OF THE RAS
Part 7 - The Meyering Years (1992 - 1998)
by Bob Stephens
This is a seventh of a series of articles about the history of the Riverside Astronomical Society. Other sections can be found on our web site at: http://www.rivastro.org/ras_history.php. This time frame occurs in the past ten years and I relied upon writings in the Prime Focus, photographs, interviews and personal recollections.
So far we have had Chapters on the Citrus Belt Amateur Astronomers (1933 to late 1940's), the Kaiser Era (1957 to 1964), the Holmes Era (1965 to 1968), the RTMC Era (1969 to 1974), the Post Holmes Years (1975 to 1982), and the Dark Ages (1983 to 1991). This chapter is entitled "The Meyering Years" and covers 1992 to 1998. I entitled the chapter after Steve Meyering because he was President for six of those seven years. It is a story of the refocus of direction and the turnaround of the club during the mid 1990's.
Dennis Fandrich was President for 1991 and 1992. At the time Dennis retired, the RAS was coming off the separation of the RTMC in 1989. The Board tried many different things to stimulate interest within the club, such as (1) field trips to Mt. Palomar and the Rueben Fleet Space Theater, (2) having telescope workshops before the meetings, (3) having Astronomy Day displays at the local mall, and (4) getting top notch speakers such as Ed Krupp and David Levy. In addition, the club had local Star Parties for the colleges at Jack Rabbit trail near Beaumont and some Deep Sky Star Parties at the Heliport and Camp Oakes. However, only 6 to 10 members usually attended the star parties. The membership continued to decline to about 70 members at the end of 1992, down from its peak of around 100 in the late 1980's.
In April 1992, Bill Seavey was voted to the Board of Directors, which would have significance in later years. Bill immediately started doing Star Party Challenges and hosting the schools at our monthly star parties. The club also tried a Member Education Program for a few years with different levels of proficiency gained by tests and star parties. This ultimately was not successful as only a few members participated.
The Vice President for 1992 was Steve Meyering. In 1993, Steve became President. For 1993, club operations did not change very much. Astronomy Day was again held at the Riverside Plaza and we had the usual Star Parties at Jack Rabbit Trails. However, the focus was gradually shifting to stimulating membership and outreach events. In March, Bill Seavey started a Beginners Corner at start of RAS meetings. While this only lasted for a few months, it did indicate a shift in the mindset.
Another change in focus was to try to make the meetings shorter and more enjoyable. Ella Meyering started selling raffle tickets and Cliff Holmes gave several Planetarium shows. One of the most significant changes was the emphasis on Deep Sky Star Parties. The club went to Cotton Springs Campground in Joshua Tree in July 1993 for a star party organized by Randy and Cheryl Wilcox. This Star Party was so popular they went again in August, where 16 members showed up to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower.
The club was dealt a real blow when Cliff Holmes passed away on September 8, 1993. The name Cliff Holmes had been synonymous with the Riverside Astronomical Society for almost three decades. During that time, he and Jackie worked tirelessly for the success of the club. In February 1994, asteroid 5111 Jacliff was named as a reminder of what they contributed to the RAS and the RTMC.
1994 started off with more troubles as RCC threatened to charge the RAS for use of the meeting hall. Most people did not realize what Cliff was able to accomplish in regards to relations with the college. Other RCC Facility members stepped in on our behalf eventually solving this problem. The RAS also continued its quest for an observing site. We looked at a 5-acre site near 29 Palms that had no utilities. We also considered partnering with Cal State San Bernardino on site near Zzyzx Road near Baker. However, we could not get enough interest generated amongst club members to devote the financial and time resources necessary.
Like Cliff Holmes, Bill Seavey always had a goal of sharing astronomy with the public. In March 1994, he and new member Ken Grubbs began holding regular outreach star parties for school children. Over the next few years, they held dozens and dozens of outreach events showing the sky to thousands of people. For his efforts, Bill Seavey was given the Clifford W. Holmes Award by the RTMC in 1999.
In 1994, Steve Meyering started mirror making classes out of his garage. These classes were initially very successful with about 15 people enrolling to learn how to grind and polish mirrors. Overnight camping trips were more popular than ever with Bill Seavey organizing trips to Joshua Tree National Monument in June and July.
The groundwork was laid, but the event that really sparked the resurgence of the club was Comet Shoemaker-Levy/9’s crash into Jupiter in July 1994. With predictions for the impacts made six months in advance, the public was ready for a spectacular astronomical event. With just a few days to go, Steve organized a Star Party in the RCC parking lot on Wednesday night, July 20, 1994. We were fortunate to get an announcement in the Press Enterprise which brought out the public. RAS Members brought an assortment of equipment from Dobsonian telescopes to my CCD camera and showed five hundred people fireworks in the sky as the comet crashed into Jupiter. Ken Grubbs started a wave of excitement as he first spotted "G" spot on the limb of Jupiter. The cheers went up as we watched "P", "R" and "Q" spots rotate into sight.
Trying to build on our success, Steve organized a Saturn viewing event from the RCC parking lot in October. This was moderately successful with 30 RAS members treating a couple hundred people to a view of Saturn and its nearly edge-on rings.
Despite our success the previous year, we started 1995 with only 48 members. At the organizational meeting, Bill Seavey and I expressed distress at the clubs future existence if we did not have a turn around. Bill proposed creating a new Membership Chairman position and starting a membership drive. Steve set a goal to increase the club to 100 members and appointed Bill as Membership Chairman. I became Chief Observer. Bill was to make several changes, including putting all membership renewals on a common fiscal year and having membership applications at all events. I pushed for publicity for RAS meetings and events, succeeding in getting the club mentioned in numerous articles over the next several years. Steve started the groundwork for a high profile event to put the RAS before the community. Randy and Cheryl Wilcox worked on creating a local in-town star party for the public. Club finances were still tight, but at the June meeting alone, we signed up 5 new members.
Also in 1994, I worked on several hundred Grant Requests to foundations to secure funds for the club for general operations and to purchase equipment. Our first grant request was sent out in July to ask for funds for two solar telescopes. We received our first grant near the end of the year to purchase a CG11 for outreach and research purposes.
During this time, we did not slack off on our observing duties. Twenty-one people participated in a Messier Marathon in March. We went to Joshua Tree again in June and July. The June Star Party was the biggest in years with 20 members attending. At the July Star Party, 18 telescopes were counted. The summer star parties were becoming the one of the most popular activities for the club members. At the August Star Party at Camp Oakes, it is reported that a meteor was so bright it cast a shadow.
The Second Java Books Star Park organized by Randy and Cheryl Wilcox
On July 7, the Wilcox's first in-town general star party occurred at Java Books, a local coffee shop in the Woodcrest area. An announcement in the Press Enterprise helped get several hundred people to Java Books to view Jupiter and listen to light jazz music. It was so successful that we scheduled a second event in September to show Saturn's rings. These were to become regular events for the next several years. We also visited a sidewalk cafe in Highland to show Saturn and its pencil thin ring.
One of the summer hits was an August 19 tour of Mt. Palomar. Twenty four RAS members attended for a personalized tour of the 200-inch and 60-inch telescopes.
1996 and 1997 were golden years for the Riverside Astronomical Society. They were the most active years the club has ever had, even exceeding what Cliff Holmes was able to accomplish in the late 1960's. We started off 1996 by receiving three grants. At our organizational meeting, Steve Meyering noted that we had grown back to 69 members and set a goal to increase membership to 100 by the end of the year. Other goals included having more camping star parties and establishing a web page.
Through an extraordinary stroke of good fortune, the next two years were both blessed with spectacular comets, just when the RAS needed them most. The first was Comet Hyakutake, which was found early in 1996. The RAS had scheduled a Messier Marathon at Cottonwood Springs campground in March, but it turned into comet watch when Hyakutake rose. Everyone quickly forgot those 'M' objects.
Steve Meyering and Glenn Malcolm organized three comet expeditions to observe Comet Hyakutake. I got publicity with articles in the paper and reporters on site to write about the festivities. The first expedition was on March 23 at Mojave Rivers Forks Campground in the Cajon Pass. Between 400 and 500 people came out in 144 cars (we paid by the carload) to see Hyakutake’s 60 degree tail. The first 15 degrees of the tail was bright - parts were as bright as the Sagittarius Star Cloud. The nucleus was thought to be about +0.5 magnitude.
Then on March 27, the comet was next to Polaris. You could see it in a polar alignment telescope. Throughout the night I watched go around the pole like spokes on a wheel. Hyakutake Comet Expeditions II and III were scheduled for April. About 150 people came to Expedition II to see a 2nd magnitude coma sprouting a 10-degree tail.
One of Steve's big plans for 1996 was an astronomy exhibition called AstroFair. Held at RCC, it had telescope displays, solar viewing, mirror making demonstrations, planetarium shows, door prizes and several lectures. On April 27, 1996, about 500 people attended, of which seven became members. Despite the apparent success, we realized that we were lucky that a walk-a-thon was finishing up at RCC and fueled the size of the crowd. Our event alone could not attract people to come.
There were other activities occurring within the club. Steve's mirror making classes morphed in telescope making classes. Eventually renamed the RATs (Riverside Astronomical Telescope Makers), the group started a project of building a dozen 6" telescopes. Five or six of them were eventually completed. Our website also got off the ground. George Georgiana started the web site and Bill Lennartz became the Webmaster. It became an important source of future memberships. My grant program was paying off when we got a $7,000 grant from McDonnell Douglas to purchase two H-alpha solar filters and a 7-inch Meade Maksutov telescope. Then we received a $4,133 grant to purchase a Meade 12" LX200 telescope. The McDonnell Douglas grant committee was so excited by our prospect that they came out to one of our summer star parties to look through the telescopes.
Speaking of the summer star parties, June and July were again at Joshua Tree. Our biggest star party in years was in June with over 20 telescopes. July had more beginners than veterans and Smokey's new 12" telescope stole the show. Joshua Tree Star Parties continued for the rest of the year. In October, we had 75 – 100 people attend, including two college classes.
Another of Steve's big initiatives was to schedule a major deep sky Star Party. He called it the Deep Sky Adventure and it was a four day event at Kennedy Meadows in August 1996. Nineteen RAS members made the trip and enjoyed the Perseid Meteor Shower.
Since the 1995 Java Books events were so successful, the Wilcox's organized two more in August and September 1996. In September, 15 telescopes were brought out to show Jupiter to about 500 people. Later in September, we hosted a Lunar Eclipse at La Sierra Observatory where 250 people attended. It featured Saturn 2 degrees below the Moon – an eclipse conjunction that does not repeat again until 2008. Meanwhile, the Seavey/Grubbs team hosted two or three dozen more outreach events throughout 1996.
Another of Steve's goals was to make the monthly meetings more interesting. To that end, Robin Benjamins, borrowing a page from the Orange County Astronomer's book, started a What's Up show at the October meeting. These first presentations were particularly memorable with Brad Kenison delivering homegrown poetry and Kay Dougall talking about the mythology of the constellations.
By the end of 1996, membership was now up to 121. Many of the new memberships were from a partnership with a local telescope store, Voyager Optics, who gave a free membership with each telescope sold. Only a few of these stayed as members, but some of our most important participants came from Voyager Optics.
At the start of 1997, Steve set some new goals. The first was to have two Comet Hale-Bopp Star Parties. Comet Hale-Bopp had been anticipated for over a year, as it made its way into the inner solar system. Despite some fluctuation in brightness, it was predicted to be a great comet. We also planned to move the Deep Sky Adventure to White Mountains for five days. We had three Java Books events on the schedule, and set a goal to have 200 members by the end of the year. Finally, we planned to take AstroFair to the Orange Blossom Festival, a large downtown street festival at the end of April. Glenn Malcolm replaced Wayne Johnson as Vice President. Wayne became the Guest Speaker Director. About this time, a friend of Glenn Malcolm's designed the new logo for the Riverside Astronomical Society.
We had some great speakers in 1997. We started off the year with John Dobson, coming for the 3rd year in a row. Thirty guests attended his dialogue. Later, Donna Shirley, head of the Pathfinder Mission at JPL gave a talk on the Mars Exploration Program. The world-class astronomer Virginia Trimble gave a lecture in May.
We started the year out with a slew of star parties. In February, we went to Joshua Tree where we had fantastic views of Hale-Bopp at 4:00 AM. It was easily brighter than 2nd magnitude. Viewing was a challenge as the temperature had dropped to 24 degrees. On Sunday, Hale-Bopp was in the same binocular field as M27, the Dumbbell Nebula. March’s star party was again at Joshua Tree and was a Hale-Bopp extravaganza. At this time, the comet was still a morning object.
In the middle of all this comet viewing, and as a prelude to the Orange Blossom Festival, we attended the PTA Discovery Festival for teachers on March 15. Over 700 visitors came to our booth and 300 people looked at the Sun through our new solar telescopes. Our first Orange Blossom Festival was cloudy. However, about 2,250 flyers were handed out as we talked to about 5,000 people. It cleared enough on Sunday for about 800 people to view the Sun. We auctioned off a RAT telescope as a fund raiser. This event was a lot of work for the RAS members, but it was very successful and helped us in our goal to grow the club. By the summer, we had over 200 members, again many from Voyager Optics. After Voyager Optics went out of business, we eventually lost about 40 members. This was also possibly influenced by short-term gains from the comet apparitions. Still, the club succeeded in tripling its membership in just two years.
In 1997, we had some legendary summer star parties. At the start of August, we had our first Mt. Laguna Star Party. Smokey Yokum had been trying to get us to go there for years. Located near Julian, this site has now turned into a perennial summertime favorite. The second Deep Sky Adventure was in White Mountains in late August. This was a legendary star party with 35 members of the RAS attending. During the 5 days, we journeyed around the mountains, visiting the Bristlecone Pine Forest. We saw a ranger lecture on the 4,000+ year old trees, where he started off, "There once was a man named Smokey Yokum who planted some trees...". We also went to the Barcroft lab at 12,000 feet where they were having an open house. Nighttime observing was spectacular. We viewed Saturn at 720X and then 900X using Glenn Malcolm's 16-inch telescope. Legends often grow with each retelling, but this one actually happened. We also viewed the central star of the Ring Nebula (M57).
For the third year, we had two late summer/early fall star parties at Java Books. Both of them featured Galilean moon transits across Jupiter. The first one in August was a rare double transit. Finishing off our late season star parties, we went to Joshua Tree for a Halloween star party on October 31 and November 1. About 20 RAS members show up for the "scary event."
1998 was the last term of Steve Meyering's presidency, and the club tried to keep up the momentum. Unfortunately, we did not have any spectacular comets, but we did have many fun star parties throughout the year. The desert star parties had become so popular that we extended them to a year round activity. In January at Cottonwood Springs campground in Joshua Tree, we saw the Space Shuttle Endeavor leading Mir and a Soynuz capsule with a fourth object nearby. However, winter star parties are risky and February and March were plagued by storms.
Another legendary star party (for the wrong reasons) occurred in April at Mitchell Caverns. This campground is located along the 40 Freeway halfway between Barstow and the Arizona border. It is a beautiful area with a well known cave you can explore. However, the star party was plagued by wind gusts so strong that it rocked the trailers, shredded tents, and knocked over and damaged a Meade LX200. Then, on the return trip, we had to contend with 25,000 bikers returning from a convention in Nevada.
The 1998 Orange Blossom Festival was our largest Outreach Event ever. We moved to a new and central location on Main Street and estimate that we showed the sun to between 4,000 and 5,000 people. We auctioned off a telescope for a fundraiser. It was a very tiring event for those of us who were there from Friday night setup to Sunday night break down.
The rest of the year we concentrated on our traveling star parties. We did our second Mt. Laguna event in June and went to Table Mountain near Wrightwood in July. This was also the star party where Bill Lennartz introduced his "Observing List from Hell," featuring impossibly dim and tiny objects. In August we held our third Deep Sky Adventure, once again at Grandview Campground in the White Mountains. In 1998 over 40 RAS members attended and we did not have one cloud for six days. The Milky Way was so bright that you could see color in it.
We had another Java Books star party in September and went to Joshua Tree in October, where we were again blasted by winds. To cap off the year, we went to Joshua Tree once more in November where we four nights of viewing. We stayed over for a couple extra nights to catch a chance for a Leonid Meteor Storm. The storm did not materialize, but we were blessed to see many bright fireballs in the early morning hours.
Near the end of the year, Steve announced that he would not be seeking reelection as President. To recap his career, we planned a special retrospective in December. Steve was totally unaware as he received a special bulletin announcing that Ralph Merlitti was giving a talk about his trip to Yerkes Observatory. At the appointed hour, Ralph stood up to talk and proceeded to haul out his photo album and point to small prints. Then Wayne Johnson stood up, went to Ralph, and said, "Ralph, this is just not working out." Glenn and I finally got up to give the real presentation highlighting Steve's six-year career as President. And a grand one it was.