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  • There are certain perks that come with being the kid of an astronomer.

    First, the most obvious:

    Random person: “What does your father do?” You: “Oh, he’s an astronomer.”

    One of the best answers to that question. Ever.

    And then there’s the fact that everyone assumes that you know way more than you do about all things astronomical. That misconception can come in handy when you’re a college freshman, desperate to impress your not-quite-but-almost first real boyfriend:

    “See that small cluster there, Bobby? Here, let me tilt your head so that you have a better angle on it. There. That’s a constellation called Pleiades, but people in the know call it Messier 45 or the Seven Sisters.”

    Or

    “Seriously, Bobby, Pluto is this close to not being a planet anymore. You heard it here first.”

    (Of course, I ultimately failed out of my freshman Astronomy Lab because I was too intent on gazing into Bobby’s blue eyes instead of at the night sky. I can still remember breaking the news to my father. Oh, the shame.)

    But the best perk of all, hands down, is the chance to participate in and enjoy astronomical occurrences of all shapes and sizes with someone who knows what the hell is happening and can explain it to you. Someone who’s a natural born teacher. It’s the gift of watching those same occurrences through the 30-inch lens of a telescope your dad transported across the country and helped to install at an observatory just outside of your hometown. It’s the ability to pack away in a suitcase a smaller but still quite powerful telescope and lens and accompany it, along with your father and mother and older brother, to Spain for a glorious seven day trip to see the Transit of Venus.

    That trip, in June 2004, was the last astronomical event I shared with my dad. We set our telescope up on the lawn of the charming posada we were staying at in the coastal town of Malaga and peered through its specially modified lens at that small black dot making its way across the Sun. And, because no teaching moment could be missed, my professor dad also instructed us on how best to look through the homemade slips of thick construction paper with the dark red filters he’d brought along as back-ups. The next day, he and Keith and I sat at a bar on the beach and drank cold delicious cerveza and talked about conspiracy theories and Planet X and modern astronomy and so many other things, big and small. I can remember the feel of the sand on my feet, the intense heat of the Spanish summer sun, and the one thought that pierced my mind again and again, sharp as a pin: My dad is so cool.

    There were other memorable events for Jenny, Keith and I, the lucky kids of an astronomer. Countless of them, really. I remember being bundled up in blankets and placed in the back of our VW van in the middle of the night so that we could make the long slow trip to Cape Canaveral to see one of the first shuttle launches. At dawn’s early light, we sat on top of that van in the middle of a sea of humanity (and rows and rows of port a johns) and felt the earth move, heard the deafening roar as that burst of light shot into space. And I remember driving in the dark down long and winding roads to the observatory at Rosemary Hill to watch Haley’s Comet pass by. That night, one of my dad’s friends mentioned to my 12-year old self that one day the Sun would supernova and swallow the Earth in a ball of fire and destruction. I didn’t sleep for a week. Sweetest of all, I remember carrying blankets into our front yard and lying down in the warm evening air to watch shooting stars dash through the sky above. We’d chew on long stalks of onion grass and, eventually, fall asleep with the deep lull of our father’s voice telling us story after story about the Milky Way and the Big Bang and the celestial bodies just outside our reach.

    Last month, nearly fourteen months after my dad lost to the cancer he bravely battled for six years, the Transit of Venus was once again here. The pair to the transit we watched together in 2004. I spent almost two hours inching my way through a crowded stairwell, floor by floor, to the rooftop gathering hosted by the Austin Astronomical Society on the UT campus. I didn't know anyone there. I didn't stay too long. But I happily took my turn at one of the five telescopes and, in this town that's new to me and exciting and full of promise, this town that I know my dad would have been happy to see me settle in, I watched that now familiar small black dot make its way across the Sun. And, all the while, I was thinking “My dad is so cool.”

    Photo: Keith, Becka, Johnny Rocket
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