They hoped the look might be the hook. Like many astronomy groups across the country, this club has seen its membership remain steady — but only steady. Amateur astronomy thrived in the Space Race era, but some worry that interest in the hobby is fading as its biggest enthusiasts begin to gray.
“I’d love to say we are growing in numbers, but we aren’t,’’ Morris said of his 130-person club. “There’s an urgent need in this country to improve the attractiveness of this profession.”
Club members head to Rock Creek Park once a month to gaze at stars — and hunt for stargazers. It has less to do about the preservation of the group and more to do with the preservation of one of science’s most important hobbies.
Morris, 69, carried a stack of handouts explaining various celestial bodies. A small flashlight with a bright red bulb hung from his neck so people could read them.
When a man checked out his Facebook page on his cellphone, Morris asked him nicely to put the device away. Already, the sky’s splendor was corrupted by the distant lights of the District. No additional detractions were needed.
A couple walked up to Morris. They came because their 7-year-old son had liked H.A. Rey’s children’s book about the stars. Young Sevan was first interested in the book because Rey and his wife had written the stories about Curious George. Now, his parents were the curious ones.
“Do you see that really bright star through the trees?” his mother asked. “We were wondering if it was one or two stars.”
Morris took out a laser pointer and flashed its green beam until it reached the twinkling speck in question.
Turned out, the speck was a plane.
Astronomy has long benefited from people who recreationally stared into space. Ancient cultures drew mythologies from pictures written in the stars. In the 1700s, John Flamsteed, a man without a formal college degree, was the first to record a sighting of Uranus. Just five years ago, a Dutch schoolteacher named Hanny van Arkel discovered a new, bright blob next to a nearby galaxy.
The skies aren’t getting smaller, so the idea that sky-watchers are getting older has worried the American Astronomical Society. Rick Fienberg, the group’s spokesman, said every child is born with a natural curiosity about what’s out there. As they age, that natural interest goes away.
“The younger generation has options that we didn’t have, and that makes hobbying harder,” Fienberg said. “They can read about the stars online, they have social media, and so it’s harder to find younger people who are interested in standing outside.”