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Public's interest in space endures, Western Pa., national groups say

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Dean Kirtley, 10, of McMurray checks out the 24-inch Ritchey–Chrétien telescope during the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh's public star party on Friday, July 19, 2014, at Mingo Creek Park Observatory in Washington County.

Western Pennsylvanians have been stargazing, and in some cases making discoveries, as part of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh for 85 years, even as the country's interest in space has peaked and waned.

“I was 4 years old the first time I looked through a telescope. I still remember it. I was with my neighbor and my dad. The rings of Saturn are one of the most spectacular things you can view,” said Bill Yorkshire, 59, of Plum, an associate director of the group's Wagman Observatory in West Deer.

“We all enjoy astronomy at different levels. You don't have to have a scientific background, although many do. We often wonder, ‘Is life out there?' It's a quest for man.”

The Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh celebrated its 85th birthday this year, and with about 340 members, the group isn't going anywhere. The country celebrated the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing on Sunday.

“I still think there's a lot of interest in space because with (the NASA) Hubble (space telescope), there's a lot of pretty pictures of the universe coming back,” said the group's president, John Holtz, 50, of Point Breeze. “Certainly today you can get any information you want anywhere in the world. What you can't get is someone standing right beside you.”

To keep the public engaged, the group frequently hosts public star parties at its two sites — Mingo Creek Park Observatory in Washington County and Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park.

The parties, which are posted online at, typically have several events going on, and anyone can use the giant telescopes housed in the observatories.

Heather Panek, 37, of Monongahela signed up to join the club during the Mingo star party last weekend.

“I like looking at the stars. I think they're overlooked because of so much light pollution. People don't get a chance to see how beautiful they are,” Panek said. “Everyone should want to know what's out there.”

The Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh isn't the only group pushing public outreach connected to space. Ann Marie Trotta, NASA public affairs officer for education, said the agency sponsors education programs for students of all grade levels.

“We don't see a lessening of interest in space. When we announce education programs, we get more applicants than we have slots for,” Trotta said. “With the retirement of the space shuttle, I can appreciate why people think there's a decline.”

Trotta pointed to NASA's next space vehicle, Orion, which will launch in December. The agency sponsored a contest, drawing thousands of students, to develop a prototype to mitigate the effects of space radiation. The winning group's design will fly on Orion, Trotta said.

“The whole idea of participatory education is the coolest way to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education,” Trotta said.

With the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, it's simpler — look at the stars and enjoy.

As a teenage volunteer at the Allegheny Observatory in the North Side, Ken Kobus fell in love with the stars and joined the Amateur Astronomers.

Fifty years later, he's an associate director at Mingo.

“I made my own telescope. We used to be a telescope-making club and observing was secondary,” said Kobus, 66, of Bethel Park. “My interest came from Sputnik.”

At Mingo's latest star party, Cub Scouts working on their astronomy pin or belt loop packed a presentation in the planetarium because clouds hindered observing on a telescope.

Jacob Riggs and Zachary Handra, both 10, were among the Scouts from Pack 53 who attended.

“I just like space,” said Handra of Lincoln. “I like learning about the other planets.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or

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