by David Knisely
The Prairie Astronomy Club can trace its beginnings back to November 7th, 1960, when the planet Mercury transited the sun. The upcoming event prompted an article in the newspaper which mentioned that Professor Carroll Moore was going to observe the transit from Nebraska Wesleyan University. Several astronomy enthusiasts joined Professor Moore in viewing the transit from the Wesleyan campus, and afterwards decided to meet again as a group sometime in the near future. Widespread media publicity brought the attention of others interested in Astronomy, and informal meetings began in the basement of Van Fleet Hall of Science at Wesleyan.
In April, 1961, a constitution was adopted by the 14 charter members, and the Prairie Astronomy Club of Lincoln was formally established. The charter members were:
|Walter Erbach||Harlan Franey||Faun Fritz||Dick Hartley|
|Jim Hoskins||Philip Johnson||Rick Johnson||Werner Klammer|
|Carroll Moore||Tom Pansing||Philo Prell||Eugene Robertson|
|Pete Schultz||Jess Williams|
The meeting place was moved to the upstairs lecture hall in the Van Fleet building later in 1961, and an informal newsletter was started late that year by Jess Williams. On June 30th, 1961, the first club star party was held at the home of Dick Hartley. On April 6th, 1962, the first issue of club’s official monthly publication, THE PRAIRIE ASTRONOMER, was produced, edited by Pete Schultz. Club activities expanded to showing the public the heavens through club members’ telescopes, when on August 9th, 1962, the first monthly Gateway Shopping Center Sky Show was held. In October of 1962, the club was first affiliated with SKY AND TELESCOPE, offering the magazine to its members as a direct benefit of membership.
In 1963, the club moved its meetings to the University of Nebraska State Museum. From 1964 to 1965, the meeting place was changed to Union Loan & Savings at 56th and “O” street.
With telescopes in short supply, in July of 1965, the club began discussing some form of club observatory, which later lead to the purchase in August, 1967, of a 12.5 inch f/6 equatorially mounted Newtonian from an Idaho amateur. The telescope’s cost was paid for partly through member donations over several years, and the club’s “mortgage” on the scope was later burned in a spectacular ceremony by placing it at the telescope’s focus and pointing the instrument at the sun! The club scope made numerous trips to the monthly Gateway shows, where it attracted much attention and a few new club members. It was later housed in a tilt-off metal building at Earl Moser’s rural residence near Hickman.
In December of 1965, the Prairie Astronomy Club was formally incorporated as a non-profit educational corporation though the efforts of Philip and Rick Johnson. In 1966, the club again moved its meeting place back to the Van Fleet Science building on the Wesleyan campus, where it remained for three years. On June 9th, 1967, club members first attended an Astronomical League Mid-States Regional Convention to see what the League could offer. In August of that year, the club officially joined the League, and changed eastern Nebraska from North Central to Mid-States Region affiliation.
In August of 1968, the first annual club family picnic and star party was held at Wagontrain Lake east of Hickman. In 1969, the club moved its meeting location to the main lecture hall of the newly completed Olin Hall of Science on the Wesleyan campus. Meetings were generally held on the last Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. Professor Carroll Moore often used the Jensen Planetarium downstairs for a preliminary program and star-talk, while a business board meeting was held upstairs in the lecture hall.
1970 was a banner year for the Prairie Astronomy Club, starting with the Solar Eclipse of March 7th. The club provided the public safe viewing of the eclipse at the Gateway Shopping Center, while a few die-hard members went to Mexico to view totality. From June 5th through the 7th, the Club was the host for the 1970 Mid-States Regional Convention of the Astronomical League, held on the campus of Nebraska Wesleyan University in Olin Hall of Science. In the fall of 1970, club members traveled to Beatrice to provide a public sky show at a Chevrolet dealership when the “Vega” car was introduced. Club membership varied at this time from around 35 to as many as 50 people. The Gateway public sky shows also continued on a regular basis into the mid 70’s.
In the summer of 1973, the Prairie Astronomy Club and the Omaha Astronomical Society co-hosted the National Convention of the Astronomical League in Omaha. During the mid 1970’s, a group of individuals headed by club member Carroll Moore began a fund drive to build a public observatory for the city of Lincoln in time for the U.S. 1976 bicentennial celebration. Although the date for construction missed the bicentennial year, a generous donation from the A.L. Hyde estate made possible the dedication of the Hyde Memorial Observatory in Holmes Park on November 6th, 1977. A number of club members participated in the planning and design of the observatory. The club built an 8 inch Newtonian telescope and donated it to the observatory. The Gateway Shopping Center sky shows were discontinued, as members turned their attention to helping staff the observatory on public viewing nights.
Once Hyde Observatory began operation, club membership increased to over 60 people, and the club moved its meetings to the observatory’s lecture room. The February 26th, 1979 eclipse of the sun was viewed by the public from the observatory, assisted by club members and covered on local television. At the same time, Carrol Moore headed up a group of club members and others on a trip to view totality in frigid Bowbells, North Dakota. The club put on its first annual Astronomy Day display on April 7th, 1979, at the Gateway Gallery Mall to showcase the hobby of Amateur Astronomy to the public.
In March of 1981, the first of several semi-annual club trips was taken to the new Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, to view two OMNIMAX films, along with some of the space hardware which would be put on display in the near future. Later years would bring trips to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium, and Behlen Observatory. In the early 1980’s with money from the Junior League of Lincoln, a unique safe solar telescope was designed and constructed by club members for Hyde Observatory for use mainly by school groups. The club continued its annual Astronomy Day displays at the Gateway Gallery Mall, and membership slowly increased. The annular eclipse of May 30th, 1985 was a record breaker for both Hyde Observatory and for the Prairie Astronomy Club, as over 500 people lined up to view the sun.
The year 1986 brought the return of Halley’s Comet, and with it, large crowds at Hyde Memorial Observatory. Club members provided their own telescopes outside for the public to help ease the extreme crowding in the observatory. When the comet got too low in the south to be visible from Hyde, club members staged a late night public viewing session at a rest area 15 miles south of Lincoln. An enormous crowd of nearly 2000 people observed the comet through club members’ instruments from that location.
Concern over light pollution at the club observing site near Hickman in 1986 prompted the formation of a working group to establish a new dark sky site for the club. On March 24th, 1987, the club formally took posession of a decomissioned Atlas missile base for its new dark sky site. Difficulties with the Gateway Mall location for previous Astronomy Days caused the club to move its annual display to the lobby of the Ralph Mueller Planetarium on the University of Nebraska city campus, where it enjoyed great success for many years in attracting interested people.
The 1990’s brought even more activity to the Prairie Astronomy Club. The club again hosted the Astronomical League Mid-States Regional Convention in June of 1993 at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Membership continued to increase, nearing 100 as the year drew to a close. In the summer of 1994, several Prairie Astronomy Club members created the first NEBRASKA STAR PARTY, bringing over 60 amateurs from locations across the country to view in the dark skies of the Sand Hills at Merritt Reservoir near Valentine. The club also built a second club telescope: a 13.1 inch altazimuth Newtonian which can be set up by one person in only a few minutes. In July of 1995, the Second Annual Nebraska Star Party drew 200 people from 11 states to attend a week of dark-sky observing and family fun activites.
The club joined forces with the Omaha Astronomical Society to put on public star parties at Mahoney State Park, halfway between Lincoln and Omaha. In March and April of 1996, Comet Hyakutake put on a fine display, and the public got wonderful views of it through club members’ telescopes and binoculars Hyde Observatory. In May of 1996, the club once again held its annual Astronomy Day at Mueller Planetarium, in conjunction with the International Space Station exhibit. In August of 1996, over 250 amateurs from across the country experienced the 3rd Annual Nebraska Star Party, now co-sponsored by the Prairie Astronomy Club and the Omaha Astronomical Society. December 3rd, 1996 was a sad day in the history of the club, when charter member and club “father”, Professor Carroll Moore, passed away at age 79.
The spring of 1997 brought the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp, but due to its position in the northwestern sky, Hyde Observatory’s telescopes could not view the object. Members of the club once again provided some telescopes for the large crowds which gathered at the observatory to view the comet. In May of 1997, concerns over light pollution and rural development promted the sale of the club’s Atlas observing site, and the search for a new one was begun. In early August of 1997, over 330 people from as far away as Brazil, Belgium, and Hawaii, attended the 4th Nebraska Star Party at Merritt Reservoir, again co-sponsored by the two largest Nebraska clubs. NSP was thus firmly established as an annual world-wide family “Astronomical Vacation” by the PAC and the OAS, with plans in the works for many future years of the event. The future indeed looks bright for one of the best organizations in amateur astronomy, THE PRAIRIE ASTRONOMY CLUB.