San Antonio Astronomical Association
Forty Years of Community Service
The San Antonio Astronomical Association (SAAA) began like most astronomy clubs; through the vision and perseverance of a handful of individuals who saw the need for such an organization and worked until it became a reality. The SAAA thus came into being in 1974. From its modest beginning with only 50 members, the SAAA has grown in two decades to well over 200 members. By 1995, it attained the status of being the fifth largest astronomy club in the Astronomical League.
The San Antonio club has flourished over the years in no small part due to the enthusiasm of its members. But also critical to that success was the community support offered by the staff of the Scobee Planetarium at San Antonio College, Trinity University, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. The resources of Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, have also played a vital role in establishing the San Antonio Astronomical Association as a force in amateur astronomy.
Over the years, SAAA club activities quickly centered on astrophotography and telescope making. Knowledgeable members instructed novices on various aspects of astronomy, photography, and the building
crafts associated with astronomy. As home computers entered the field, club expertise in this area also grew with some members taking the leading edge in the application of software to telescope control.
The SAAA remains active in community education through an ongoing series of public and school star parties offered by club members. Additionally, club members teach adult education astronomy courses offered through San Antonio College and the Northeast Independent School District in San Antonio.
SAAA Helps With Major Conferences and Conventions
Within a year of its foundation, the SAAA jointly hosted its first major astronomical conference. In cooperation with the Federation of Americans Supporting Science and Technology (FASST) and San Antonio College, the SAAA hosted the national FASST conference which first exposed the San Antonio amateur astronomy community to professional level speakers on astronomy and space advocacy topics.
In 1981, the Texas Star Party evolved into a function of the Southwestern Region of the Astronomical League. Although the SAAA did not enter the Astronomical league until a decade later, the club quickly
assumed part of the TSP workload. The TSP group photo and astrophotography contest has traditionally been coordinated by the SAAA. Additionally, numerous TSP daytime presentations have been authored by SAAA members. For the past decade, the SAAA has also contributed ongoing reviews of the Texas Star Party to popular astronomical magazines. Full reviews of each year’s TSP activities have appeared in Deep Sky, Deep Sky Journal, Amateur Astronomy, The Practical Observer, and The Reflector along with photographic coverage of these events.
For the more than three decades, the San Antonio Astronomical Association has also participated in the national Astronomy Day celebrations by bringing astronomy to the people. Extensive displays of astronomical imagery, hardware, and hands-on activity have been set up by club members at both local major shopping malls and the Whitte Museum of Natural Science.
The public experience gained by local club members was put to the test in the summer of 1995 when the San Antonio Astronomical Association hosted the annual Astronomical League national convention. Through the extraordinary efforts of a select few SAAA members, the 1995 League convention, held on the campus of St. Mary’s University, is remembered as one of the best in recent history.
Club Observatory Is A Magnet
One of the fondest dreams of all astronomy clubs is to have their own observatory. In the mid-1980’s, this dream became a reality for the SAAA through the outstanding financial contributions of members and the generous donation of a remote country location to house the facility, and many weekends of hard labor by club members.
The SAAA’s observatory, collectively called STAR (for South Texas Astronomical Retreat), was located about 50 miles northwest of San Antonio. The facility featured a club-owned 14- by 28-foot roll-off roof observatory housing several large Newtonian telescopes and two nearby smaller private observatories. The complex is supplemented by twin 6-by 30-foot concrete pads, one with five steel piers for SCT telescopes. Both pads and adjoining concrete tables have numerous electrical outlets. Additionally, running water, a telephone, and rest room facilities made STAR a convenient place for SAAA club members to enjoy dark skies.
The End of an Era
The South Texas Astronomical Retreat closed in 1999 and the search began for a site to replace it. The SAAA found two dark sky sites, SOLC and Fort McKavett. The SAAA began to plan the building of a new observatory and observing site at the SOLC, Seguin Outdoor Learning Center. The new facility would have running water, electrical outlets, and restroom facilities. The SOLC is located about 30 miles east of San Antonio.
By 2004, light pollution had encroached upon the Seguin Outdoor Learning Center to such a level that the SAAA was forced to abandon it as a home for the South Texas Astronomical Retreat. The search continues today for a location near enough to San Antonio to make it practical and with dark enough skies to make the journey worthwile. Meanwhile, the SAAA has partnered with the Hill Country State Natural Area, Garner State Park, Guadalupe State Park, and Palmetto State Park to provide dark sky sites available to its members and the public.
Steps into the Future
In 1996, the SAAA published their first website. It was primitive by today’s standards, with its black text on a grey background and no images, but it was one of the pioneers of asronomy club websites. Over the years, the web site has kept up with Internet technology, and now is an Ajax enabled ASP.NET site that allows its members to interact with it, publishes astronomy and science news from a dozen new sources, and keeps visitors and members alike up today on weather events, sky conditions, lunar phases, ststus of the Sun, and SAAA announcements.
In 2003, the SAAA, expanded its Internet presence by creating a Yahoo Discussion Group for its members. Its use has grown from a few messages a month to well over 700 messages a month, as well as adding an archive of their documents.
In 2004, the SAAA embarked on a new project when it joined the Night Sky Network (NSN) and has conducted more than 500 events using NSN resources, bringing astronomy to more than 57,000 people. In 2008, the SAAA added a summertime public outreach program called “Astronomy in the Park” at McAllister Park, in San Antonio, to its impressive list of Public Outreach Programs. This program was such a huge success for the club, that it was extended beyond the end of Summer, and continues to this day, every Wednesday night beginning at sunset.
In 2009, the SAAA, extended its Public Outreach again, this time on the Internet. To compliment their web site, they created a presence on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Flickr. These sites bring information about astronomy and the SAAA itself to the cyber-saavy public.
To celebrate it’s Fortieth Anniversary in 2014, the SAAA hosted the Astronomical League Convention for the second time in its history. Through the extraordinary efforts by the members of the SAAA’s AlCon 2014 team and volunteers from the SAAA, the Austin Astronomical Association, Hill Country Astronomers, the Astronomical League, and San Antonio League of Sidewalk Astronomers, AlCon 2014, at the San Antonio Airport Hilton, was one of the best AlCons in recent history.
Who We Are
In spite of all of its big club success, the SAAA retains an intimate feel associated with a much smaller amateur astronomy organization. Recognizing that it is difficult to maintain a fresh perspective year after year, “old timers” in the SAAA who have known each other for more than two decades welcome new blood into the club. Indeed, the SAAA flourishes because it attracts first rate individuals who carry on the ideals of astronomy which make this hobby so attractive to us.
Educators and organizations interested in obtaining guidance and help with public star parties, or astronomy minded persons in the South Texas area who wish to meet others interested in the celestial sciences, are encouraged to contact the San Antonio Astronomical Association.
Written by Robert Reeves. Updated by Scott Logan.