I first got to know Steve Fast at last year’s “Okie Tex” star party. Both of our tents and scopes were set up close to one another so we shared views through our scopes. We had a great time working on faint objects together throughout the week. He is a very dedicated visual observer…he’s a star-hopping SCT guy. Like me, he loves the challenge of working on an observing program with a lot of faint fuzzies. He will agree with me, it’s all about the hunt.
Steve holds two important positions in our club…he works hard at organizing and distributing all the club members nametag badges during our monthly meetings. Steve is also our current Field Trip and Observing coordinator. He plans our club picnics, Messier marathons, and weekend star parties throughout the year. FYI, Steve also had input on selecting objects that were included in our new HAS “Texas 45” observing program.
I know you readers will enjoy this month’s interview. I failed to mention that Stevie is quite humorous and is known to be somewhat of a prankster. Beware. Here’s Steve…
The Steve Fast bio…
I grew up in the wide-open spaces of the very un-cloudy Oklahoma Panhandle where you just had to step out into the yard to see dark skies. My dad would always show me the Big Dipper when we went outside; and when I was in third grade, I found an old encyclopedia from my grandpa, the Lincoln Library of Essential Information, which had pictures of the then brand-new 200” Hale telescope and a breathless description of its wonders. My parents couldn’t afford to buy me a telescope, and mowing lawns didn’t provide nearly enough income for that either. So my amateur astronomy consisted of looking at telescope pictures and borrowing books from the public library and looking at the stars at night in wonder.
But as I got out of grade school, my interest in astronomy waned. I graduated from OU and got my master’s from Harvard, and then I found a job for an oil company in Kazakstan. In 1997, one of our contractors asked who wanted to see Comet Hale-Bopp. Since we were working in a desert, the view through his binoculars was stunning. That comet rekindled my interest in astronomy.
I soon bought an 8” Meade LX10 and brought it back to Kazakstan with me as carry-on luggage (that was before the TSA treated all passengers as terrorists). I did some observing, but I couldn’t find anyone over there to teach me anything, so I was very frustrated. Despite my frustrations, I got to see two unforgettable events. In 2004, I saw the transit of Venus from my backyard in Almati, Kazakstan; and in March 2006, I went to Atirau, Kazakstan, to see a total eclipse of the sun.
By 2011, I was living in Houston, and I decided to join HAS. I still had my 8” LX10 and still couldn’t find much with it. I was looking for a dark site close to Houston online, and I stumbled onto HAS. I found not just a dark site, but a great group of friends who taught me how to star-hop and showed what I should be looking for. I love going out in the clean air and the dark, quiet nights of Columbus and spending hours hunting down the beauties of creation. I’ve gotten to see the 2012 transit of Venus as well – probably not many people were lucky enough to see both this century, and I didn’t have to travel for either one. I still have my 8” SCT that completely lacks any electronics and love using. I wonder if at some point I’ll exhaust what I can see with it and need a bigger scope, but that hasn’t happened yet.
The Steve Fast interview…
Clayton: Great to have you here with us for this month’s catch in the GuideStar. Let’s get right to it… You seem to be quite happy with your 8” Schmidt Cassegrain LX-10. How did you come about choosing this telescope? Have you thought about installing digital setting circles to help you capture more objects in a given night?
Steve: I wanted a scope that would be good for both planetary and deep sky – the SCT is reasonably good at both, although it’s admittedly not ideal for either. An 8” scope is big enough to see a lot but small enough to be easily portable. In the days before the TSA turned us all into terrorists, I carried my OTA on the plane and traveled with it. I liked what I saw of digital setting circles, but I probably won’t get them – for me the hunt is a lot of the fun. There’s such a rush for me when you star-hop to something step by step, and then it pops into the field of view. But everyone should do it the way that is most fun for him – this is supposed to be fun after all. But the first 3-4 months of learning to star hop were really agony for me, but I had no choice since I didn’t have a GOTO scope. Now I’m glad that I didn’t.
Clayton: You hinted above that you might like a larger scope. Any ideas on what is larger?
Steve: 36” at least – until I look at my bank account. But seriously it seems that 12” could be a sweet spot. It’s still reasonably portable, but it has 2.25X the light gathering power of an 8”. But I’m also learning that using your eyes well is more important than having a bigger scope. I don’t have eagle eyes like Stephen O’Meara, but you can train yourself to see more. I’m surprised at the detail I see in Jupiter’s belts or in the Virgo galaxies that I didn’t see a year ago. I thought that was baloney when I heard it early on, but it’s true.
Clayton: I’ve observed with you at several different star parties…are there any others that you might like to attend?
Steve: Okie-Tex was my first star party, and the one where we met, and it got me hooked. This will be my first year at TSP, so I’m looking forward to that. I’m also hoping to go to El Dorado and some of the other small Texas parties. Sadly, if you want to get away from the light pollution, you have to drive.
Clayton: You seem to be very proactive in organizing star parties out at our Columbus dark site. How can we get more club members to come out and join us for some great observing?
Steve: Everyone should just come out whenever you can, regardless of how little or how much you know. There are plenty of people willing to help if you just send an e-mail or ask the guy next to you. Some people are terrified about violating the light rules – do your best to follow them, but no one will throw you off the property if you make a mistake at the beginning. If you do leak some light, just apologize and go on – we’ve all done it before.
Once you’re there, the Texas 45 list is a great way for people to get started. There are some really fun objects on it, and it showcases things that we see in south Texas. So often we complain about observing on the Gulf Coast, but we forget about being able to see things that many people in northern states never can.
Another important thing is being flexible with your schedule. If you’re just going observing on the one Saturday night a month at new moon, you’ll never go because it’s cloudy so much. If there’s a clear night, make use of it. Find a dark empty lot close to your house. Go to Bear Creek Park. Observe from your driveway with GOTO or do the double star and planetary lists from your back yard. In winter, you can observe from 6:00 to 10:30 from Columbus and still be at home in bed by midnight and get up and go to work in the morning. Make it the thing you do together with your family or friends so you don’t feel like you’re stealing time from them by going observing alone.
Clayton: This year could be the year of the comet(s). Could this possibly be one of the answers for the question above?
Steve: A good comet would certainly help, and we’re holding Professor Comet responsible for whatever happens. We got three times the usual new members before the Venus transit last year.
Clayton: A little bird told me that you were involved in the works of the HAS “Texas 45” observing program. What are your overall thoughts on this program? I’ve started this list too and have had great fun working on it. I like the idea of being able to only go out to the site on 4 nights…one night per season of the year, and logging all objects to receive a beautiful pin and certificate.
Steve: I really can’t claim any credit for it. That was Rene and you and some others. But it is a fun program. I’ve done most of the fall and all the winter objects. I like it for several reasons – it focuses on things we can see here, it has a nice variety and a fair number of objects you don’t see on other lists. And Rene really thought about why she wanted certain things on the list. For example, the winter list has a bunch of open clusters, and after I looked at several I was tired of open clusters. But I kept banging away at it, and I started to see differences in open clusters that I hadn’t seen before. So in the end I enjoyed all the open clusters.
Clayton: What’s your attraction to the night skies? Got a favorite object? Ever think about jumping into astrophotography? How about video?
Steve: I like the sense of accomplishment when I find something. I enjoy seeing the beauty of creation. And I’m a country boy at heart, so I like to get out in the fresh air away from the city noise.
Favorite object – More like a list. Omega Centauri makes M13, “the Great Hercules Globular,” look like a sad, dim splotch, even though it peaks at only 13 degrees above the horizon. And most American observers never even get to see it because it’s too far south for them. Then the Andromeda Galaxy and Orion Nebula because the more you look at them, the more detail you see. The Lagoon Nebula is because it contains an open cluster and some prominent dark nebulae as well. Jupiter because the satellites and cloud bands are always changing in subtle ways. The moon because the illumination of each object is changing every day. And the Reiner Gamma anomaly on the moon is the oddest thing I have ever seen.
Right now I don’t think I’ll get into imaging or video. From listening to Don Taylor, I’ve realized that there is actually a lot of artistry in processing the images, and I don’t have an artistic bone in my body. I’ve thought about taking up sketching, but that requires even more artistry. I’m trying to focus on writing better log descriptions since that makes me use my eyes better. But as my eyes age, I may change my mind about imaging
Clayton: How would you like to see your own astronomy grow?
Steve: I want to continue enjoying the beauties of creation and keep training my eyes to see more. I would like to travel south to finish the Caldwell list and to see the southern objects in their true glory. Also, I’ve mostly done deep sky objects since I joined HAS, but I would like to do a little more planetary and lunar, but I need to find some resources to help me understand that better.
Clayton: What star atlas (hard copy) or digital atlas do you use at the telescope? Do you use a nightly planner to help organize an evening under the stars?
Steve: I started out using Harvard Pennington’s Messier Marathon Field Guide, and I would highly recommend it for anyone starting out because it has excellent charts and such practical advice. And you don’t have to plan anything because for each month of the year he has a chart showing what to look at next. Pennington thought of everything. He was brilliant. Other than for Messiers, I’ve graduated on to Sky Atlas 2000.0. It’s got enough detail for finding most of the NGCs. It’s still my basic atlas, but I’m starting to get to dimmer stuff where I need more field stars to make sure I’m looking in the right place, so I broke down and got SkyTools3.
I’m finding that as you move past the “prepackaged” lists such as Messier and Caldwell, you have to do more preparation. These less-traveled objects have multiple designations. Sometimes their locations are not clearly or correctly plotted in atlases. And there are more conflicting objects in the eyepiece so you need to have done your research ahead of time. For example, the AL double star list is supposed to be for beginners, but it has Struve designations that are not on common charts. And no one calls the Trapezium Theta1 Orionis as the list does. And sometimes you need to find the AC pair instead of the AB pair. After a couple nights trying to sort this out with a red flashlight, I realized that I have to do this ahead of time at home.
Clayton: It seems in recent years that the younger people are not that interested in amateur astronomy. You hand out our membership name badges, are we attaining any young club members?
Steve: We are getting more young members, so it’s improving, but while this is a very rewarding hobby, it also has high barriers to entry (expensive equipment, lots of techniques to pick up, cloudy weather, etc.). But once young people get a taste, they seem to be hooked. We just need to be inviting, stop worrying about GOTO, patiently educate about light rules, have more fun events. And I think our club is doing all those things and we’re starting to see good results. It seems that the excitement level has picked up.
Clayton: As the HAS “Field Trip and Observing” coordinator, is there anything new up your sleeve for our clubs get-togethers this year?
Steve: I’m planning to have an observing theme every month and help everyone who comes to Columbus to work on those. January and February got clouded out, but March’s theme is Messier Marathon. Other themes could be observing globs in early summer and working through the Virgo cluster in midsummer. Also, I’d like to take the Sky and Telescope observing columns from one month and go through those. We could also take ten double stars or ten Caldwells and practice observing those. If only I could somehow have clear weather up my sleeve . . . .
Clayton: Is there an email address that you have that a Houston Astronomical Society member could contact you for an additional question or two?
Steve: My e-mail is (see the PDF newsletter). Don’t hesitate to e-mail me – a lot of people have helped me get started in this hobby, and I want to pass the favor on.
Clayton: Thanks Steve for taking the time to share your interest and thoughts within our HAS newsletter, the GuideStar. We wish you luck with all of your astronomy interests. Thanks too, for all of the hard work that you provide for our society.
Steve: It’s been great fun doing the interview. Thanks for inviting me. And I hope to see everyone out there observing and hear some great reports on NetSlyder.
Clayton:Clear skies always,
Steve:Thanks Clayton….that was fun.
Clayton L. Jeter is an avid SCT visual observer and a longtime member of the Houston Astronomical Society. Contact him at: (See the PDF newsletter)