This is a commentary written by Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger for the 25th anniversary of the Von Braun Astronomical Society.
ASTRONOMY HAS ALWAYS occupied a place of distinction among the intellectual pursuits of man. Not only is it the oldest and purest of all sciences; it is also that science which is able, more than any other science, to give its followers a realistic feeling for man’s place in the universe. Its objects, visible and present in spite of their remoteness and mystery, have fascinated mankind for thousands of years. Although professional astronomy requires highly specialized knowledge as well as very complex and costly instrumentation, the beauty and excitement of astronomical observations can be enjoyed by amateurs of very diverse backgrounds. Indeed, hardly any other science has as many dedicated active and knowledgeable amateur followers as the science of astronomy. Many of the great astronomical discoveries of the past were made by amateurs. Even today, most new comets are first found by amateurs, and those projects which require careful, patient observations over long periods of time, such as variable star studies, often receive substantial support from amateur astronomers. Even though many of the amateurs do not engage in systematic observations of specific objects, they still build or at least modify their own instruments, and they spend many enjoyable hours looking at the craters of the moon, the rings of Saturn, the pale crescent of Venus, the satellites of Jupiter, the great nebula in Orion, the Andromeda galaxy, the sparkling clusters in Perseus, the ring nebula in Lyra, or just the myriads of stars in the Milky Way. It is not surprising that a city as lively and progressive as Huntsville has a society of astronomical amateurs, and it may not even be surprising that the wealth of technical and scientific talent available in Huntsville has resulted in astronomical facilities belonging to the society which exceed by a large factor the equipment of most other astronomical amateur societies.
Our society was founded twenty-five years ago by a group of young high school students interested in astronomy. They requested and received help from another amateur astronomer, Wernher von Braun, who persuaded a number of his co-workers to join the group. Material help was given very generously by numerous individuals, by City and County officials, and by industrial companies in Huntsville. The objective of the society was, and still is, to acquire and disseminate knowledge in astronomy and related sciences. During the first years, the society was very active in building a telescope and an observatory, and in organizing lectures in astronomy by local and visiting experts. Later, a planetarium was built, observatory facilities were improved and expanded, and public star observation parties and planetarium shows were added to the program. Many school-classes and youth groups have enjoyed lectures on astronomical subjects as well as glimpses through the big telescope.
Like other technical and scientific societies, our astronomical society feels the competition of the excellent science programs offered by television networks. A local amateur society can never hope to compete with the accomplished presentations organized by a TV studio with its almost unlimited access to experts, facilities and funds. How ever, even the best television show cannot provide the exciting experience of an evening hour at the big telescope of a real observatory, with a look at a far-away spiral galaxy, and with the thought that the light signals from this remote world of stars have been traveling for a hundred million years through space before they entered in this very moment the eye and the mind of the observer to establish a personal link between man and a universe which is far greater than we imagine, and probably far greater than we will ever be able to imagine. It is the fascinating experience of this personal, immediate involvement which attracts members, friends and guests to astronomical amateur societies. Our society has always endeavored to share this wonderful experience with those who wish to join us at the telescope, in the planetarium, at the workshop, or just for a good talk. This desire has guided us through the first twenty-five years of our existence; it will remain our guide as long as our society stays alive.
— Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger