When astronaut Don Thomas misses the crystal-clear, starry sky he saw in space, he comes to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks to remember how it looks.
A mission specialist, Thomas spent 44 days circling the Earth as part of the crew for four different Space Shuttle missions. Thomas orbited the planet nearly 700 times, traveling more than 17 million miles in pursuit of science and adventure aboard Discovery and Columbia from 1994 to ‘97. The weekend of July 21-23, he’ll make a shorter journey for the Sequoia Field Institute’s Dark Sky Festival 2017.
Parks-Wide Spaced Out Weekend
Anyone interested in the science, or just the wonder and beauty of the night sky is welcome to join him, as the Institute presents three days of learning about and viewing the jewels of the nighttime sky, almost all of it offered free along with the park entrance fee.
“The fact we’re able to do that for free is part of our mission to educate,” said Dayna Higgins, director of communications for the Institute. This will be fourth year for the event. “We’ve had so much fun we’ve kept it going.”
Events happen at locations all over the national parks, as well as at Lake Kaweah, where the Army Corps of Engineers will be a co-sponsor. Learning opportunities include movies at the visitor centers, talks by experts on subjects like astrophotography, and how NASA and JPL pull off their interplanetary missions. Naturalists can learn about the life and times of the local bat population or get insights into the possibilities of alien life with a special paid tour of Crystal Cave.
“Most of it is free, except for the special Crystal Cave tour. It’ll probably be sold out by the time of the weekend,” Higgins said. “The tour will talk about how the cave is like life on other worlds.”
Tickets for the event are available by visiting the Institute at sequoiaparkconservncy.org.
The events start Friday morning, July 21, going on all day long, all over the parks, and lasting into the night. The big to-do that day is Dinner With an Astronaut at 5:30pm on stage at the COS Theater. Thomas’ talk starts at 7:30.
The evening includes dinner, drinks, music by Danali Brass, and a talk about his adventures by Thomas.
“He’s going to tell a story about how a woodpecker almost ruined a Space Shuttle trip,” Higgins said. “Then, we’re going to have dinner with foods from around the world.”
Tickets including dinner and the talk are $60. Admission for just Thomas’s talk is also available, and can be purchased online.
Protecting Our Dark Skies
Our local national parks sit on the edge of the largest roadless area in the lower 48 states, giving them nearly pristine darkness when no moonlight spoils the viewing. Part of the reason for the weekend of activities is to draw attention to them while bolstering efforts to protect them.
“We’re working on becoming a certified with the IDA (International Dark-Sky Association). We’re hoping that will happen toward the end of the year,” Higgins said. “We started off with naturalists who wanted to do night sky programs, and that is really inspiring.”
The Festival has proved very popular with the public, she said, and the IDA will be on hand to enlighten the populace on the importance of keeping our night skies dark.
Other topics covered during the weekend include the upcoming total solar eclipse over North America this August, talks about telescopes and how they work, and sessions on learning the landmarks of the sky. All of this, Higgins said, is fun aimed at teaching the public why keeping our skies dark is important.
On the first two nights, the telescopes of various amateur observing clubs from around the state will be pointed toward the heavens for all comers to enjoy.
The so-called star parties will be held Friday at the Potwisha Campground above Three Rivers, and the Danali Brass will play as the stars reel overhead on Saturday at Wuksachi Lodge.
For the more hardcore observers, there will be viewing under at Roads End with the Central Valley Astronomers, also on Saturday night.
“The sky there is amazing,” Thomas said of the nights in Sequoia-Kings. “Nothing compares to it except space. It’s one of the darkest skies I’ve ever seen.”
While most images returned for manned space missions are looking back at our home, the more difficult night sky is just as impressive, he said.
“I’ve seen a lot of our planet, looking out the window, seeing the Earth and the night sky, that was the best part of being an astronaut,” Thomas said. “I said ‘wow’ so many times. It was equally as impressive in the nighttime as in the day.”
In space, above the atmosphere and city lights, the darkness has a special quality, says Thomas.
“The sky, the black color of space, I tell people it’s darker than anything I’ve ever seen before,” he said. “It almost looked like it was glowing black, like a velvety background.”
Something for Everyone
Those who don’t want to stay up and watch the stars come out can get a taste of our closest star with sessions of solar scope viewing. There will also be hikes, talks, and more sessions with the Danali Brass, a quintet of members of the Colburn School Conservatory of Music known for performing classical music in unusual surroundings.
No matter how festival-goers participate, Thomas hopes they come away thinking about space and its mysteries.
“I think for people it’s important just to gaze outside our planet and look at different star systems, maybe other galaxies,” he said. “It always makes me think about the possibility of other life out there.”
Getting out under dark, unpolluted skies, he said, heightens that sense of what might be.
“In the city, you see a few stars, but you don’t get that contemplation,” Thomas said. “I think it’s good for everybody to look at just the beauty of it, and then just get into some deep thought. Are we alone here? Are there other habitable planets out there?”
Find out for yourself July 21-23. For a full schedule of events, visit the Institute’s website at sequoiaparkconservancy.org. Visit Thomas’ website at ohioastronaut.org.