Nicolas Garros has a passion for astronomy that stems back to his boyhood looking through telescopes and drawing rocket ships with his grandfather. “My grandfather runs an astronomical society in France,” Garros said.
At Greenwich High School there was once a thriving Astronomy Club. In fact, in the 1970s, the Compass yearbook featured black and white photos of the all-male club posing at the Bowman Observatory on the front lawn of Julian Curtiss School.
The observatory, which was built in 1941, is owned by the Greenwich Board of Education and operated by the Astronomical Society of Greenwich.
In fact, one of those ’70s era Greenwich High School astronomy club members is Rick Bria. He was a student of John Wesney who replaced the retiring Alden Smith.
Bria is a member of the Greenwich Astronomical society and longtime keyholder for the observatory. He opens the observatory to the public for twice monthly, weather dependent, viewing nights.
Enter Nicolas Garros, who in 2015 took Astronomy as a science elective at Greenwich High School. As he describes it, the class reignited the passion for astronomy that his grandfather had instilled in him as a young boy.
“It’s an elective and there is also an honors level,” Garros said, adding that the class is a single semester. “For honors Astronomy, half way through the semester you go into independent study.”
Garros, who waded through the paperwork required to start the club at the high school, approached science teacher Richard Baxley who agreed to be the club advisor.
“Right from the get-go he was very enthusiastic. I can’t thank him enough,” said Garros who is president of the club.
“I recruited friends and then went to club fairs to recruit more members,” he said adding that he even lugged his telescope into the student center at GHS. His passion caught on quickly with new members.
To date, the club has about 15 members – a mix of boys and girls. The club meets on Mondays in the science wing.
Garros and his club VP, Eloise Petersen, come up with the content for the weekly club meetings.
“I look at space news anyway,” Garros said. “I see if it’s interesting and relatable.”
Garros said he was surprised how little people know about astronomy, including the concept of light years.
Prior to a bi-monthly public viewing night at the Bowman Observatory, Garros said he reviews with club members what they can expect to see through the observatory telescope.
Garros explained that the club’s access to the observatory, which is owned by the Board of Education, is strictly limited to public viewing nights, which are often cancelled if it is cloudy. On those nights, club members wait in line for a turn at the telescope with dozens of members of the public.
Nicolas said the public viewing nights are enjoyable, and it’s satisfying to see young children have their first peek into a telescope. In fact he said, “The kids are really excited and some are very knowledgeable.”
“It’s adorable,” said club VP Eloise Petersen on Wednesday night while she waited in line for a peek through the telescope. “One little kid said, ‘That’s Europa, which has a sub surface ocean,'” Petersen said.
“We tried to get private use of the observatory for the club,” Garros said, adding that the club advisor is willing, as is the keyholder Rick Bria.
“The astronomy class doesn’t even have access to the observatory for class,” he said, adding that not long ago, the club was denied access to observe the once-in-15-years Blood Moon through the telescope in the observatory. “I think it’s a waste.”
Garros said that observatory’s $30,000 telescope is new, having been donated to the club by a generous astronomy enthusiast. However, he said, it sat in wait for over a year before the town did its part which was to install its concrete base. He said he was disappointed that his newly formed club has no access apart from the crowded public viewing nights.
The public viewing experience includes watching Bria crank open the hatch, rotate the dome, and move the telescope into position. Anyone can ask a question at any time. And unlike a planetarium visit, there is no recorded audio. No canned presentation. Plus, no two viewings at the Bowman Observatory are ever the same.
“This is so cool,” Petersen said after peering at Jupiter through the telescope. You can’t get this experience from a computer. “With the computer, you’re detached.”
“It’s magical to have the direct pathway and the interaction with Mr. Bria helps you understand.”
More information on the Astronomical Society of Greenwich is available on their website.
Weather-dependent, the observatory is open for public viewing every first and third Wednesday. The viewing hours are 7-9pm in winter, 8-10pm in spring and 9-11pm in summer.