When I was a teenager, I fell in love a couple of times. I’d sweep my hand towards the night sky and say, “That’s Arcturus. That’s your star.” Girlfriends loved that. (Yes, I chose a different star each time.) I could not know that decades later, several companies would make fortunes naming stars after any customer who requested it. It didn’t matter that no astronomer would ever recognize the names. The certificate proclaiming that henceforth the faint dot circled on the parchment would be known as Ashley was enough to achieve the goal, and brought them $50 a shot.
Valentine’s Day conjures love, which is intimately allied with beauty and a sense of eternity. The night sky easily obliges. A feeling of infinity is already in place among the stars.
Part of the appeal probably stems from genetic memories. If our nervous systems carry hard-wired imprints from earlier lifetimes…well, we’ve been looking up at the sky since long before the Neanderthals. The nightly canopy is a very ancient experience. It conveys a feeling more deeply than it provokes intellectual knowledge.
As for beauty, that’s more subjective, although backyard astronomers are easy to please. They look at dim grey smudges and make appreciative murmurs because they know that they’re seeing a distant galaxy. A more honest appraisal of what’s beautiful was itemized here last week, and includes the Moon, Saturn and the summer Milky Way. There’s no shortage.
The sky also offers mythology that’s packed with love stories. We have the princess Andromeda rescued by her hero Perseus. We see giant lions, dragons and swans. The nightly scene is more appropriate for romantic couples than for the solitary male nerds who constitute the actual bulk of the astronomy hobby.
Then there’s the aspect of romance conducted physically in space. It took me a long time to find out who actually joined the “100-Mile-High Club,” as astronauts secretly call the exclusive society of those who have made love while in orbit. Official NASA spokespeople deny that anything ever happened. But while researching one of my books, I carefully worked my way up the NASA food chain until I found a senior astronaut who was a longtime instructor, soon to retire, and didn’t care about spilling the beans.
He told me of a specific woman astronaut who’d announced her intentions before her 1980s-era Shuttle mission. There was also the famous (among NASA insiders) couple who had been dating prior to their Shuttle mission and who subsequently married. Another NASA employee told me of unequivocal motel-roomlike evidence found during the Shuttle cleanup process after a mission was completed. No question: That all-too-human activity has long ago penetrated to the far side of Earth’s atmosphere.
Anyway, if you live away from the lights of town or have a small telescope, this next week is an ideal time for stargazing and especially exploring the Moon, which is now ideally illuminated for breathtaking detail. None of it costs a penny. Please also consider coming to my free 8 p.m. talk at SUNY-New Paltz’s Coykendall Science Building this Tuesday evening, February 16, for the Mid-Hudson Astronomy Association.
May your Valentine’s Day be filled with love, magic and infinitude.
Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.