After experiencing some growing pains in its first three years, the Sequoia Park Conservancy’s fourth annual Dark Sky Festival held July 21 to 23 was out of this world. From Friday’s fundraiser dinner with former astronaut Don Thomas to the Invisible Astronomy program at Sunset Campground at Grant Grove, hundreds were engaged and inspired by one of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks most incredible resources: its dark sky.
There were intimate presentations in state-of-the-art theaters; star parties with impassioned astronomers and their telescopes teaching about the sun, stars, and life on other planets; and an introductory course to get ready for the solar eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21. In other words, at the 60 different events at 20 venues there was something for everyone.
Those who attended the Lodgepole Amphitheater on Saturday night also listened to the space-themed arrangements of the Denali Brass Band. These L.A.-area musicians were a special treat for festival-goers and, like everyone else, were in awe of the nearby giant sequoias.
As the night sky darkened near the conclusion of “Living and Working is Space,” a talk by retired astronaut Don Thomas that followed the music, right on cue the International Space Station made a pass overhead.
Still illuminated by the sun’s setting light, the huge space station sped across the Lodgepole night sky – truly a surreal scene straight out of a sci-fi thriller.
The water rockets launch event on Saturday morning at Slick Rock at Lake Kaweah was an absolute hoot for the kids and their parents. In effect, the Dark Sky Festival has now spread its wings from College of the Sequoias in Visalia to Roads End in Cedar Grove to become a regional happening for visitors and residents of Kaweah Country.
Who is not intrigued and curious about the secrets of deep space? But more than that it was an opportunity for all who attended and many who just happened to be touring the parks to engage the International Dark Sky Association and learn about the preservation of an endangered species: the night sky.
After experiencing some of the past Dark Sky festivals, here are some takeaways from 2017.
1. The presentations of the astronauts are the highlights of past festivals, and this year was no exception. Don Thomas is a difficult act to follow; he also did some of the 2016 sessions.
Thomas was engaging, entertaining, and equally adept and comfortable with all ages. He was gracious with a legion of new space fans who asked questions and wanted to pose for pictures with the keynote speaker.
2. Don Thomas came equipped with an excellent book he co-authored: Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission. John Glenn, the first American and Ohioan to orbit in space, in the book’s foreword explains why there are so many Ohio astronauts – 26 are profiled in the book. Glenn cites Ohio’s rich aeronautical tradition rooted in the Wright brothers who grew up near Dayton, Ohio, and flew their first airplane at Kitty Hawk, N.C. in 1903.
Senator Glenn also became the oldest Ohioan to fly in space and went 36 years between spaceflights. If you missed an opportunity to purchase the book last weekend check it out at ohioastronaut.com. It will serve as your primer for the fifth annual Dark Sky Festival!
3. So what’s the number one thing that Don Thomas learned from four space shuttle missions, completing nearly 700 orbits, and traveling over 17 million miles during his 20-year career with NASA?
“During one of my missions, I was looking down on the Southern Hemisphere, and nearly half of the entire planet was obscured by smoke from the burning rain forest.” he said. “We have to take better care this planet. It’s the only one we have or know about that can support the life we have here.” And he should know.
4. There wasn’t much missing from the 2017 edition save for a presentation or two at a Three Rivers venue. A telescope set up on the upper field of Three Rivers School somewhere, and a local lecture about the wonders of deep space would underscore the importance of preserving dark sky in gateway communities outside national parks too.
5. Currently, Tulare County planners are set for a September release of environmental documents related to the impending adoption of the Three Rivers Community Plan. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the Sequoia Parks Conservancy need to be strong advocates for dark sky in the parks and in gateway community of Three Rivers.
“Dark sky, that’s what I love about coming here,” Thomas said. “If you want to see the wonders of space like the Milky Way, all you have to do here is look up. Enjoy it while you can, because it’s not getting any darker.”