Heilig saves star parties, brings back some normalcy

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Kathryn Campbell

US science teacher Steve Heilig and a student observe Mercury’s transit across the sun last year. Star parties have still been able to happen this year with the addition of safety measures like masks, goggles, and social distancing. “The cool creativity and the insights people have, there’s no other way to have them except star parties,” Heilig said.

Star parties are a tradition for Space Science classes at St. Paul Academy. Each week, US Science teacher Steve Heilig and students will gather on the upper field with various binoculars and telescopes to look at constellations, planets, stars, satellites, and whatever else they can find. With COVID-19 pushing school to distance learning, the fate of star parties was looking bleak. Heilig worked to make sure they could continue.
“[Star parties] are fun for me. They’re fun for the students. One of the best things about star parties to me is that we look at things and talk, and people ask questions that they would never have thought of otherwise. It’s the getting together and talking that really gets people curious about things. There wasn’t going to be a good replacement for that. It’s tough enough to have a discussion even when everybody’s read the same stuff, and you’re directing it. The cool creativity and the insights people have, there’s no other way to have them except star parties,” Heilig said.
The outdoor setting of star parties makes them one of few activities that can continue amidst COVID-19. Masks and social distancing were natural precautions to take, but Heilig began to wonder about the possibility of transmission through telescopes and binoculars.
“Well, you know the thing people worry about in terms of COVID is mucus membranes. It’s like someone coughs and stuff comes out. You inhale it, and it hits your mucus membranes. The stuff that lines your eye, that’s a mucus membrane too. So, the first thing I thought about was, oh my goodness, if everybody’s putting their eye up to the same eyepiece, potentially the eyepiece of the telescope could be a transfer point,” Heilig said. “That’s when it dawned on me that if we all have goggles that fit over glasses like the ones that we’ve got, then I don’t have to keep wiping the thing down. We can just go one person, the next one, the next one, the next one, and it makes it much more efficient.”
With masks, social distancing, and goggles, star parties have been able to happen since early Oct. After SPA’s complete transition to distance learning, there was an added requirement of filling out the Magnus Health App before coming. For Heilig and Space Science students, star parties have added some normalcy back into the semester.
“The last star party, we came in at the end of it, put all of the stuff away in the room, and then everybody just wanted to sit and chat for a while. Sometimes we talk about Space Science stuff, but it was just that piece of humanity that we finally got to be in the presence of somebody else in a safe way, and we could talk. We could just kind of be ourselves again… It just feels good to put myself back out there and talk to people and just have that kind of personal interaction where you don’t know where the discussion is going to go,” Heilig said.
“Even though they’re technically for school, they’re a really nice place to see people and talk to them outside of the classroom in a safe way. I’m glad we’ve been able to have them,” senior Margot Bergner said.
Space Science will have its last batch of star parties in the next week before the first semester ends. Heilig encourages everyone to observe the upcoming conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on Dec. 21.