The highlight in Colorado skies this month belongs to the planet Mars which shines brightly in eastern Taurus as it passes opposition to the sun on December 8 and will be closer to earth than at any time over the next two years.
The presence of the Red Planet among the stars of the winter night sky on its close approach recalls a similar planetary configuration long ago in my youth and an associated event which was to provide the beginnings of the inspiration for this column.
This inspiration was largely due to a kind and elegant Dr. CH Cleminshaw, who was the associate director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in my youthful days when I quickly realized that there was a big, wide , wonderful universe out there.
As part of this explosive interest, I devoured every printed word on astronomy I could find, and it was Dr. Cleminshaw who provided more than a tasty morsel of those words.
Every month, I looked forward to his “History of the Stars” astronomy column in the Los Angeles Times, a column that served as the direct inspiration and model for “Colorado Skies.” Also, one of the most treasured and prized possessions of my astronomy library is a first edition of the superbly illustrated book, co-authored by Dr. Cleminshaw, titled “Pictorial Astronomy”, which was gifted to me by my parents on my 11th birthday.
In particular, the book contained an incredibly beautiful composite photograph of the planet Saturn, which still works well even in the age of images generated by Voyagers and the Hubble Space Telescope.
My first in-person encounter with Dr. Cleminshaw, however, was to come at a planetarium show.
In the early 1950s, only three major planetariums existed in the United States: the Hayden Planetarium in New York, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and the Griffith Planetarium.
In the spring of 1952, as the planet Mars blazed like a garnet in the sky as Earth moved closer to the red planet, the Griffith Observatory put on a show at the planetarium titled “A Trip to Mars.” After many steps, my father finally promised an outing to see the show and the date was set.
On the morning of the big day, however, all my accumulated anticipation evaporated, as the sky was ugly with clouds and rain. Worse still, the gloomy skies and rain meant it was a dreaded weather day for my dad, an air traffic controller in central Los Angeles. In those days an air traffic controller, even in the best weather conditions, had to deal with a highly explosive mix of slow propeller planes, high speed airliners and assorted military aircraft, without the benefit of today’s sophisticated radar systems.
When my father came home late from a very long day of work “on the plank” almost completely exhausted, I fully expected the postponement of the Martian adventure. To my surprise, however, my father told me that we would see the show as promised.
We arrived at the planetarium just in time. Dr. Cleminshaw started the presentation with a brief lecture on the planet Mars, the lights dimmed into a planetarium “sunset” and we were on our way to Mars!
With Dr. Cleminshaw as guide, over the next hour the rusty ocher Martian disk with its slate-green channel-like markings steadily grew larger on the planetarium dome until, just as the mysteries of Mars could turn out. , our “ship” became “low on fuel” necessitating a return to Earth.
As the planet of Lowell, Schiaperelli and HG Wells faded, Dr. Cleminshaw’s narration gave way to soft “heavenly” music, and when the planetarium lights came on in the traditional dawn finale, they revealed the figure of a heroic, but mentally exhausted air traffic controller sound asleep!
Without wasting a moment and without an ounce of ridicule, Dr. Cleminshaw came to make sure my father was okay.
After we all had a good laugh, I was able, for a few precious minutes, to be able, in person, to talk astronomy with the man who wrote “The History of the Stars”, co-author of “Pictorial Astronomy” and who looked into the flesh as I imagined it. No encounter with a sports star or entertainment celebrity could top this moment.
Afterwards there would have been other shows at the Griffith Planetarium, but I have never forgotten that magical evening when my father allowed me to meet Dr Cleminshaw, who in turn showed a level of patience, kindness, encouragement and professionalism which is still impressive for me today.
At a time when too many astronomers look too much like Tom Skerritt’s portrayal of Dr. David Drumlin’s character in the vintage “Contact” book and film, Dr. Cleminshaw, 50 years after his retirement from the Griffith Observatory and more than three decades after his death, still provides a model of what astronomers should be.
Elsewhere in the sky: The planets Mercury and Venus emerge from solar glare during the last week of December and can be seen to the southwest for about 30 minutes after sunset. On Christmas Eve, this planetary pair will be joined by a crescent moon to form an eye-catching confluence of celestial objects.
The planet Saturn shines as a golden-hued object at the eastern tip of Capricorn for about three hours after sunset.
The planet Jupiter shines as a yellowish-white object among the fainter stars of the constellation Pisces most of the night.
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