy/Astronomie Neuveau Brunswick (NBANB) is incorporated in 1995.
What Has Changed
The widespread use of computers, the internet and e-mail has simplified communications between amateur astronomers and other amateurs or experts. What would have required an extensive library now requires the ability to go online.
Telescopes have gotten bigger, and more high tech, Dobsonion mounts are more common than equatorials, CCDs are more widely available and eyepieces have become larger to go with the larger telescopes. The flip side of the GOTO telescope is that some very knowledgable astronomers cannot find objects without the keypad or mouse.
What Hasn’t Changed
Astronomers still meet to “show and tell”
Astronomy clubs still go forth and educate, both through formal courses and public presentations.
Seeing raw photons through a telescope, a pair of binoculars or even naked eye is still more satisfying than looking at a picture.
The loss of a permanent home has a very bad impact on any club. If it were not for the tireless efforts of Adrien Bordage, it is quite likely that there would not be an astronomy club in Saint John today.