Many of the original members of the Wabash Valley Astronomical Society (WVAS) have moved on and much of the detailed history of WVAS and the West Lafayette Observatory (WLO) has been lost to the mists of time. However, that doesn't mean we've lost our entire history.
In the late 1960s, local industrialist and amateur astronomer Eugene Lowman built the West Lafayette Observatory (including a small classroom) on the grounds of the future Cumberland Elementary School (now the West Lafayette Elementary School) and donated it to the West Lafayette Schools for use by the school system, Purdue University, and the public. This generous donation helped inspire the Wabash Valley Astronomical Society's formation and set the tone of outreach and teaching. WVAS Articles of Incorporation were prepared by Lafayette attorney Charles Kemmer and they were approved by the Indiana Secretary of State on April 23, 1971.
Having a large Purdue telescope in the WLO dome plus member-owned scopes worked well for outreach opportunities at the observatory. But, as the number of outreach events increased, we found that having students come to the observatory was sometimes more difficult than going to their classrooms. In 1996 the Lafayette Breakfast Optimist Club donated funds for WVAS to buy an 8" Orion Deep-Space Explorer that served its outreach purposes very well. It allowed for both night time observing and daytime viewing (when school is actually in session) of the Sun through a solar filter.
In addition to purchasing commercial telescopes, the club has endeavored to build its own scopes from time to time. In the 1970's, Jim Sattler led construction of a 10" Newtonian reflector telescope on a Dobsonian mount. A Poncet table was subsequently designed and built by Scott Sudhoff to add a clock drive. In 1998, an 8" binocular telescope was constructed, including grinding of the twin mirrors, based on a design by John Mahony and Jim Sattler. Both instruments were available for use during public open house events.
In addition to holding public and private stargazing and outreach activities, WVAS has sponsored a special award at the annual regional science and engineering fair for the best student project related to astronomy. WVAS members participate as judges at the fair. We hope our award encourages students' pursuit of a career in science or engineering.
While we have enjoyed our facility in West Lafayette, urban sprawl around the observatory has turned the once dark skies on the edge of West Lafayette into a light-polluted site. In 2000, we started searching for a new dark site and found Camp Cullom (a youth camp near Mulberry, IN). In conjunction with the Indiana Astronomical Society (IAS), and several unaffiliated individuals, and with generous funding from a benefactor, WVAS helped build the Prairie Grass Observatory (PGO) at Camp Cullom in 2001. There, members of our clubs provide outreach opportunities under beautiful, dark skies. In 2003, our annual regional flagship event, the Indiana Family Star Party (IFSP) was initiated. The IFSP is hosted by WVAS, IAS, and the Muncie Astronomy Club.
The Indiana Family Star Party is special in that we encourage families and kids to attend and enjoy the night sky with us. In 2008 the Sky Trekker program was initiated by Lisa Wieland and others to help reach the school-aged attendees. This program teaches people how to find major constellations, while also allowing them to view various celestial objects. Their efforts are rewarded with an ice-cream treat and a chance to win their own starter telescope. Sky Trekker has developed over the years into a five-level program that encompasses people aged 2 through adult. All participants are welcome to return in subsequent years.
In addition to outreach, PGO has allowed our members to learn and/or push their own abilities. Some members learn how to use the higher class of instruments available to them at the site, such as larger computer-controlled telescopes and specialized astrophotography equipment. Others hone their observing techniques to push themselves and assist in scientific research. One example is John Mahony who is credited with the discovery of several new asteroids which are cataloged by the IAU Minor Planet Center. John is one of the PGO co-founders.
The Wabash Valley Astronomical Society supports Camp Cullom's annual Academy of Science which was started in 2009 by WVAS member and PGO co-founder, Russ Kaspar. This program promotes appreciation of science for top 5th graders in the area. WVAS provides assistance with the event's astronomy module which has proven to be very popular.
Over the years WVAS has been the astronomical home of a number of fine people. Many have moved on to careers elsewhere, including some in the field of astronomy. Bill Ditzler, one of our past club presidents, has worked at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. WVAS is proud to serve west-central Indiana; we welcome all visitors who wish to learn and appreciate the night sky.