As a boy, I fell hard for almost anything space. My whole allowance went towards buying LEGO bricks so I could build ever bigger space stations. On visits to the Miami Museum of Science, I’d hunch over in the darkness of the space gallery like a caveman, reading and rereading every information panel about the planets.
And yet, I never got into backyard astronomy. It didn’t give me enough immediate gratification. Fed on a diet of Starfox, Starcraft, and Star Wars, space to me was about the exploration of an infinite variety of worlds: there was the forest moon Endor, the volcanic Zerg homeworld Char… meanwhile, one star in the sky seemed to me about as distinct from another as burgundy is to maroon. Relying on the naked eye or cheap binoculars to learn about space also felt painstaking and quaint, like learning cursive. I preferred the images I could find in astronomy books over the ones I could get with my eyes. I loved to ogle the full page photographs of the outer planets taken from the Voyager flybys and the Hubble Space Telescope’s portraits of scintillating nebulae.
The space obsession continued as I got older. I adopted a daily habit of reading Space.com articles, binge-watched episodes of the History Channel’s Universe, and maxed out the storage space on my iPod with astronomy podcasts. I wanted to know everything there was to know about space.
And then one night helped bring me down to earth. Some friends and I were out on a camping trip in the mountains. We had just finished gorging on S’mores and were stamping out the last few embers of the campfire when we decided to mellow out with a little stargazing before turning in. We found a nearby stony slope with a clear view of the sky and each picked a crevasse to nestle into. Knowing how much of a space nerd I was, one of my friends asked me to tell us something about what we were seeing. I looked up at the stars for a long moment. But I couldn’t say a thing. I knew that Mars had an atmosphere that was 95% carbon dioxide, but I didn’t know what it looked like from Earth. I knew Alpha Centauri was a triple star system 4.4 light years from Earth, but I didn’t know where it was in the sky or how one would even go about trying to find it. All my space knowledge existed in some parallel reality that I couldn’t join with our own. I realized that despite everything I had learned, the night sky remained as bewildering as it had always been. For the first time, I wanted to connect what I could see above me with what I knew from my research.
I thought about how people thousands of years ago would have had a very different relationship with the night sky. They might not have known that the stars originated billions of years ago in a Big Bang or even that the Earth revolved around the sun, but free from the distractions of our modern world, they were able to keenly observe subtle patterns of celestial motion. These patterns in turn took on spiritual significance. Amongst the thousands of stars visible above, the ancient Greeks could pinpoint five lights that defied the usual arcing path across the sky and instead went on curious journeys that took them both forwards and backwards. They were known as “wanderers,” or as we would call them, planets. But they were more than that. The shimmering one that appeared in the evening was a goddess of beauty, Venus, whose love caused the flowers to bloom in the springtime. The tiny one that zoomed across the sky just above the horizon was a messenger god, Mercury, who could grant traveler’s safe passage. Knowing where these gods and goddesses were was imperative. For ancient peoples, stargazing wasn’t just a pastime; it was a way of life.
The way I see it now, backyard astronomy is about rekindling that soulful and lasting bond with space. Anyone can go on YouTube and pull up an HD time-lapse video of lunar phase change, but when you take the time to look up every night and see the change as it really happens, you get an intuitive feel for the moon’s motion that’s impossible to forget. It’s the difference between spending hours exploring the cobblestoned streets of Paris and reading a walking tour in a guidebook.
I have two young daughters, and like any good space nerd dad, I like to read them Rocket Science for Babies and 8 Little Planets before bedtime. When they get older, I also want to take them out in the yard to gaze up at the night sky—not just once, but as many times as the clouds will allow. I expect at first they’ll feel the same way I did as a boy, impatient with the slow rhythm of the heavens. But as we watch night after night after night, we’ll see the sky transform from a random stellar splatter into familiar arrangements of stars. And then I imagine that no matter where we are, whenever we look up at the night sky we’ll feel right at home.