Club History

A Brief History of TAAA

Founded in 1954, we quickly grew to a group of 50 people known as the Tucson Amateur Astronomers (TAA). Activities then included tracking artificial satellites from a Moon Watch station at the U of A. The Moon Watch Program, coordinated by the Smithsonian Institution, helped the early US space-flight engineers perfect their science. Our Moon Watch station was recognized as one of the top three stations in the US. These activities led to a name change and we became the Tucson Astronomical and Astronautical Association (TAAA), a real tongue twister.

As the Moon Watch Program came to an end in the early 70s, our emphasis moved away from astronautics and focused on astronomy, but it wasn’t until 1978 that we became the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. We were incorporated as a non-profit organization with this name in 1987, with the dedicated purpose of studying and promoting astronomy and its allied sciences.

Thirty Years – Plus

Compiled from articles by Ron Ferdie which appeared November and December 1984 Desert Skies and an update added by Teresa Lappin in 1987 (see below).

  • TUCSON AMATEUR ASTRONOMERS (April 13, 1954 to December 2, 1959)
  • TUCSON ASTRONOMICAL AND ASTRONAUTICAL ASSOCIATION (December 2, 1959 to October 5, 1978)
  • TUCSON AMATEUR ASTRONOMY ASSOCIATION (October 5, 1978 to present)

In March 1954, a small group met at the home of the Earl Burch to talk about organizing interested astronomers into a club. They met again in April, and formed the Tucson Amateur Astronomers (TAA). The first TAA officers were: Earl C. Burch, President; Captain John Vega, Vice-President; Kathryn Burch, Secretary-Treasurer; and Major T.H. Armistead, Executive Board Member. The other charter members where Lloyd Soth, Ed Oxner, C.A. Clemente, J.A. Degennear, N.J. Griffen, R.T. Brockus, V. Gauzeau, S.W. Hvosles, Captain V. Berry, and Prof. Harry Stewart, UA. By the end of the first year there were 46 members.

The first TAA program meeting in May 1954 featured Capt. John Vega talking on the “The Constellation Ursa Major” and T.H. Armstead discussing “Basic Ground Rules of Astronomical Terms”. The first club “star party” was in November 1954 at the home of Earl and Kathryn Burch.

In June 1955, we began the annual tradition pot luck supper and star-gazing party, the first time at Wrightstown School. In 1955 this was a “dark site”.

A telescope makers’ group was started by Earl Burch in 1955 with about fifteen members, and the tradition continues today (ed. 1984) with Duane Niehaus, current TAAA Vice President, for those interested in making mirrors and telescopes.

As a result of the interest of Dr. Edwin F. Carpenter, head of the UA Department of Astronomy, TAA was able to get both his support and University sponsorship of our organization. This included use of the Steward Observatory building for many of our meetings in these early years, and the use of the 36-inch telescope and the smaller telescopes when we did not interfere with the normal scheduled programs. Dr. Carpenter helped the club in many ways, and was a professional inspiration. He was elected an honorary Life Member in 1956, and assisted our club in a number of projects, including Moonwatch for early man-made earth satellites. He passed away in 1962.

A club library was founded from a donation by an anonymous donor in February 1956. Carl Clemente was appointed first Librarian. He and other members presented short book and publication reviews at meetings. The library grew of the years and is now located at the home of Duane Niehaus. Members are invited to inquire on contents and loans.

At this time a committee was formed for club pins and headed by Mrs. Hazel MacCready. The TAA membership selected a design out of a series of designs by Carl Clemente. The first pins were distributed at the September 1956 meeting. When the club changed our name to the Tucson Astronomical and Astronautical Association in November 1959, the pins were redesigned. TAA/TAAA member James Christy, later discoverer of Pluto’s moon Charon in 1978, proudly showed them off when he lectured with Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, at a special meeting in 1983.

Jim, now living in Tucson, also was the club’s first newsletter editor. The first issue of the TAA Star Observer appeared in February 1959. Since then, there have been a number of newsletter formats and editors. In more recent years newsletter editors have included: Gary Hall, Mike Zachary, Rick and Dolores Hill (with the Desert Skies) and now Jim Oliver.

Don Strittmatter was elected club President in 1958, after serving as Vice President to TAA’s second President Earl Sydow. Don held the position of TAA/TAAA president for 19 years, guiding the club through projects, and retiring himself from the job in May 1976. Don Strittmatter and Jim Christy appear to be the earliest members still around (about 28-29 years), along with Ewen Whitaker (about 25 years).

The TAA set up a group for observing artificial earth satellites for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at the September 1956 meeting. Earl Sydow was the first chairman of the group, originally comprised of approximately 50 members, and eventually organized into several teams. Initial funds for thirteen wide field telescopes and other equipment were made by Hughes Aircraft.

The Tucson Satellite Observing Station (TSOS) was comprised of both TAA/TAAA members and UA astronomy students, and assigned Station Code Number 003-0320111. Leon Campbell, Jr., coordinated efforts with the Tucson station and all other satellite observing stations around the world as Director, Moonwatch Program. The Tucson station was located just south of Steward Observatory. If it looks like a small space now, it shows you how Tucson locale has changed.

The importance of Moonwatch cannot be exaggerated. It helped hone the fledgling science of space flight mechanics before there were sophisticated ground link stations there are today. The TAA/TAAA station achieved a top Prime A national rating, and was considered among the top three stations in the country. By the end of the Moonwatch era there were 160 stations in the U.S., and 280 throughout the world.

The Tucson station began performing more and more complex tasks, including satellite photography. Among special accomplishments were 405 hours of observation by 25 team members from April 9 – 14, 1959, in the reentry death watch” of satellites Beta (Russian Sputnik launched in 1957). At least one member Hal Cozzens, accepted a position to assist the Baker-Nun satellite camera installation at Organ Mountain, Las Cruces, N.M.

In January 1959, active members of the Tucson Amateur Astronomer’s Moonwatch team, along with participating U of Arizona astronomy students, were honored by certificates of recognition from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. There were a total of 34 certificates given to people such as Don Strittmatter, Jim Christy, and Ed Van Sice. The presentations were made by Earl Sydow, former TAA president and founder of the Moonwatch station, at a meeting at the Steward Observatory near the station.

In addition, 17 TAA members and UofA students were awarded special Moonwatch emblem pins by Convair. Receiving these distinctive pins were: Linda Hearn, Jim Christy, Don Strittmatter, Ed Strittmatter, Dave Odom, Rodger Scherrer, John Mayo, Calvin Harris, Clarence Doubek, Raul Lynn, Carl Clemente, Wayne Sanders, Les Hearn, Earl Sydow, Harold Gass, and Ed Van Sice. An honorary pin was awarded to Dr. Ed Carpenter, then head of UA’s astronomy department and Director to Steward Observatory.

Tucson Amateur Astronomers participated in the International Geophysical Year, and were awarded a certificate later that year. About the same time the club changed their name to the Tucson Astronomical and Astronautical Association because of their current activities. Some believe the name change also came about because the TAA became well enough publicized to cause some confusion with the Tucson Airport Authority.

In 1969, after a series of moves–from the Steward Observatory basement to the 7th Street Optical Shop to a 22nd Street Annex, the TAAA settled in with its equipment and supplies at the newly built UA Optical Sciences Center. The Optical Sciences Center provided space to work in and the pitches, grinding compounds, and barrels. Dr. Meinel, Dr, Noble (then an active TAAA member), Don Loomis, Jim Bailey, and T.S. Byingtion were instrumental in helping the association make its several moves to acquire supplies.

Optician Dick Sumner was instructor at Friday night mirror making sessions along with TAAA president Don Strittmatter. Approximately 40 members participated at this time.

Besides the Friday night telescope making sessions, the TAAA held regular monthly meetings on first Wednesdays at the Steward Observatory Auditorium. TAAA was now 18 years old with 110 dues paying members.

In 1969, some 30 members were involved in the observation of grazing occultations of stars at the edge of the moon’s line of sight. The average graze lasts only a minute or two, and timing accuracies were achieved within one second using WWV. The data from such observations were used to correct parameters of the moon’s orbit and obtain lunar mountain heights. The calculations to determine where the observations were to be made (within fifty feet) were made by Daniel Harris, UA astronomy graduate student. Harris reduced the observations from the tape recordings to usable data and sent them to the Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C., and to H.M. Nautical Almanac Office, Sussex, England.

Today TAAA member Derald Nye–also a member of IOTA–aids in coordinating observations of grazing occultations of stars by the moon’s limb and asteroid occultations of stars which aides in determining size and shape. Derald coordinates with other IOTA members in nearby astronomical clubs for maximum effectiveness. Interested TAAA members may contact him; however, he prefers more experienced observers for lunar grazing occultations.

In 1975, the TAAA moved their operations to the newly opened Flandrau Planetarium. The TAAA office and mirror grinding classes occupied a small section of the basement area. Don Strittmatter, Tom Caudell, and others continued to aid people in building their own telescopes. However, the University kept growing, and LPL next gradually got our club’s space. We moved out our remaining furniture this year.

Still, the TAAA has kept its commitment to assist members in grinding tier own mirrors and assembling telescopes through the diligence of Duane Niehuas, our current Vice=President, who has continued to offer this service at his home. Interested members should explore the possibility of making their own telescope by contacting Duane. Duane has now provided this service a number of years now, and TAAA members like Teresa Lappin, Scott Henning, Ray Wallace, Walter Wegrzyn, and many others can attest to the fine assistance and consultation he has provided our club.

It is no wonder, then, that when the Bart And Priscilla Bok Award for proficiency in Tucson area amateur astronomy was inaugurated a few years ago, that Duane was first recipient by Dr. Bok, expert on the Milky Way Galaxy and a close friend of our club. Other recipients of the Bok Award have been Pierre Schwaar and David Levy. Dr. Bok passed away last year.

Returning back to 1975, then President Don Strittmatter obtained an indefinite loan of a 16-inch mirror from PL for the TAAA. Don, Tom Caudell, Gary Hall, and others worked on the project a number of hears. Caudell obtained much of the mounting which was recently reassembled for a new home in an observatory building of Derald Nye’s. It was originally supposed to be a portable to star parties on a trailer mount, but was only taken out a few times.

Space is running out for this short article on our history, but not the history itself–that we are all participants of. The TAAA–your club–is now considering a 30-inch lightweight mirror project; Michael Sweetman just won the LOGO contest; Mike Smith has just started a TAAA column in the Sunday Arizona Star; Tim Hunter, Dan Knauss, and others getting us officially registered as a non-profit organization; Rick Hill as ALPO Solar Section Recorder coordinating a world-wide network of solar activity reports; David Levy just discovered his first comet Levy-Rudenko; and …

1987 Update

Since this article was written Comet Halley has come and gone. During its appearance in 1985 and 1986, the TAAA took part in the Halley Celestial Safari, a series of late night and early morning observing sessions for Tucsonans and visitors. A number of our members set up their telescopes at Colossal Cave so that busloads of people could get a view of the comet.

Proceeds from the Halley Celestial Safari were used to create a land fund for our 30″ telescope. It is hoped that we well be able to build an observatory on land at a dark location. The 30″ telescope mirror was rough ground by Dean Ketelsen at the UA Optical Sciences Center. The mirror is currently in the fine grinding stage. A mirror mount is being designed by several of our members knowledgeable about telescope making. Until we have land for a permanent observatory, we will put the telescope into a portable Dobson mounting.

As of February 1987 the TAAA finished the long process involved in being declared a non-profit organization, thanks to the efforts of Dan Knauss and Tim Hunter. Donations of the club are now tax deductible.

Mike Smith has become somewhat of a celebrity at our public star parties after having written the Arizona Daily Star Saturday astronomy column “Under Dark Skies” for the past few years. His column has educated Tucsonans about the stars visible from their own backyard.

A number of individuals are taking part in observing programs, some observing planets, some comets, and others enjoying hunting down deep sky objects. As a result of Comet Halley’s appearance and Mike Smith’s article, we have a growing number of individuals wanting to learn some basic astronomy. Our general meetings have changed a little over the years so that we can incorporate both observing reports and basic astronomy talks for all to enjoy. Our devotion to the learning and teaching of astronomy continues.