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Skies to Stars: The Galactic Fly-in

By Ed Downs


As some readers may know, this writer is a great fan of amateur astronomy and astrophysics, occasionally penning this column titled “Skies to Stars.”  The column’s theme is to relate astronomy with flying, as they have much in common.  The purpose of an airplane is, after all, to enable travel.  Aviation has opened the airman’s world to wonderful cross-countries and globe circling adventures.  It is no wonder that this writer’s childhood desire to see far off places would result in an aviation career and lasting interest in astronomy and space travel.  You see, astronomy offers the greatest cross-country adventure one can experience and still be earthbound.  While the average aviator flies for hours to see different sights, the telescope traveler can overcome lightyears in a matter of minutes to see billions of years back in time, or perhaps just hover 700 miles above the Moon’s surface, admiring the mountains, valleys and lava “seas.”  July was an exciting travel month for many atmospheric dependent aviators, with both the Arlington Fly-in and EAA AirVenture within just days of each other.  The excitement, comradery and just plain fun of a fly-in is hard to beat.  This writer missed these two great shows but did attend a truly fun event, which brought aviation and astronomy even closer together, a “fly-in” experience that was unexpected and tremendously satisfying.  Allow me to share.

Enter my astronomy pal, John, and an invitation to accompany him to the Mid-States Region Astronomical League 2018 Convention.  The main convention site was in Springdale, Arkansas, with a “star party” being held in the Hobbs State Park near Rogers Arkansas and a main dinner event, with featured speaker Dr, David H. Levy, utilizing facilities at the Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville (Walmart HQ). Yep, lots of travel and places to see, just like a fly-in.  The Mid-States Regional Astronomical League represents astronomy clubs in a five-state area, with the local Sugar Creek Astronomical Society (much like an EAA chapter) providing coordination of the event.  These groups, along with many local astronomy clubs throughout the U.S., provide a huge amount of support for public scientific educational programs. Facilities for the three-day gathering were provided by a relative newcomer to the hardware end of astronomy (telescopes and other scientific equipment), Explore Scientific, now celebrating its 10thyear in business and offering a remarkable variety of scopes for all levels of astronomy.  This writer was reminded of many fly-ins sponsored by aircraft or accessory manufacturers who open their facilities to share the inside workings of fun flying.

We arrived at the Explore Scientific base camp following an uneventful drive of just under three hours, punctuated by the melodic chant, “are you sure that GPS is right?”  We quickly joined a group taking a tour of Explore Scientific, lead by Founder and President, Scott Roberts.  Scott’s enthusiasm for both astronomy and the products offered by his company was infectious, very much like days past when this writer conducted tours of an aircraft plant.  Our crowd of science nerds soaked up the atmosphere of quality and perfection that personified Explore Scientific, supported by a loyal group of employees that saw to our every need.  

The tour ended in a place of great economic danger, the product show room, with a remarkable variety of telescopes, goodies and gadgets on sale, kind of like walking into Aircraft Spruce with a guilt free credit card in your pocket. There should have been a consumer warning sign on the door suggesting you eat your credit card, but noooo,just courteous employees who were only too happy to demonstrate the latest “must have” item. Explore Scientific is an international company, both manufacturing and importing a wide variety of telescopes (from beginner to highly advanced astrograph systems), including microscopes and science kits that are marketed under different brand names, such as Discovery Channel and National Geographic.  They even offer high quality riflescopes for the sporting market.  Their website,, is certainly worth a visit.

Like many regional fly-ins, the three-day event offered seminars and presentations by the elite in astronomy.  Programs included talks on extension education for children, scopes being made available through public libraries and even programs to help keep America’s skies dark.   One must remember that generations of city dwellers have never actually seen the vastness of the Milky Way galaxy, our home. Friday night included a “star party” at the Hopps State Park, complete with dark skies and a breathtaking lodge. Star parties are great fun, with local astronomy club members setting up dozens of telescopes, each looking at different distant objects.  Just think, planets, moons, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies and billions of years of history, all in one place.  Sort of like strolling down the flight line at EAA AirVenture.  You meet and talk with folks from many states, unable to see any of them… remember… astronomers play at night, the darker, the better. You see new gadgets, lie about how much your equipment cost (twice what I tell my spouse) and brag about seeing space aliens.  Of note, was the local club’s use of party glow sticks around the bases of their equipment to keep others from tripping in the dark.  Shucks, at our club we just grade face plants.  Those Arkansas folks are smart!  Nobody can really see each other, so you can even claim to be Sheriff Lamb (the cowboy hat guy on YouTube, ladies’ latest hotty) and get away with it, for a while!  

I met Scott Roberts once again upon arriving at the Saturday night dinner.  Scott was delivering the grand door prize, donated by Explore Scientific, a specially dressed out 152mm “Comet Hunter” telescope.  Given the dark night and large, unoccupied parking area, this writer offered to help carry some of the equipment in. For a moment, I envisioned myself taking my coveted prize home, as this scope is my personal dream for the perfect “grab and go” system. I shook myself out of my momentary reverie and returned to watching where I was walking. I did, however, gently stroke the equipment, hoping to impart some winning mojo for when the grand prize ticket numbers were called.  The Saturday featured dinner speaker was none other than Dr. David H. Levy, famed author, astronomer and comet hunter (    Dr. Levy’s talk was informative, creative and surprisingly funny.  Yep, scientists do have a sense of humor, highlighted by Dr. Levy’s refusal to call the “PLANET” Pluto a “dwarf planet.” Go Doc!  Oh yeah, about the grand prize drawing… it was won by a very deserving person… not me! 

Yes, three days of fun, typified by 16-year-old Abigall Bollenbach, a home schooled high schooler who gave a learned talk on “Cassini-Huygens Legacy.”   Her brilliance regarding this epic spacecraft voyage to Saturn convinced me that Ms. Bollenbach will grow up to be a true contributor to mankind’s understanding of our place in the universe.   I thought back to my proudest moment at the age of 16, figuring out how to hand prop an Aeronca Champ with no one in the cockpit, and live to tell the story. Yep, this writer ended up as a professional pilot … allowing me to skip the “growing up” part!  The MSRAL Convention was a “fly-in” in every sense of the phrase. Truly smart people treated this old airman as an equal and everyone shared their excitement and knowledge about the hobby of star gazing, knowing that the amateur world of astronomy is quickly catching up to professional capabilities.   Fly-ins do much the same, as homebuilders and store-bought airplane enthusiasts share their passion for flying with newcomers who ask questions about learning to fly and owning a plane.  Learn more about local astronomy clubs and public astronomy activities by visiting




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