In May of 1990, an Arizona couple were honeymooning at the Grand Canyon. One of them, Dean Ketelsen, set up a huge pair of WWII-era Japanese battleship binoculars on the rim, sometimes looking down into the Canyon, sometimes up at the stars. He and his wife Vicki soon found themselves a center of attention, with lines of tourists forming at the binoculars for a peek at whatever they had to show.
Dean, an optician at the University of Arizona Mirror Lab, now known as the Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory, the birthplace of the world’s largest monolithic telescope mirrors, was also a tour guide at the Kitt Peak National Observatory and an ardent amateur astronomer. He and Vicki saw an opportunity for sharing the night sky at one of the world’s finest natural attractions. They decided to try a more formal outreach event at the Canyon, and, with the cooperation and approval of the park itself, called it the Grand Canyon Star Party (GCSP).
The following year, at their first anniversary, more or less, they launched the star party as an annual organized event. They started humbly with a mere six volunteers and four telescopes, but this intrepid party entertained and inspired park visitors, this time in June because May was just too darned cold at the 7000-foot elevation of the South Rim of the Canyon.
I learned of the Grand Canyon Star Party in 1992 while on a big and somewhat aimless road trip through the American West. My traveling companion was a 6” Astro-Physics refractor, and I decided to share its spectacular views with the public at this event. A row of maybe twenty telescopes, including mine, was set up along the parking lot at the Yavapai Point overlook, the setting for the star party for many years to come.
Yavapai had its drawbacks. It had limited parking, so most visitors reached the star party via the park shuttle buses. This was a problem, however, as the buses had no escape route other than to drive right by the telescopes, causing frequent cries of “Don’t look at the lights!”
It was also often windy. This caused a lot of jiggling telescopes, but it was worse for the nightly slide show. Each night, one of the star party volunteers offered a presentation of their observing activities or some other aspect of astronomy near the little book store/museum on the Canyon rim. The wind often turned the portable screen into a sail. On some especially windy nights, two volunteers had to hold the screen in place while the lecturer struggled to shout over the sound of the wind. I gave the first of my many talks at that 1992 event, speaking about my space art.
Yavapai wasn’t always windy, or cold, and the venue did have its charm. The Canyon itself was only a few steps away, and the South Rim was a wonderful place to sit with friends and contemplate the stars after the tourists had departed. The view into the Canyon was one of utter blackness, a completely inscrutable void, except for a few lights glimmering weakly down at Phantom Ranch, a mile down and a few miles away as the raven flies.
I didn’t make it back to the Grand Canyon Star Party until 1999, but it somehow carried on without me. By then, it had grown year by year in the number of volunteers, telescopes, and visitors. It eventually outgrew Yavapai, with astronomy volunteers competing for scarce parking spaces, and with hundreds of tourists milling around while the shuttle buses inched by them.
In 2011 the park arranged for a new location in a large parking lot behind the Visitor Center complex. This keeps cars and buses away from the site, and it allows more tourists to circulate freely among more telescopes. The visitor center offers a fine indoor theater for the speakers, who are now mostly professional astronomers and astronomy educators rather than the ragtag group of volunteers from the earlier years.
The leadership of the star party also changed, with retired engineer Jim O’Connor taking over from Dean, who still hasn’t missed attending a single star party. Today the star party is a joint effort of the Tucson Amateur Astronomical Association and the Grand Canyon National Park, while the park has taken on more responsibility and oversight over the years. Each night of the eight-night star party now typically features 30-50 telescopes, with some 2,000 park visitors enjoying the views. Each astronomer typically hosts about 200 people per night at their telescope, thankfully not all at once, though the long lines that form at the bigger scopes make it seem that way.
As for me, I’ve participated in sixteen of these star parties so far, no mean feat since for most of those years I lived in New York State. I think that qualifies me as a regular. Among my great personal accomplishments at the GCSP was being told I had “a great personality” after one of my talks (something I don’t hear all that often), and that I was “funnier than Tom Bergeron” (whoever he is). At the 2018 event, I met a family who told me their young daughter was named Eris, after one of the largest trans-Plutonian dwarf planets. I checked to make sure they knew Eris was also the Greek goddess of strife, discord, and chaos, and they assured me this name was justified.
Of course, the real reward of volunteering for the GCSP is the privilege of providing people with what is, more often than not, their first ever view of astronomical objects through a telescope, and beneath the pristine dark skies of Grand Canyon to boot, a location recently granted status as an International Dark Sky Reserve. Those who attend this event are seeing a truly dark, star-filled sky for the first time in their lives, and it’s often a startling, even a bewildering, sight. The naked-eye view of the Milky Way rising in the east is reason enough for many to attend. We often have to explain that those rising clouds are not clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere, but are in fact clouds of stars, tens of billions of them, and when looking in the right direction towards the constellation Sagittarius, they are seeing part of the central hub of the Milky Way Galaxy some 30,000 light-years away.
Most who attend the GCSP are experienced amateur astronomers. But the event also attracts untutored stargazers who are open to new experiences. Many have the life-altering experience of seeing Saturn through a telescope for the first time, and when they see the planet they gasp, or they exclaim in wonder or disbelief. They did not imagine it would look so perfect. They did not know the pictures they’d seen would look much like the actual planet hanging there before their eyes, in miniature. As a volunteer, it does get tiresome when you hear for the hundredth time, “It looks fake!” or, “It looks like a sticker!” (A sticker? Why a sticker?) But experiences that provoke true awe and amazement are rare in people’s lives. The volunteers at the GCSP are happy and privileged to provide as many such experiences as we can.
Dean Ketelsen told me of one of his favorite outreach stories. His wife Vicki passed away some time ago, and his second wife Melinda, during her first trip to the star party, was at the telescope when, “a dozen Harleys had noisily rolled up and their riders strutted towards the scope. Eyeing the line, the head biker asked what we were looking at, and the ‘lil’ old lady’ in line before him said, ‘Saturn’. He immediately softened, and, in an effeminate voice declared he’d been waiting his whole life to see Saturn! Well, it was great seeing and I had it over 300X. And despite Melinda’s stern warning of ‘Don’t you cry!’, he wept real tears in the parking lot.”
As a long time attendee of the GCSP, I would like to acknowledge and salute Dean, Vicki, Melinda, Bernie, Bre, Roy, other Roy, third Roy, Jim, Susan, Dennis, Doug, George, Mike, other Mike, Joe, Sally, Eric, Valerie, Bob, Derald, David, Elinor, Elaine, Marilyn, Bill, Mary, Paul, Brian, Lynette, the Red Light District, Mae, Carter, Alan, Ginger, Tom, Jenn, Sim, Geoff, Brent, Steve, and all the other volunteers, past and present, who have come together over the years to make the Grand Canyon Star Party the world’s greatest astronomy outreach event. These men and women use their own vacation time for the education and the inspiration of park visitors. Yes, the annual pizza party and the potluck dinner are perks, but there’s more to it than that! I also recognize the National Park Rangers who have done so much to assist the party, including Marker Marshall, Rader Lane, Brian Gatlin, and Chuck Wahler.