When an e-mail reaches the computer of Dennis Mammana at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, a familiar voice interrupts the quiet of the astronomer’s second-floor office. The voice belongs to Bugs Bunny, who announces, "Special delivery from Mars!” which might seem a frivolous note unless you know something about the kinds of messages members of the public beam to Mammana.
They call or e-mail him when they think they’ve spotted a UFO. Or they’ll glance up at the sun and see a halo around it they never saw before, one that seems ominous and alarming. Or an object in the night sky will catch their eye and they’ll realize it seems...different, somehow, from the other stuff up there.
One of the times this happens, for example, is in November, when people begin to see the star Sirius as it rises in the eastern sky in the evening. “It’s just sparkling and carrying on! It’s brilliant,” says Mammana. "And people go crazy! They call and say, 'Oh, my God. What is that thing?’ ”
A dour observer might note that, if not from Mars, these people appear to hail from some other planet. High cirrus clouds cause that halo effect around the sun, and it happens a lot in San Diego, as often as several times a month at certain times of the year. And Sirius has risen in our eastern sky every evening in the late fall and early winter for millions of years. Every human being who ever lived in these parts would have known it to be a regular presence in the heavens, at least up to the end of the 19th Century.
Then Edison invented artificial light, and today, the more sanguine observer of Mammana’s e-mail might point out, a hundred other things besides the night sky compete for our attention after dark. If, however, someone wants to increase his extraterrestrial knowledge, there are few better places to do so than San Diego, Mammana might add.
The proximity of our mountains to the ocean ensures a flow of clean air over the local peaks, and the skies above them are also often dry and clear. That makes for better “seeing” (in the parlance of astronomers), and up through the 1950s, Southern California was relatively undeveloped, which made for darker night skies (compared, say, to the Eastern Seaboard). These factors played a role in Caltech’s 1934 decision to build the world-renowned observatory on Palomar Mountain.
Even though the skies have grown a lot less dark since then, world-class research is still being conducted with the 200-inch telescope. Preeminent astronomers also journey to Mt. Laguna to work at San Diego State University’s observatory (built in 1968).
And the professionals aren’t the only people studying the skies above San Diego. According to Mammana, one of the greatest concentrations of organized amateur astronomers in the United States can be found in and around the San Diego area.
The largest and oldest group, the San Diego Astronomy Association, has roots dating back to 1962 and now counts close to 500 members. John Laborde, the current president, knows of only two or three other groups in the country that are bigger (Orange County’s 650 member club and one or two on the East Coast).
Besides its size, something else makes the San Diego club noteworthy. In 1975, the members raised the money to buy a ten-acre parcel of land in one of the darkest corners of the county, the area next to the Mexican border just east of Jacumba. Over the years, club members have turned the area into an astronomical haven, and on the two darkest Saturdays of each month, they host star parties there that are free and open to the public.
A lot of the socializing at these affairs takes place on two 220-foot-long concrete strips laid out in a brush-free quadrant of the property. Members back their vehicles up to the concrete and set up their equipment. On summer nights, when the stars are so bright they cast shadows, it’s not uncommon to find as many as 50 telescopes, says Laborde. Their owners usually stay awake until dawn. Explains club member Brian Staples, “At any given time of the year, you have a chance to see 50 percent of the night sky roll by. There’s a certain exhilaration that helps keep you going.”
A ten-year club veteran. Staples has been active in the leadership of the group. At a recent star party, he headed not for the public pads but to an area of the property where eight concrete-block buildings have been erected. A visitor might mistake them for tired-looking garages. In fact, they’re astronomical observatories. One belongs to the club and the others were built by individual members. The roofs of all eight structures slide back to reveal telescopes that would be the envy of some professional astronomers. Inside the club observatory, for example, is an instrument with a 22-inch mirror. That’s only slightly smaller than one of the telescopes owned by SDSU at its Mt. Laguna facility. Unlike theirs, the club’s scope is homemade. “We probably have about $1000 invested in it,” says Staples. Most of that cost went to buying a plug of glass, which SDAA club members then ground by hand. They installed the mirror in a tube and mounted that on a huge fork-shaped holder that came from General Dynamics. “A big chair used to sit in there and they’d spin astronauts around in it. It’s made of low-flex magnesium alloy. But it was on their junk pile, and they said, ‘If you want it, take it away.’ ” Staples says if the club had to replace that telescope, it would cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. “We’ve got a better telescope than a lot of small countries,” he states.
Visitors to the observatory sometimes express surprise that the instrument is not housed in a dome, but Staples tells them domes are not the best design. “You want the telescope to be the same temperature as the outside air,” and sliding the roof off a square building is an efficient way to achieve that, he says.
Thirty to 40 members have been trained to operate the 22-inch telescope; they take turns doing so at the club’s 24 annual star parties. Staples had the job this evening. As he waited for the sky to grow dark, he talked about how he got interested in astronomy. He says when he turned eight, his parents gave him a telescope shortly after his birthday, he dragged it out into his yard, and trained it on a bright object m the sky. It was Saturn; he could see the rings. He felt startled and awed. “They snatched me up,” he says.
Staples later expressed an interest in becoming a professional astronomer, but his father pointed out how few astronomical jobs were in the newspaper. So Staples got a degree in accounting and wound up working in publishing. What he loves most now about amateur astronomy is that it enables him to escape the fast pace and telephones of his workaday life. “I think I have a very good sense of my place in the universe around me.”
Out at the club’s property, you don’t have to look through a telescope to experience a shift in perspective. At 3800 feet, this site can’t compare to the highest points in San Diego County, but one advantage it has over the mountains (at least for stargazing) is the absence of trees. Low chaparral grows on and around the club’s site, so if you lie on your back, almost 180 degrees of sky confront you. Gaze at it long enough and you may feel as if you’re not lying down but instead are upright, with the huge mass of the earth pressed up against your back and the universe in front of you.
On a dark night, the universe can seem crowded. Staples says the naked eye can discern about 2000 stars. Get up from the ground, dust yourself off, and look through some of the telescopes (which the club members welcome visitors to do) and “probably well over 100 galaxies are visible on any given night of the year,” Laborde estimates. “In addition to that, there are probably as many globular clusters, open star clusters, and nebulas that are reachable with a small telescope too. There’s so much to see that there’s hardly a way of seeing it all in a year. That fascinates a lot of people and keeps them interested.”
Laborde says the club members range in astronomical expertise from neophytes to semiprofessionals, and different sorts of activities appeal to different individuals. “Some people are diehard photographers and take beautiful pictures through their telescopes.” Others shun the gadgetry but relish the chance to talk cosmology. Still others dabble in serious research.
One such member is Eugene Larr. Now 72 and retired, Larr sometimes drives to the SDAA’s site and sets up one of his telescopes, but he also has a ten-inch instrument on the balcony of his Encinitas home. Although the light pollution there is pretty bad, Larr says he can filter out a lot of it, and this telescope has the advantage of being connected to a computer in Larr’s home office. On its monitor, he can see the same things he would see outside through the telescope’s eyepiece. "That’s the lazy way to do it,” he says. “Even when it’s cold, I can have a cup of coffee and let the telescope do the work.”
The work Larr does falls into two broad categories: monitoring variable stars and keeping track of asteroids. Variable stars, as one might infer, grow brighter and dimmer and brighter again. Some do this with great regularity, while the brightness of others changes at irregular intervals. Charting the fluctuations “is the kind of thing that professionals at observatories can’t do because they don’t have the time for it,” Larr explains. “But I watch about 150 stars. Every night it’s clear, I observe as many of them as I can. I record precisely how bright they are and I record the exact time when I do that.” He says more than 10,000 amateur astronomers scattered around the world do the same thing, and they all send their data to a central computer at Harvard. When the readings are plotted, “They literally give you a picture of what each variable star has done all year round.”
This, in turn, adds to the base of human knowledge about variable stars, Larr says, and may lead to a better understanding of why they behave the way they do. His other avocation yields information that most people would find less esoteric and more comforting. “I’m a member of the Minor Planet Bulletin organization, and we check to see if the asteroids are all in their orbits.” To do that, “You take pictures of them, several minutes apart. So you can tell how fast they’re moving and in what direction they’re going. You send that in to Harvard, and they plot it on a big computer to make sure the asteroid’s where it’s supposed to be. And, of course, 99.9999 times it is.”
Larr says the few exceptions might occur as the result of an asteroid passing Jupiter, for example. “Jupiter has an awful lot of gravitational field around it, and that will warp the asteroid’s orbit. It’ll bend it slightly. And the next time the asteroid goes around the sun, we might notice it’s not quite in the same orbit.” He chuckles. “Once in a while, we get what’s called an ‘Earth-crosser,’ and we always watch that. The old doomsday idea.” Larr says in the 25 or so years he’s been helping to monitor asteroids, there’s never been a serious alarm. “They come dangerously close when you’re talking in astronomical terms. Like the distance from here to the moon. But that’s still an awful long ways away.” At the same time, “We do find new ones every day.”
Although he has a degree in astronomy, Larr spent his career creating custom and exotic optics. Some of his lenses are on the surface of Mars. For more than five years, he has been sharing his lens-making skills with other amateur stargazers. At the California State University San Marcos, he teaches an ongoing mirror-grinding class that meets for three or four hours every Saturday morning. He usually has about eight students at a time, he says, and they each begin with a glass blank. Using only their hands, “They grind and polish it to a very precise figure—a few millionths of an inch — and then it gets sent off to be aluminized... . In a very real sense, you can make a very beautiful and expensive telescope, just by putting in the time,” he says. “Astronomy has become in many instances a rich man’s hobby,” he elaborates. But for an investment of $50 to $55, someone can make a ten-inch mirror, for example, that will be worth $900 when it’s finished. Larr says if someone worked full-time at the polishing, he or she could probably produce a finished mirror in three weeks. But “spread out over three hours a weekend, it takes a lot longer.”
For those who yearn for their own telescope but lack the time or patience to build one, numerous commercial alternatives exist. One of the biggest local vendors can be found in a strip mall on Mission Avenue in Oceanside. Oceanside Photo and Telescope began selling stargazing equipment almost 20 years ago. Now the store supplies most of the telescopes in Southern California, according to manager and co-owner Mike Fowler.
This is a place where you can drop $15,000 on equipment that will allow you to click on your computer screen and direct a telescope at, for example, the Sombrero Galaxy, 50 light-years away, bring it into sharp relief, hold it steady in the eyepiece by compensating for the earth’s eastward rotation (840 miles per hour if you’re in San Diego), and get a digital readout of interesting factoids about it. But Fowler cautions that one of the golden rules of telescopes is to “buy what you can afford. This is supposed to be fun!” A talkative, enthusiastic fellow, the store manager appears to find in astronomy more than mere entertainment. “I think it’s the modern-age religion that has the scientific proof behind it,” he confides. Every year for his birthday, he takes his own telescope out with a special purpose. “This year I’ll be 33,” he says. “So I’ll go and try to find a star that’s close to 33 light-years away. That way I’ll be looking at light that’s been traveling my whole life for me to see. It kind of puts things in perspective.”
Fowler says the cheapest telescope sold by the store runs around $100, but if someone doesn’t want to spend any money on an instrument, he can still join the Oceanside Photo and Telescope Astronomical Society. This club, which began around 1980, now includes about 220 members. Its main activity is to sponsor monthly star parties in the Anza-Borrego Desert. “It’s pitch-black out there,” Fowler says. “You can have a great conversation with someone and have no idea what they look like... you can pass them in the mall the next day without recognizing them.”
Besides the San Diego and Oceanside astronomy groups, there’s one other association of backyard astronomers in this area, and it’s by far the newest. The Astronomical Society of Baja California is the creation of Alberto Levy, a lean, balding man with deep-set brown eyes. “Ten years ago I had a lot of hair,” he jokes about the challenges of bringing astronomy to Tijuana.
Levy was born in Los Angeles but moved to Mexico City when he was three and grew up there. As a boy, he joined the venerable Astronomical Society of Mexico (founded in 1902) and over the years became a respected and active leader in that group. Although he moved to the border area about 15 years ago, he continued to commute to Mexico City to run a business, and his allegiance to the national astronomy group remained firm. He didn’t close down his business in the capital until the end of 1994, and only then did he start looking for other amateur astronomers in Tijuana. This proved dispiriting, he indicates. “I sort of roamed around. But I couldn’t find any echo.”
Levy’s only astronomical point of contact in Baja was the big national observatory farther down the peninsula, on a peak in the San Pedro Martir mountain range. Various authorities rank this facility among the half-dozen best observing sites in the world. Levy says although it takes seven hours to reach it from Tijuana, and part of the trip is over dirt roads, “It’s booked for years in advance. Researchers come from all over.” He says some of the Mexican ones knew of him through the Astronomical Society of Mexico, and he helped them with various projects. That’s why the observatory staff thought of Levy when they got the call from Carlos Ibarra.
Ibarra is a Spanish electronics engineer who had settled in Tijuana, bought a telescope, and wanted to learn more about how to use it. In 1995, he called the observatory seeking fellow amateur astronomers, and someone gave him Levy’s number. The two men wound up meeting in a coffee shop in Tijuana. Each knew a few other people who wanted to learn more about astronomy, and they got permission from the director of Tijuana’s Centro Cultural to schedule regular gatherings in a room there.
At the cultural center, it was natural that their attention should turn to the center’s Omnitheater and planetarium instrument. The latter, known as a “starball,” is an exact replica of the projector created for the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater. Manufactured by the Spitz company in Pennsylvania, it cost about a million dollars, Levy says. But “after a couple of years, (the center] didn’t have anyone to run it,” he adds. “In Mexico, there’s a lot of governmental — what do you call it? Pork bellies?”
By 1995, the instrument was broken, and Spitz had estimated it would cost $240,000 to repair it and update the computer equipment. “That’s a lot of money for Mexico,” Levy observes. He and Ibarra volunteered to work on it for free. “All my lunches and afternoons were devoted to getting this thing running,” Levy says. After spending six months and about $2000 of their own money, they succeeded and they produced a planetarium show that debuted on February 26, 1996. That day they announced the formal beginning of the Astronomical Society of Baja California.
Levy says since then the club has grown to include about 40 members. If the group’s numbers are still small, the devotion of those who belong Is intense. They meet every week and have ventured out together on numerous field trips and stargazing sessions on both sides of the border. This spring they conducted a ten-week Basic Astronomy class at the cultural center that attracted 57 participants, some from as far away as Mexicali. They’ve also started an optical shop so that members can build their own telescopes, and they’ve begun raising money by producing and selling space-themed pins and mugs and photographs at the center. They’ve even been thrust into the media spotlight, a turn of events that tickles Levy. In Tijuana, despite its almost two million inhabitants, astronomy has been “like a drop of water in the desert,” he says. “So if there’s something interesting in the sky, we just call the TV stations and they say, ‘Please come and we’ll interview you.’ It becomes very much like a small town.”
In addition to meeting every week, the club members present a monthly planetarium show at the cultural center, and after each presentation, they set up their telescopes outside and invite the public to peer through them. “At the beginning,” Levy says, “I would ask people in the audience how many had seen through a telescope. And maybe one in a thousand had. Today it’s probably five in a hundred. So it’s becoming more and more popular.” Most enthralling to Levy is the chance to show children what lies beyond the earth. “Not from a video. Not special effects. Not virtual reality, but reality. Knowing that that little dot is a planet that has a ring around it, and it’s called Saturn.” That may be all it takes, he thinks, for a kid of six or eight “to get the motivation to go into a science or technology field.” Such an experience set Dennis Mammana on the path to being San Diego’s de facto municipal astronomer. He grew up in Pennsylvania, where his father was “a rough-and-tumble steelworker at Bethlehem Steel. He’d lived through the Depression,” Mammana says, “and he didn’t know much or care about science. All he knew was that he didn’t want me to go through what he went through; he wanted me to get an education.” Mammana says on summer nights, his father used to go outside to smoke and “I’d go out with him. I’d lie in the grass, looking at the stars and asking questions.” One night he asked how far he could see.
“How do you answer that question?” Mammana asks today. “And here’s a guy who didn’t have that much education, but the answer he gave me was absolutely brilliant. He said, ‘If the earth was flat and you looked west, you could see all the way to Disneyland.’ ” The answer told the boy that it was possible to look across an enormous distance and see something exotic and wonderful. It “touched something inside me,” Mammana says.
He has another early memory of sitting at his desk in the fourth grade and finding a photograph of the Milky Way in his Weekly Reader. “I should have been paying attention to social studies or something, but I was looking at this picture. I remember picking out one of the most obscure stars and looking at it with a magnifying glass and thinking, ‘I wonder if any other human being has ever taken the time to look at that star. Am I the first human ever to pay attention to that one star?’ ”
By the time he reached high school, he’d acquired a telescope and subscriptions to astronomy magazines. “I built a darkroom in my basement and I was taking photographs through a telescope. I had my first photos — of a lunar eclipse — published in the local newspaper when I was 16.” He entered college with the intention of becoming a professional research astronomer. “I wanted to work with telescopes and study the universe.”
An experience in his junior year changed his path, however. Mammana says one night he was using the 16-inch telescope in the observatory at his college, a small school in Ohio. He remembers showing someone the double star cluster in the constellation Perseus, when he smelled smoke. “I thought it was the telescope drive and I shut it off,” he says, but eventually the students realized that a fire had broken out below them. “We could barely see to get through the smoke in the hallway. And as soon as we hit the ground, the entire fifth floor went up — in greens and blues and yellows. The biology lab beneath the observatory, where they had all the chemicals and formaldehyde and everything, went kablooey! If we had stayed up there another two minutes, we would have gone with it.” Mammana says the next day the devastation at the scene was unbelievable. The aluminum telescope tube had melted, as had the telephone on the wall. The planetarium on the roof of the observatory, however, had suffered only smoke damage. Although no one had ever used the planetarium while he’d been on campus, he felt a sudden compulsion to do so. He dug into his own pocket to refurbish it and talked a fraternity brother who worked at the campus radio station into letting him tape some musical programs. Mammana announced a show, “And people actually came! I sat there in this dinky little dome, with a little arrow and a 16th of an inch of aluminum between me and the frozen central Ohio winter. And people sat there and watched this stuff. And I thought. This is all right.’ ” Mammana says by the time he got a master’s degree in astronomy from Vanderbilt University, he had decided to become a planetarium astronomer, a recognized subspecialty within the field. “The research is nice,” he says today. “But I have never been a detail person. I like to look at the big picture, at the connections." And he had decided that “if I got too wrapped up in one specific area, I would lose the passion.” He applied for an internship at the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York, and beat out more than 50 other candidates for the job. “My career was set from that moment on,” he says. “Because they were then by far the best planetarium in the world.” After the internship, the National Air and Space Museum, an arm of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., hired him. “It was a really, really plum job,” Mammana says. “It hadn’t opened yet. It was to open in 1976, and this was ’75...this grand bicentennial museum, and here I was, working at the planetarium there.”
As things turned out, Mammana stayed in Washington for only three years. Today he says, “I never thought I would ever hear myself say these words, but they’re true: they had way too much money.” Faced with a problem, the national planetarium “would throw money at it, rather than creativity. For example, we had on our staff Ron Miller, who is one of the greatest astronomical artists in the world. But he spent his entire time administering contracts to outside astronomical artists to do artwork for our planetarium. Finally he left and wound up getting one of the contracts and making something like ten times more than he had [on the staff]. And I just thought, This is nuts!’ ” Mammana left to take a job with the University of Arizona in Tucson, but departmental politics led to his leaving it, and he spent a few years doing freelance writing and teaching. Then he heard about a job in San Diego, and in 1987 he was hired to fill it.
If it wasn’t the Smithsonian Institution, the San Diego facility had nonetheless made planetarial history when it opened in 1973. Two earlier developments in this century had already revolutionized the field. Although the first domed theater in which audiences could sit and look at representations of the heavens had appeared in 1657, the stars and planets in it and in subsequent facilities were painted on or suspended from the dome. Not until 1923 did two Germans invent a projector capable of simulating the night sky by shining points of light on the ceiling of a darkened dome. This instrument, manufactured by the Carl Zeiss Company in Germany and first installed in Munich’s Deutsches Museum, became the envy of the world. Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, equipped with a Zeiss projector, opened in 1930. But only the largest museums could afford the German projectors, and up through the mid-1940s, fewer than one planetarium was built per year, according to a history written by Mammana.
The second revolution occurred in 1947, when an amateur astronomer from Philadelphia named Armand Spitz invented a smaller, simpler, and cheaper planetarium projector. “Suddenly small institutions could afford to buy them,” says Mammana. Planetariums popped up all over the place, and in the late 1950s a small group of men began to covet one for San Diego. In 1968 they hired a former Navy pilot and meteorologist named Bill Bridge to executive director of something they called the San Diego Hall of Science. “They were trying to bring science to the forefront in San Diego,” Bridge recalls today. The leaders of it had decided “they could use [a planetarium] as a foothold to get science started here.” They wanted it to be a planetarium unlike anything the world had ever seen before, and a San Diego physicist named Edward Creutz had this breakthrough vision. “Creutz was standing on a ladder in another planetarium when he noticed an incredible effect,” a 1973 article in the Los Angeles Times explained. Shifting the horizon line to below the normal frame of reference made the viewer feel like he was suspended in space. You could achieve the same effect if you built a planetarium with a tilted dome, Creutz came to believe.
A tilted dome would require a radical change in the standard planetarium seating design. Instead of placing the audience in concentric circles around a projector in the middle of the room, they would have to be positioned in ascending rows facing the same direction. A whole new projector would have to be created for this arrangement. In 1964 the Spitz company agreed to tackle that challenge for the San Diegans.
When ground for the tilted-dome facility was broken in 1969 in Balboa Park, the planners were no longer referring to it as a mere planetarium. It was to be a Space Transit Simulator, equipped with cutting-edge computer technology that would control the mind-boggling extraterrestrial imagery. In it the universe would be “viewed by the audience from a space position, rather than an earth position," an article in the San Diego Evening Tribune said. Audience members might even “participate in the presentation by operating a manual control to direct space trips.” The effect would be so realistic NASA would probably send astronauts to San Diego for training, the article quoted Bridge as predicting.
At the grand-opening ceremonies four years later, the hype about the new planetarium had only intensified. The $4 million facility was “so sophisticated it may make space travel obsolete,” one newspaper article said. Another quoted an official from Spitz Laboratories declaring, “The rest of the planetarium industry is in serious trouble.”
While the planetarium got the most attention, the new science center had something else to boast about. It was equipped with the world’s first Omnimax film-projection system. This had been added as an afterthought, Bridge explains. He says for all their enthusiasm about the new planetarium design, the San Diego Hall of Science directors were concerned by the fact that no planetarium in the United States was self-supporting. They wanted their facility to be different, and around 1971 they had sent a delegation on tour to scout for money-making ideas. Bridge says on this trip they noted that some planetariums were beginning to show films, and they also saw a demonstration of the IMAX system, a Canadian invention that used extremely wide film to produce an extraordinarily large and clear image. The first IMAX theater, which projected the image on a very large, flat, vertical screen, had just opened in Toronto.
“Everyone decided that if the IMAX format could be used in our dome, it would be something outstanding,” Bridge recalls. He says San Diego city officials reacted with suspicion to this idea, but Sandy Fleet, the youngest son of San Diego aeronautical pioneer Reuben Fleet, donated $800,000 to cover the cost of the last-minute addition. In less than a year, IMAX came up with a way to project its startling imagery on a dome (instead of a flat screen), and Sandy Fleet dreamed up the “Omnimax” moniker for the new projection system.
The decision to add it to the new space theater proved to be pivotal. Audiences loved the stomach-grabbing effects— leaping over cliff edges, hang gliding over Hawaii — that the new medium could produce. They turned out in droves for the Omnimax productions, but the Spitz starball, in contrast, proved to have serious limitations. “From the beginning, it was never capable of doing what [Spitz] promised it would do,” says Mammana. Bridge, who eventually became the space theater’s operations manager, confirms that the starball’s computer never worked well. “It just couldn’t handle all the mathematical functions that were required of it,” he says.
As a result, the Omnimax films played the starring role in the space theater; after a few years the planetarium presentations became mere introductions to the main (cinematic) attractions. Mammana says by the time he arrived in 1987, these astronomical appetizers had shrunk to only five minutes or less. Assessing the starball, he found that it couldn’t do most of what the first Zeiss projector had done in 1923. “For example, it couldn’t show eclipses. It couldn’t show the sun or the phases of the moon. Or the motions of any of the planets. It had no planets! If you wanted to show one, you had to take a separate projector and project a dot onto the dome in the right place. And there were no variable stars. I mean, it was just nothing! We were three-quarters of a century behind.” Despite this disadvantage, Mammana believed that the science center ought to show a standard-length planetarium show, so he lobbied to present one once a month. “And of course at the time, everyone said, ‘Oh, that’ll never fly. We’ll be wasting a show on the stars when we should be making money on the Omnimax, yadda, yadda, yadda.’ ” With some satisfaction, he says an audience did materialize for the monthly 7:00 p.m. presentations. In fact, “After about a year or so, these things were filling up so much that we actually had to add a second show.”
Mammana thinks demand for a third show might have grown too. “These things have a way of building. But instead what happened was the star-ball started dying more and more.” The motors and power supply began failing. “The slip rings that once enabled us to turn a dial and have it go where we wanted it to go weren’t doing that anymore,” the astronomer says. “Basically, it was propped up on Styrofoam. You had to stuff rags underneath it, just to hold it in place and hope it didn’t slip during a show.” Despite such measures, he claims, “We’d find stars that didn’t belong there! You’d say, ‘What the hell is this thing?’ Or the last couple of weeks, the Big Dipper, which has seven stars, only had six! We had no idea where the other star went! Now, here I am, standing up in front of people talking about this stuff.... It was starting to get pretty embarrassing.” Attendance at the shows dwindled, and last November, the space theater staff concluded that the planetarium instrument had reached the end of its useful life. “You can only resurrect the dead so many times,” Mammana says.
The death of the starball hasn’t left him idle. Although the original purpose of the resident-astronomer job was to produce planetarium programs, Mammana always had a broader vision. “I really, really want to communicate astronomy.” So right from the beginning, “I started trying to get my fingers more out into the community.” Mammana says when he arrived in town, members of the public and the media who had astronomical questions would usually call the universities, “and it really bugged me. Because those places are research institutions. They don’t want to be bothered by the media.” He says he made “a conscious effort over the years to build [ the science center] up as a focal point for public information in astronomy.”
One step in that direction came in 1992, when Mammana began writing a weekly newspaper column. Published Wednesdays in the “Quest” section of the San Diego Union-Tribune, it suggests things to look for in the sky each week, as well as alerting readers to astronomical programs that Mammana has organized at the space theater. Mammana snorts when he recalls how he was asked initially, “ ‘Do you think you can sustain a weekly column?’ And my reaction was: criminy sakes! I’m talking about the universe! How can I run out of material?” (For the past few years, the column has been nationally syndicated.)
Besides the columns, Mammana writes regular astronomical bulletins that he e-mails to almost 1000 recipients, and he has produced a stream of books for lay readers: a lucid stargazing guide entitled The Backyard Astronomer, a report on the search for other solar systems called Other Suns, Other Worlds, and more. He’s now at work on something more exotic: a study of the experiential aspects of solar eclipses. “If you think about it," he says, “we as humans, along with all animal life, all plant life, even the rocks and the tides and everything else for five billion years have had imprinted on us the fact that the sun comes up in the morning, shines all day, and sets at night. Now you come along one day and the sun goes away in the middle of the daytime. Everything in nature reacts to that, including humans. It’s down there in the DNA, and this primal reaction takes place. This is way beyond astronomy.” In a total eclipse, says Mammana, “You’ll hear people crying. You’ll hear people cheering. Other people stand perfectly still with their mouths open. And when it’s over you can hear this collective ‘Oh NO!’ There’s this post-eclipse depression that occurs.”
Mammana discloses that he didn’t see his first total eclipse until 1991. “I started late. Actually, I came within probably a mile or two of seeing the total eclipse that took place on July 20, 1963. I was a kid and we were vacationing in Maine. And I remember how thin the sun got. I know now that if we had gone just a few more miles, I would have seen totality.”
It would have changed his life, he thinks. “There’s a big difference between 99 percent and 100 percent. One of the writers has written that the difference between experiencing a partial eclipse and a total eclipse is like the difference between kissing a man and marrying him. I’ve also heard other people say that seeing a partial eclipse is like standing in the parking lot of the opera house and saying you saw the opera. It’s a big, big difference. There’s SO much that happens during that last one percent.”
For the 1991 total eclipse, Mammana was lecturing to a group of 500 people onboard a cruise ship off the coast of Mazatlan. “The eclipse started and everything went normally,” he recalls. “As it started getting down to around 95 percent, you could see the light changing. And it isn’t just like clouds coming over the sun. The light takes on a steely, eerie, alien presence. You can literally feel the temperature dropping, in real time. It’s very strange. And then you look off to the west. An eclipse is caused when the shadow of the moon falls on the earth. You can see this darkness in the west coming toward you — this looming darkness. And I want to tell you, I knew what was going to happen, but my feeling at that moment was, ‘My God. Something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. It’s not supposed to be this way!’ It was frightening. Absolutely frightening.” Yet when it was over, Mammana was hooked.
Since then he has traveled to see other total eclipses in Paraguay (1994), Cambodia (1995), the Mongolian/Siberian border (1997), the Caribbean (1998), and Transylvania (last month). Right before the most recent event, on August 11, a huge storm system moved in over Europe, and Mammana’s view of the eclipse from Romania was almost obscured by clouds. “They kept moving in and out. It was driving us insane. But in the end, that really added to the drama,” he says, adding, “Every eclipse is different.” “It’s an addiction,” he says of the eclipse-chasing. “Very similar to what Richard Dreyfuss portrays in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where he’s driven to the point that he’s building this Devil’s Tower out of mashed potatoes. It’s that kind of obsession for most of us. I tell people, ‘We’ll sell our homes; we’ll sell our kids into slavery to buy airplane tickets to travel halfway across the world to some godforsaken place to stand for two minutes inside of a shadow.’ And people say, ‘What?’ They don’t understand. I’m pretty sure I’m going to open my book or close it with the phrase. There are two types of people in the world. Those who have experienced totality and those who haven’t.’ ” Besides his writing, Mammana has expanded his lecturing to beyond the planetarium dome. Every spring and fall for the past ten years, he’s taught Backyard Astronomy through San Diego State’s Extension department. He’s instructed Extension students in the use of telescopes, and about five years ago, he inaugurated an SDSU session that introduces students to sky photography, another subject close to his heart. Anyone who wonders what there is to shoot in the sky should visit Mammana’s personal website (www.skyscapes.com). Its photo galleries are laden with arresting images of moons and comets and sunsets and star trails and distant galaxies and more, captured by the astronomer and his students.
One night this past May Mammana met a small group of those students in the parking lot of San Diego State’s observatory on Mt. Laguna. As the twilight deepened, the astronomer scrambled to erect a couple of tripods and rig them with small red lights that would help people avoid tripping over them when the night turned inky. It wasn’t freezing, but it felt like it. The cold and the darkness complicated the tasks of mounting the cameras on the tripods and setting the exposures and making sure the various drives and gadgets were working properly. But Mammana seemed inured to the tedium; sky photographers need deep reserves of patience. From time to time, he tilted his head back to take in the moonless, glittering expanse. To the west, the planet Venus dazzled the eye, bright as a signal flare. San Diego’s mountains are Mammana’s favorite place to view the heavens. “The desert’s clear, but it’s not as high," he explains. “Being at 6000 feet gets you above the lowest and thickest portion of the atmosphere. You’re above much of the cloud layer too, and that puts a lid over the city lights.” Compared to standing in the middle of Balboa Park, you can see objects that are almost 16 times fainter.
Mammana says he doesn’t understand why the average citizen doesn’t feel outraged by the light pollution in our cities. For one thing, it’s evidence of wasted tax dollars, he says. “We’re paying for the light to go up, instead of down, where we need it. That’s crazy.” Better design of outdoor lighting Fixtures would make better use of the energy, he believes. Secondly, light pollution robs us of our view of something beautiful. “Let’s say you paid $7.50 to go into a movie and the projectionist never bothered to turn the lights in the theater down. Do you think you’d be a little upset? Of course you would, because the contrast is reduced. With the houselights down, the contrast increases. Now you can see everything. But we’re leaving the house-lights on in the city, and it’s just washing out the sky."
Members of the San Diego Astronomy Association nonetheless haul some of their telescopes down to the plaza in front of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center on the first Wednesday night of every month, and they invite the public to peer through the eyepieces. Despite the light pollution, it’s still possible to study the moon and glimpse the Martian ice cap and gape at Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s pinpoint satellites. Up to last fall, these sessions followed Mammana’s monthly planetarium shows. Since the starball died, the resident astronomer has been inviting speakers to present slide shows before the telescope viewings. But this is temporary, he stresses. “Right now we’re trying to get an interim instrument until we can build a separate planetarium. Which will happen.”
Mammana explains that visits by school groups to the science center have plummeted in the absence of the planetarium programs. "Particularly the younger kids — K through second grade — won’t come here unless there’s astronomy.” To recapture that attendance, Mammana says the administration wants to install a computerized system that will project a somewhat fuzzy video-type image of the night sky on the tilted dome. This will cost about $800,000, he says. Then the plan is to raise the additional $5 to $7 million it will take to build a separate planetarium dome on the southwestern corner of the property. Such a dome would be smaller than the current space theater, Mammana says, maybe 50 feet across compared to the 76-foot span of the existing dome. “But it will have the capability of being used for astronomy literally 24 hours a day.... And it won’t have to compete [with the Omnimax films] for the attention of the audience. That’s something San Diego has never really experienced.”
If Mammana has any say about it, the new dome won’t be tilted. The San Diego design has been copied in many places, he says. But “I am firmly of the belief that it’s not good for astronomy education. And the reason is that it does not allow you to see the sky as the sky is. I’m a back-to-basics kind of person, and I want to be able to say, ‘This is what the sky looks like tonight — with the horizon going this way, around you. NOT tilted!’ See, when you tilt the dome like that, it’s true that you can see down in front of you. But in back of you, the horizon is over your head. And if I want to show somebody, for example, how to measure the height of the North Star back behind them, I have to turn everything around.” That disorients people, rather than enlightening them, he asserts.
In a tilted dome, due to the seating arrangement, a lecturer can’t move around and interact with the audience. In contrast, seating on a horizontal floor allows for that and much more, he says. "You could do things like remove the seats and have campouts. You could do sky-photography workshops where you set up cameras and actually take pictures of the sky.... The Zeiss instrument that I want to get has deep-sky objects embedded within the star field, so you can use binoculars to actually see things that you can’t see with the naked eye. Or you could do fund-raising dinners. Or parties.” Mammana says he doesn’t know of any other planetarium that’s currently hosting such events, but he sees no reason why San Diego shouldn’t once more break new ground.
Can any planetarium, no matter how forward thinking, compete with the films and motion-simulators of today? “They’re completely different media,” Mammana retorts, adding that planetariums attract big audiences in many cities all over the world. “You’re never going to get as many people going to a planetarium as you do to the latest Star Wars film. It’s just not going to happen. Because a planetarium is an educational facility.” At the same time, he argues, “A planetarium doesn’t have to be synonymous with boring. It can he extremely exciting.. .and yet still do what a planetarium is supposed to do.” Films “can’t do what we can do,” he says, “which is to show an all-dome realistic simulation of the universe. We can do that and make it as crisp and as clean and as realistic as possible.”
The calls and e-mails directed to Mammana would seem eloquent testimony to both the need and the hunger for more astronomical education. The astronomer estimates that he now receives at least ten inquiries a day, all of which he tries to answer. Some are thoughtful and informed, he says, but overall “the questions that I get from people indicate not just a level of knowledge but a level of insight and understanding of basic scientific principles that is just as low as it could go. I cannot imagine people getting any lower.”
One fellow, for instance, writes to Mammana every month. “You know how the moon rotates, keeping the same face to the earth? But he says no, the moon doesn’t rotate. He goes on and on about how it can’t rotate, and then he gets to the point where he starts saying it’s a conspiracy among astronomers.”
Mammana opens a horizontal filing cabinet and pulls out other thick folders. “Here’s the guy who wants to build a spaceship out of plywood and aquarium glass. He’s actually got a formal document here requesting from Congress something like $620 billion to be deposited into his account for a moon-based colony. He wants to build this spaceship that basically can house the entire population of the earth. Then there’s the lady who writes to me about how she controls the motion of the planets by having sex in the streets of San Diego...”
About once a month, Mammana gets a call from someone who thinks he’s seen an alien spaceship. He says he often jolts them by declaring that UFOs are real. “Then I tell them that UFO stands for unidentified flying object. If it’s unidentified, that means you don’t know what it is. You can’t make that leap to it being an intelligent alien civilization coming to earth.... Maybe it was a natural phenomenon. Let’s start going through the steps of determining whether it was.” Mammana says so far he knows of no convincing evidence of any alien visitation. “And let me tell you, if there’s anybody in the world who would want aliens to be here on earth, it’s the astronomers. Just think about it. Man! We could pick their brains, or whatever they have.”
Mammana says questions about astrology are even more common and he’s no less blunt about debunking their claims to legitimacy. But he sounds at least as frustrated — and challenged — by the questions that reveal both apathy and ignorance. He’ll get a call from someone exclaiming, “Oh, my God, I saw these three stars in a line!
What is that?” It’s the constellation Orion, and it’s been there for eons, he’ll answer, wanting to grab the caller by the shoulders and ask, “How many times do you look up?” People think astronomy is far out and incomprehensible, he says, “And that’s bull! Astronomy is the most accessible of the sciences. The entire laboratory’s right outside your back door. Seriously. You don’t have to go anywhere. You can study it.”
But people don’t take the time to look up at the sky. “Half of their environment they’re ignoring," he laments. “Fifty percent of the world. And what a shame that is! Because there’s so much to see.”