Stargazing club eyes skies above the valley

By Ryan Cornell

STEPHENS CITY — Some people measure their life in chapters, like a book. Others might chart the years by the houses they lived in or the cars they drove. Stephens City resident Alan Moeck separates the passage of time with telescopes.

Moeck has served as the president of the Shenandoah Astronomical Society for the past four years and heads a group of enthusiasts that meets for star parties at low light-emitting areas such as Andy Guest State Park, Shenandoah County Park or the Shenandoah County Soccer Plex in Mount Jackson. Armed with telescopes, the 25 members search the night sky and look up at stars.

Although much of the media’s attention was gathered on Sunday’s “supermoon,” a yearly occurrence when the moon is closest to the Earth and appears largest, it’s one event that doesn’t interest the club. “Usually it prevents us from going out and doing what we do,” said former society president Steve Vaughn. “Namely looking at other objects in the sky, because the moon is so bright.”

The Shenandoah Astronomical Society was started in 1986 by then Lord Fairfax Community College professor Bill Warren. The professor would give extra credit to students who showed up to stargazing events and meetings.

As far as Moeck is aware, his society is the only astronomy club in the area. Otherwise, he said, you would have to travel to Harrisonburg, Annandale or Hagerstown, Md.

His first telescope was 6 inches long and cost a little less than $100. It was 1959 and Moeck was in the ninth grade. He had discovered his love for electronics that same year and it led him to other subjects like science and, eventually, astronomy.

All summer he had saved up his money working as a paperboy to buy the telescope. He said he made a 3-cent profit off each newspaper he delivered to 30 families in Bloomfield, N.J.

After assembling the telescope and taking it to his grandmother’s backyard to stare at the planets, he never looked back — or rather, never stopped looking up. He plotted the locations of the planets and made his own charts of what he was seeing. The gradual movement of the planets over the course of a month taught him about the rotation of the Earth.

Then in 1962, someone punched in the passenger window of his car and stole the first telescope he ever owned.

“Nobody saw it,” he said. “How did nobody see someone running down the sidewalk with a long 6-inch tube and a tripod?”

Following a stint in Vietnam and then as an electrical engineer in Romania, Moeck was still without a telescope, relying instead on a pair of heavy-duty binoculars. He then stumbled across a 24-inch reflecting telescope at the Union County College observatory in Cranford, N.J..

His next telescope was an 8-inch Celestron that his wife bought him for $1,500 in 1987. It was a gift for a new job he had landed at Shackleton System Drives in Reston. But the growing city didn’t hold his interest for long and he soon moved to Sterling.

Moeck wrote his own textbook on astronomy with the help of two other writers, though it was never published. He said it was 100 to 150 pages and served as a guide for people hosting star parties. They printed them out and gave them as free manuals to students.

“If we don’t get more students learning mathematics and science, we’re going to end up becoming a hamburger-flipping country,” he said.

Moeck said he’s trying to recruit younger members for the Shenandoah Astronomical Society; currently the youngest member is about 44 years old.

In 2004, Moeck came across a 16-inch telescope at the Morgan County Observatory in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. Although it’s not one he owns, he’s been serving as vice president of the observatory’s foundation for the past nine years.

Perhaps in the distant future, astronomy clubs will look through their telescopes and see the skyscrapers and lakes of Earth. The self-taught astronomer is pretty sure of it. People will live on the moon, he said, though they might have to live underground to protect themselves from the long-term radiation.

“I think our mission eventually is going to be the spreading of mankind to the universe,” Moeck said. “Whether we came from the East or the West, we’ve always been expanding.”

On Saturday, the club will host a star party at Naked Mountain Winery in Markham.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com