"HAVE YOU EVER seen Saturn?" Al Schumann asks me.

"No."

"Excellent," he exclaims, stepping back from his telescope, which is propped on a tripod and pointed at a clear, moonless sky.

It's a Sunday evening in mid-October. Schumann, a retired Air Force officer from Springfield, has brought me to this dark corner of C. M. Crockett Park, in Fauquier County, 60 miles southwest of Washington, so that I might take a good look at the ringed planet and a panoply of other gems in the celestial vault.

Moving up close to the instrument, I lean forward to address the eyepiece. This is a moment I've anticipated for days: my first encounter with a telescope. Yet I sense from his hovering posture that Schumann is even more excited than I am. It's as though he is about to see Saturn for the first time.

"Got it?" he asks.

"Uh-huh. Oh yeah. Wow," I say. "That's something."

In truth, the planet in the eyepiece is a letdown: an encircled dot, a belted BB, nothing at all like the classic, multi-ringed Saturn shown in textbooks and encyclopedias. To my eye, only a single ring is perceptible, and there is no sign of the storm that's presently the talk of the astronomical community. Saturn's tempest is supposed to be visible tonight as a big white spot, but I discern nothing like that.

Minutes later, my disappointment deepens when Schumann shows me a globular cluster, a tight grouping of stars. "There are tens of thousands of stars in that particular one," he says. "It looks like a big, compressed ball of stars."

No it doesn't, I think as I peer into the eyepiece. It looks like a puny cloud fragment. Can I say that to my attentive host? No, it would be frank but rude. Better to ask a question.

"This is a stupid question, but how does that cluster compare in size to a galaxy?"

"It's all part of a galaxy," Schumann replies evenly. "The things we're looking at right now are in the Milky Way. The Milky Way is our hometown, so to speak."

"Do you do much looking at stuff outside the Milky Way?"

"We sure do. And we'll give you some examples of them, too."

Over the next four hours, Schumann and his buddy Al Boldt, whose telescope is set up 10 yards away, proceed to do just that. As the temperature slips from the high sixties to the mid-fifties, I shuttle back and forth between the telescopes, examining spiral galaxies (which resemble gray smudges), elliptical galaxies (wispy spots), planetary nebulae (blurred whitish dabs) and diffuse nebulae (fuzzy patches of light).

All evening long, Schumann and Boldt swap knowing comments on these and other items they locate with their telescopes.

At midnight they're still going strong, but I'm cold and tired and puzzled as to why they're getting such a big bang out of this strange activity. To me the images in the eyepieces simply aren't stirring. Have I made some mistake in my approach to stargazing?

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Two mistakes, it turns out.

First, I failed to grasp the importance of searching the sky for particular objects, as opposed to gazing at objects found. Since Schumann and Boldt did all the telescopic probing and focusing that evening, the pleasure of performing those tasks remained obscure to me.

Ken Willcox, immediate past president of the Astronomical League, the world's largest organization of amateur astronomers, says the "thrill of the hunt" is stargazing's main attraction. Finding a faint, significant object in the firmament, he says, "gives a satisfaction that you've accomplished something very few people on planet Earth are capable of doing."

Second, I expected too much. "Grandiose expectations: That turns off more {novices} than everything else put together," says Richard Berry, editor in chief of Astronomy magazine, which is published for amateurs.

"When you look through a telescope, you're not going to see a brilliant color picture with fireworks exploding," Berry says. "It's not an astronomical video. You're looking at the real universe. Your eyes have to get used to the dark. You have to know how to use the telescope well enough to find things. And you have to recognize that most things are going to look little, faint and fuzzy. And in order to really begin to enjoy the sky, you're going to have to develop some of the skills and awareness necessary to see things. Once you understand what you're seeing, then it begins to get exciting."

Exciting? Evidently so. In fact, if you've never done any celestial touring with a real telescope, you may be surprised to learn how big the American stargazing community is. Astronomy and Sky & Telescope, the two top magazines for amateurs, have circulations of 160,000 and 105,000 respectively.

Willcox says the Astronomical League has 11,500 members. Roughly 175 of them are community- or school-based astronomy clubs, but Willcox conservatively estimates that 500 to 700 such clubs actually exist in the United States. A bunch are scattered around this area, and all of them hold "star parties" -- nighttime sky-watching sessions -- at which novices are welcome.

Schumann and Boldt are members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC), a typically active group. Since 1987 NOVAC's star parties have been held at Crockett Park, which is just far enough away from Washington to offer the darkness essential for deep-sky viewing.

"We observed for a while at the Manassas battlefield," Schumann says. "And then things started to grow so fast at Manassas that the skies got very bright. We just seem to get chased farther and farther away from the city as light pollution becomes more and more of a factor."

GOOD HEAVENS

"Light pollution" is a phrase you'll encounter repeatedly should you start to cultivate an interest in astronomy. Though it's a formidable problem for stargazers who study deep-sky objects, it shouldn't stop you from looking at the sky from your backyard.

In the suburbs, or even in downtown Washington (where the U.S. Naval Observatory is located), you can have a blast studying a nighttime sky using nothing more powerful than your eyes. In fact, it's probably best to stargaze several times with the naked eye (plus glasses, if you wear them) before you try it with binoculars.

"There are many reasons why naked-eye observing is the ideal way to start," Alan MacRobert wrote in a Sky & Telescope series on backyard astronomy. "It is easy, natural, and inexpensive, and involves no complicated machinery to intimidate the novice . . . . The rewards of being able to glance up and spot Jupiter or Arcturus last a lifetime, whether or not the observer ever moves on to more advanced levels. Yet such familiarity with the sky is essential for putting a telescope to good use."

Start by learning the constellations, MacRobert advises. "The patterns formed by the brighter stars make up the geography of the heavens, and you'll have to learn them before you can find your way around the sky."

Constellation guidebooks are available in bookstores and libraries, and Astronomy and Sky & Telescope publish monthly almanacs that show the relative positions of stars and planets.

In addition to gazing at the sky, read dauntlessly. Astronomy at the amateur level isn't very intimidating once you get a grasp of the basics. I, who loathingly endured high school physics, understood everything MacRobert covered in his backyard series, and his topics included the moon, the sun, the planets, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, sunspots, comets and telescopes.

Attending a planetarium show or lecture can speed and enliven the learning process. One of the country's finest is in Washington -- the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum -- and there are several other good ones in this area.

Even after familiarizing yourself with the night sky, don't be in too great a hurry to study it through a telescope. You can see plenty with binoculars.

"The best astronomy that I ever did was with a pair of binoculars," says Gary S. Hand of Damascus, an advanced amateur who owns several telescopes. "With a pair of everyday, sports-type binoculars you can see craters on the moon, the rings around Saturn, the moons of Jupiter. You just have to know where to look."

Hand is one of many stargazers who have noted a charmingly paradoxical sensation the heavens arouse in humans.

"I am not a humble person," he explains. "I'm a businessman, I'm aggressive and all that. {Astronomy} is the only thing I can think of that truly makes me feel humble. When you realize how small you are compared to everything else that's out there, and the distances and sizes involved, it gives you a sense of man's place in the universe. But on the other hand, it makes me feel very significant and important because we may be the only ones out here who have the intelligence to realize our place in the universe."

Not long after you start feeling comfortable with the constellations, you'll itch for access to a telescope. You may even want to buy one and bear it proudly to your first star party. Resist that urge, at least for a while. It makes more sense to attend a few parties and look through a variety of telescopes before settling on one. (See the accompanying sidebar for tips on buying a telescope.)

Geoff Chester, an experienced stargazer who's a staff member of the Einstein Planetarium, says visiting a star party is one of the best things a novice can do. "These people are out there to show you stuff in their telescopes. They're proud of their instruments. They're proud of the fact that they can point it at this otherwise blank piece of sky and show you something that's really neat -- or at least that they think is really neat."

Finding star parties is a cinch. Start with the list of clubs following this story. The area's two leading telescope shops, Redlich Binocular & Optical in Falls Church and Company Seven in Laurel, both have bulletin boards carrying information about upcoming events. Also, The Post's Sky Watch column, which runs the first Wednesday of the month in the Style Plus section, provides similar information. Fall and winter are the heaviest stargazing seasons, due to the superior clarity of cold air.

STARS IN THEIR EYES

As Gary Hand points out, there's no need to make a social occasion of stargazing. Hand sets up his telescope on the back deck of his Damascus house, which commands a good view of all horizons but the east, which is partially blocked by trees.

"If I want to see something over there, I'll just move the telescope to the front of the house," he says.

Don Moser, editor of Smithsonian magazine, is another solo practitioner. He keeps his telescope at his vacation home on Long Island and doesn't mind that his stargazing sessions are only occasional.

"It's a way of getting in touch with the natural world," Moser says. "It's not really very much different for me than bird-watching or fly-fishing for trout. They're activities that give a particular point to your being out of doors."

If Hand and Moser occupy the casual end of the amateur spectrum, then the star partiers who belong to astronomy clubs logically fit in the middle. They include folks like Al Schumann and Al Boldt, who are willing to haul their telescopes out to exurban spots where they enjoy dark skies, good company and long evenings of stargazing.

At the far end of the spectrum are amateurs who stargaze for science. In short, they monitor the skies and send their data to professional astronomers, who need the data but typically are too busy at their computers to peer through telescopes.

This scientific "grunt work," as Chester puts it, involves everything from stars (measuring brightness) to planets (noting meteorological changes) to comets (making discoveries). It's important work that, in certain cases, can even produce a little fame for the amateur.

"One of the classic cases of an amateur astronomer who was kind of a late bloomer is a fellow named William Bradfield, who lives in Australia," says Chester. "In 1970 he saw a bright comet, Comet Bennett, which was seen by most people around the world. And it really blew him away. And so he got interested in astronomy, and that was good because he was getting close to retirement age and was looking for a hobby.

"Since that time he has discovered 18 comets, more than anyone else alive, by going out and sweeping the sky with a telescope and finding a fuzzy blob of light that wasn't supposed to be there. And the interesting thing about Bradfield's comets is that they are all solo discoveries."

Each comet can have up to three co-discoverers, Chester says. Official credit depends on the timing of the telegrammed reports to the International Astronomical Union in Cambridge, Mass.

In August 1987, observing from Rixeyville, Va., Chester found a comet that, as far as he knew, had not been reported.

"The feeling that I had, knowing that this might be something that no one had ever seen before, was really amazing. The adrenaline was practically squirting out of my ears, I was so excited. As it turned out, somebody else had beaten me to it by two days."

Is it still possible that the record books will one day record a Comet Chester?

"Anything's possible," he says.

SPACE CADETS

All of the following clubs welcome rookie skywatchers to their star parties. To become a member you needn't own a telescope. Annual dues are typically between $10 and $25.

ANNE ARUNDEL ASSOCIATION of Amateur Astronomers holds star parties at least once a month at Anne Arundel Community College, Arnold, Md. Contact Jack Davis, 301/224-2391.

ASTRONOMICAL LEAGUE, the nation's largest association for amateurs, welcomes new members with or without stargazing experience. Contact Mary Wooten, 6235 Omie Circle, Pensacola, FL 32504; 904/477-8859.

BALTIMORE ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY holds open meetings at 7:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month, at the Maryland Academy of Science at the Inner Harbor. Star parties are held irregularly at several sites. Contact John Sexton, 301/323-7897.

GODDARD ASTRONOMY CLUB is limited to employees of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. However, in conjunction with the club, Goddard's visitors center holds star parties on the second Saturday of each month, October through April. Contact Lindy Perkes, 301/286-8570.

NATIONAL CAPITAL ASTRONOMERS is a scientific society catering primarily to professional astronomers and advanced amateurs. It sponsors monthly lectures, telescope-making classes and some summer stargazing sessions at Rock Creek Nature Center. Contact Bob McCracken, 301/320-3621.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA ASTRONOMY CLUB stargazes at C.M. Crockett Park in Catlett, Va., and Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Va. Contact Blaine Korcel, 703/256-4430.

SHENANDOAH ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY observes the sky from Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Va., and Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Va. Contact Bill Warren, 703/869-1120.

SHENANDOAH VALLEY ASTRONOMY CLUB holds star parties at Hillandale Park in Harrisonburg, Va., and Stokesville Park, 18 miles south of Harrisonburg. Contact Henry Leap, 703/568-3845.

TRIANGULUM ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY conducts skywatching sessions at various places throughout central Virginia. Contact Al Ventura Jr., P.O. Box 7464, Fredericksburg, VA 22402; 703/775-2337.

TRISTATE ASTRONOMERS stargaze at various locations in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Contact Rod Martin at the Washington County Planetarium, Hagerstown, Md.; 301/791-4172. In West Virginia contact Jim Taylor, 304/274-1886. In Pennsylvania contact C. J. Warner, 717/762-8717.

OBSERVATORIES AND PLANETARIUMS

ALBERT EINSTEIN PLANETARIUM at the National Air & Space Museum -- Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202/357-2700. "Calling All Stars," a 30-minute show covering the search for extraterrestrial life and other subjects, is repeated several times daily starting at 10:50 (on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the first show is at 12:50); $2.50 adults, $1.50 children, students and seniors. "The Skywatchers Report," a three-minute taped message about current stargazing conditions, is renewed weekly and is free to callers; call 202/357-2000.

ARLINGTON PLANETARIUM -- 1426 N. Quincy St., Arlington. 703/358-6070. One-hour programs on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 1:30 and 3. On the first Monday of each month at 7:30, "The Stars Tonight," a show about constellations, is followed by telescopic viewing outside if weather permits; $2 for adults, $1 for kids under 12 and seniors.

HOWARD B. OWENS SCIENCE CENTER -- 9601 Greenbelt Rd., Lanham. 301/459-1816. Planetarium show each Friday at 7; $2 for adults, $1 for students and seniors.

MARYLAND SCIENCE CENTER -- 601 Light St. at the Inner Harbor, Baltimore. 301/685-5225. A 30-minute planetarium show begins on the hour 1 to 5 Monday through Friday and at 11 on weekends; $2 in addition to the $7.50 general admission to the Science Center.

ROCK CREEK NATURE CENTER -- 5200 Glover Rd. NW. 202/426-6829. Free planetarium shows: Saturday and Sunday at 1, "The Night Sky," for kids age 4 to 7; Saturday and Sunday at 4, a monthly changing show on astronomical topics for kids and adults (this show repeats on Wednesdays at 3:45).

U.S. NAVAL OBSERVATORY -- Massachusetts Avenue at 34th Street NW. Twice-monthly two-hour free tours of the observatory will resume in May 1991. Amateur astronomers are occasionally permitted to observe the sky through the observatory's telescopes. Contact Susan Glutting, 202/653-1541.

UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND -- Metzerott Road off University Boulevard, College Park. 301/405-3001. A free lecture, slide show and telescopic sky-viewing opportunity is offered to the public on the 5th and 20th of every month. Contact Maureen Gray, 301/405-3001.

WASHINGTON COUNTY PLANETARIUM -- 823 Commonwealth Ave., Hagerstown, Md. 301/791-4172. A free program is offered each Tuesday at 7.

Kevin McManus last wrote for Weekend about unusual pets.