A Friendship Fit for the City of Stars: the Griffith Observatory and the Los Angeles Astronomical Society

A partnership between Griffith Observatory and the Los Angeles Astronomical Society enables all Angelenos to enjoy astronomy. 

Relive the excitement of man’s first steps on the moon and the long journey it took to get there with 20 new hours of out of this world programming on PBS SoCal’s “Summer of Space” Watch out for “American Experience: Chasing the Moon” and “Blue Sky Metropolis,” four one-hour episodes that examine Southern California’s role in the history of aviation and aerospace.

It’s a Monday night at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory, where hundreds are outside for one of the most spectacular views of the city below and the night sky above. Here, you’ll find people from all over the world, many visiting the observatory for the first time, excited to snap photos of the iconic site that has appeared in numerous movies and is the gathering place for Angelenos during many historic astronomical occurrences, from Halley’s Comet to the recent Super Blood Wolf Moon and, for space travel fans, the flyover of the Space Shuttle Endeavour en route to our California Science Center. About 1.7 million people visit the observatory each year, but there’s a special group of star enthusiasts (apart from observatory employees) who are allowed inside the one day of the week it is closed to the public: members of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society (LAAS).

Top Image: Griffith Observatory at night. | mimoulamiou/Needpix
Top Image: Griffith Observatory at night. | mimoulamiou/Needpix

The second Monday of each month, except in January, the amateur and professional astronomers of the 93-year-old organization meet in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater. The formation of LAAS actually predates even the building of Griffith Observatory, whose groundbreaking was June 20, 1933. Dr. E.C. Krupp, Griffith Observatory director since 1974 notes, “If you’re going to be talking about public astronomy in Southern California, and also, for that matter, amateur astronomy, the real pioneer there is the Los Angeles Astronomical Society.”

The LAAS’s mission is “to promote interest in and advance the knowledge of astronomy, optics, telescope-making and related subjects.” They do so through such events as their monthly meetings at the observatory that have included guest speakers from Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA. Wednesday nights at their clubhouse at Garvey Ranch Observatory, where they make telescopes, among other activities, are open to the public. The LAAS is also in charge of helping facilitate Griffith Observatory’s monthly public star parties.

Learn why Southern California is the undisputed aviation capital of the world on “Blue Sky Metropolis” S1 E1: Wings: Aviation Takes Flight in Early Los Angeles. Watch now.

The relationship between the two entities began early on, notes Krupp. “Dr. Dinsmore Alter, the first full-time director of the observatory, invited the Los Angeles Astronomical Society to hold its meetings here,” he said. “That began a close affiliation between Griffith Observatory and the LAAS that persists right through the present and has every sign of continuing.” He emphasizes that “Griffith Observatory really would be a much lesser place without the LAAS, which volunteers telescopes and personnel for major public astronomical events over and over and over again.”

Every night at the observatory, staff members are on hand to give people “eyeball-to-the-universe experiences,” though when there are big crowds on the weekends and during special astronomy events, Krupp appreciates the support of members of local organizations — such as the LA sidewalk astronomers and the Planetary Society — but predominantly LAAS members to share “both their telescopes and their enthusiasm with the general public who just come up here and have that many more opportunities.”

The makeup of the organization could not be more diverse, shares former JPL physicist and current LAAS president Tim Thompson, who has been a member since 1987 and also is on the Board of Trustees of the Mount Wilson Observatory Association.  “We have something around 650 members … and it’s everybody,” he says. “We have professional scientists, and we have amateurs of every kind, we have truck drivers and filmmakers, plumbers, and nonscientists, little kids, several lawyers — anybody from any walk of life can be an amateur, there’s no limit.”

At every meeting, Thompson makes it a point to make new people welcome, as some may be intimidated to join. “A lot of people seem to think, ‘well, I can’t join because I don’t have a telescope.’ That doesn’t matter,” he says. “In fact, it might be a good thing if you don’t, because by joining you can learn what kind of telescope is best for what it is you want to do, and without some guidance people can easily make the wrong choices about what kind of instruments to get, or how to go about doing astronomy.”

In addition to going over their own upcoming events and how to support the observatory at their meetings, members share their own astronomical plans and invite other members on their adventures, such as stargazing locally or internationally. Apparently, this month, a number of members traveled to South America to look at the eclipse.

While LAAS has had a long relationship with Griffith Observatory, Thompson credits Krupp’s leadership as being instrumental in strengthening the organization’s involvement there, as earlier directors “were not as friendly toward amateur astronomers.” Ever since Krupp took over, the LAAS has been part of the observatory’s monthly public star parties.

Griffith Observatory's 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope. | Flickr/mike appel/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Griffith Observatory’s 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope. | Flickr/mike appel/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What many people may not know is that only members of certain societies are allowed to bring telescopes to Griffith Observatory. “They don’t let just any member of the public go and set up a telescope because they have liability concerns, and they’re afraid of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing,” says Thompson, mentioning there are amateurs who aren’t as knowledgeable as they think. “You’d be surprised by what you hear.” The LAAS sets up 20 to 30 telescopes on the lawn, in addition to what the observatory provides during the free star parties. He notes that these can be more exciting during certain times of the year. “Actually now, July, August, we should have some good Jupiter and Saturn views, as well as looking at the moon.”

There are, of course, other observatories in the area; even your own sidewalk can be a prime place to set up a telescope and explore the universe, but the observatory is particularly special because of whom it draws. “You get people who have never looked through a telescope before,” mentions Thompson. “One of our members told me, ‘You hear, ‘Oh, wow,’ in like 60 different languages.” Typically, visitors ask about what they’re seeing, how to make telescopes, and pick up some basic astronomy. There are locals who may return each month and may even join the society. “It’s public education, and in [a sense] public entertainment because people do something they maybe never did before, which is very cool.”

Some of those in the general public who’ve been touched by LAAS’s work have gone on to become professionals in the field themselves. Astronomer P.J. Goldfinger, who first started coming to the observatory as a child with her mom, has been a member for more than two decades and is one such example. “I never would have been a professional astronomer if it wasn’t for them. They taught me so much. I couldn’t have done it without having joined the LAAS first,” she says. “The culture is amazing … everyone was so welcoming, open-minded, and had so many different interests. To this day, we’re all very supportive and a tight-knit group of people.” And the LAAS is more than just a community to her; it is a family affair. Her 16-year-old joins her at their events, as do other members. One father has been bringing his son since he was six years old. Five years later, Thompson mentions, “He’s like a walking encyclopedia.”

The monthly observatory star party is a particularly fun event for Goldfinger. “Everybody was just so passionate about astronomy and about showing each other different things in the sky,” she recalls. “Different craters on the moon, the specifics, the depth, and the face of the moon, and how far away it was — you know you’re about 100 miles from the surface of the moon — all these little intricacies, facts and science.” She is currently a volunteer at the event and feels particularly rewarded by how the LAAS members are able to connect to the public in such a remarkable setting and “seeing them getting that sparkle in their eye when they look through your telescope, or a telescope, and they see Saturn, and they look back at you, and they say, ‘That’s not real, is it?’”

Exterior of Griffith Observatory's telescope at night. | Wikimedia Commons/ Dancorona21/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Exterior of Griffith Observatory’s telescope at night. | Wikimedia Commons/ Dancorona21/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Krupp is quick to emphasize that some of the observatory’s record-breaking events were orchestrated in part thanks to the LAAS. “In 1985-86, when Halley’s Comet made its last world tour, Griffith Observatory showed it through a telescope to more people than any place else on Earth,” he says. The same goes for Comet Hale-Bopp, which came by in 1996. They were able to do that for a few reasons: “The weather. You have spectacular weather compared to many locations around the globe here. Second, there’s a big population base, so there’s a lot of people able to take advantage of what is offered,” Krupp adds. “But finally, of course, we had all these telescopes …. night after night — and that’s really what it was in that season of Halley, it went on for like eight months — and LAAS was one of the key factors that made that happen.”

For Goldfinger, the observatory has long had a special place in her heart, and she is thrilled to continue instilling her love of astronomy in all whom she encounters at LAAS meetings and at the observatory in general, as it’s a one-of-kind atmosphere and journey: “The plateau of the observatory, the very top before you go in, and the breeze and the birds, and the people coming on the bus,” Goldfinger shares, “it’s just a wonderful atmosphere — people of all ethnicities and cultures coming to visit — it’s just an amazing environment where there are no labels, there is no craziness for the most part, and you can just relate to society, and to people, and to your fellow club members on a really passionate level.”

Griffith Observatory just after sunset. | Flickr/Pedro Szekely/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Griffith Observatory just after sunset. | Flickr/Pedro Szekely/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)