In The Beginning: An Early History Of The Fort Bend Astronomy Club
By Angie Benavidez
The Fort Bend Astronomy Club began in September, 1984 at Z Optical Shop in Stafford, Texas. The original members were: Dennis Zwicky, Angie Benavidez, Ralph Phillips, Emil Bonanno, Pat Kreuzberger and Walter Frerck. The club was formed to fill a void that was felt in the southwest side of Houston. The Houston Astronomical Society filled the need for the city of Houston, but our dark skies were virtually ignored. The Southwest Astronomy Club was on the verge of disbanding and dwindling membership convinced them to join forces with the newly formed FBAC.
Z Optical Shop sponsored a night of star gazing every Tuesday evening and had generated a lot of interest. Customers came back every week to look through the telescopes and to share their own astrophotography and their knowledge of the universe. It was was agreed that there was a vast amount of knowledge and interest in the science of Astronomy to support another club. All of the regular customers thus became members as well. The first official meeting of the FBAC was held October 18, 1984 at HGF Scientific in Stafford. Election of officers were as follows: President: Dennis Zwicky, Vice President: Pat Kreuzberger, and Secretary: Angie Benavidez. There were eleven members present. Since there was no money in the treasury , it was decided to elect a treasurer at a later date. Emil Bonanno donated all the money in his pocket to the organization to get us started and he later became our first treasurer. The Vice President would serve in a dual role, acting as the Program Chairman in charge of elected topics and choosing the speakers for the monthly meetings. The secretary would keep the minutes of the meetings and keep updated scrapbooks of important events. Refreshments were provided by the secretary until a refreshment chairman could be found.
First on the agenda was the selection of a viewing site in the Ft. Bend county area for a future observatory . The site had to be within a 50 mile radius and minimal light pollution. Since there were many dark spots in the county it was a matter of everyone being in agreement as to the site chosen for future star gazing. Angie Benavidez mentioned Brazos Bend State Park near Damon, Texas. There among the tall grass, marshes, lakes, trees and wildlife, we found a unique 4800 acre nature preserve for us to utilize. The park had just recently opened in April, 1984 and not too many people in the Houston area were aware of its dark skies and many trails. Angie had taken a walking tour of the park in daylight and wanted the club members to go check out the skies at night. We found the park to be an excellent site with minimal light pollution from the glow of the Houston lights. We found the park to be acceptable on all accounts.
In January, 1985, the Fort Bend Astronomy Club officers had a meeting with the Park Ranger, Jim Fowler and Burke Baker Planetarium Director Frank Cooper. Also present were Dr. Carolyn Sumners, Astronomy Director of the HMNS and Gary Young, photographer. They were all impressed with the size of the park, the cleanliness, the ample parking and the clear horizons for stargazing. The museum staff had been doing their own research in hopes of finding a dark sky location to set up their own telescopes for their Halley Comet viewing sessions for the general public. It was decided that we would all work together, and that the FBAC would assist by providing volunteers to man the telescopes on viewing nights. All of the members of the executive board were present and voted to help the HMNS with their Comet Halley nightly viewing sessions to be held at the Interpretive Center. The Southwest Astronomy Club disbanded and asked if we would accept their entire membership. It was voted upon and agreed. They presented our organization with their treasury and a projector, plus 6 seasoned amateur astronomers.
In June, 1986, FBAC was asked by the HMNS to host NASA astronauts at a dark sky location at the Park. (Horseshoe Lake) We were asked to show them our night sky and familiarize them with the constellations for their future travels into outer space. It was an evening of wonder and excitement for all the FBAC members present and sharing telescopes with NASA astronauts.
Weekly observing sessions began with a Halley Comet Watch sponsored by the HMNS every Saturday evening. FBAC members set up their own telescopes at dusk and the museum's large telescopes were hauled out from their storage in the Interpretive Center for public viewing. The park saw an increase in traffic and visitors. Sometimes the lines to get to the telescopes would snake all along the parking lot as many anxious people would drive, walk, bicycle or hike to our area to view the heavens, the moon, the stars and the planets.
We had formed our club with the idea of sharing our love of astronomy with the general public, some of whom had never looked through a telescope before. We felt that we were true to our mission by providing volunteers to the HMNS viewing sessions. Most left with a feeling of awe and wonder after having looked through our high quality instruments. The observing sessions at the park drew more and more people, soon the crowds were so large, that the guard at the gate had to turn people around or direct them to the area outside the park for viewing. The interest in astronomy was more than the Park Rangers or the Museum had anticipated. The idea of an Observatory began to take root and we realized that it was going to happen.
September, 1985, FBAC celebrated its first anniversary with a membership of 70 and growing steadily. A new committee was formed for computer enthusiasts called "Kent's Knights". They would create and exchange computer programs related to astronomy. Channel Two News Anchor Bob Nicholas had heard about our comet viewing and asked if he could bring a camera crew and tape our viewing sessions. At the same time, the Herald Coaster in Richmond asked if they could do a story on our club and attend our Comet Halley viewing sessions. Both stories came out at the same time, as well as radio personalities doing an interview with FBAC Pres. Dennis Zwicky. The following Saturday evening proved to be a challenge for the Park Rangers. They estimated that 25,000 people showed up to view Comet Halley, a number no one had expected. Several hundred cars were turned away at the gate and the park would never be the same again. During the prime viewing for Comet Halley, our membership went in all different directions to get a good view of the illusive comet. Lee Cain, Don Pearce and Ralph Phillips travelled to Peru and Chile. Dennis Zwicky, Bill Krell, Beverly Krell, Angie Benavidez and David Graf managed to get photos from the snow capped volcano Mauna Kea on the big island of Hawaii while enduring freezing temperatures at the 10,000 ft. level. Frank Cooper joined astronaut Karl Heinhize on the cruse ship Stella Solaris in Rio to view and photograph the comet. Everyone came back and did a show and tell of their adventures for our regular monthly meeting. September, 1986, our 3rd anniversary , our membership stood at 115 members. Dr. Sumners asked that we continue our Saturday night observing sessions open to the general public at the park. The evenings had been so successful that the HMNS felt it would be in everyone's best interest to keep the volunteers from our club conducting the observing sessions at the Interpretive Center. It had proved to be more popular than the Museum had anticipated.
September 16, 1987, the HMNS announced a grant had been awarded by the George Foundation to build an Observatory at BBSP. With the cooperation of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. the ground-breaking ceremony took place on March 20, 1989. All FBAC members were invited to be in attendance and were recognized for their efforts in this venture.
Located on the highest point in BBSP, the George Observatory became a reality. A research telescope was purchased from LSU and the Observatory opened to the public on October 14, 1989. Members of the FBAC were on hand to see our dream of having an Observatory in the southwest part of town open to the general public. It was to become one of our greatest adventures as an organization.