Since as long as I was old enough to understand what stars are I have been captivated by the vastness that space is. However as I have also been a city-dweller even longer my occupation with them has been largely theoretical. A few small lights in a city night sky are not much of an inspiration.
My first personal contact with “real astronomy” (in the sense of actually looking at stars instead of only reading about them) was in early 1997. Some of you might remember that this was the year of Comet Hale-Bopp which presented a spectacular sight even from my parents' suburban backyard. But a few weeks later a friend of my parents, an avid amateur astronomer, showed me a photograph of Hale-Bopp that he had taken. I was stunned, even more so when I found out that he had taken it with his own telescope positioned just a few kilometres away from the city.
This led to a short fascination with star-gazing, but I was young and there were many other exciting things to learn and to do which soon drew my attention away. Years came and went until last year I found myself lying in the grass in the park with a friend during some warm, and exceptionally clear and starry summer night. We looked at the stars and tried to make out some of the more famous constellations. Unfortunately not much knowledge had remained from my teenage years and neither of us managed to even find the Big Dipper (or any similar conspicuous asterism). At least she thought to have found Cassiopeia, but when we looked it up later, we realised that Cassiopeia had actually been in the completely opposite direction. And that bright star which we could not name had not been a star at all but the planet Jupiter.
That night left me thoroughly disillusioned about the capabilities of my long-term memory. And she must have remembered it equally well, for half a year later she got me a planisphere for Christmas. So when last night the sky was clear and cloudless for the first time since Christmas I had to use the chance to test it. (I know it sounds almost too long to believe, but we really had a lot of bad weather lately.) As soon as it was dark enough I grabbed my present, got into the car and drove 30 minutes into the nearby hills.
The first thing I noticed when I got out of the car and walked a few minutes away from the parking site to the lookout point was the bright shine of the city lights at the northern horizon. For a short time during the walk I had felt that I was in a real wilderness, but it reminded me quickly that I actually was still completely surrounded by civilisation. But despite it I still saw a sky that was incomparable to what I was used from the actual city.
And with the help of my star chart, it all came back to me. I easily found the Big and Little Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, Eridanus, Canis Major, and Gemini, and Sirius and Betelgeuse, and Castor and Pollux, the band of the Milky Way, and many other things. And Jupiter, of course, which could not be mistaken in its brightness. But most importantly it brought back to me the feeling of realising how vast the space that surrounds our little planet is. A fact, that is only too easy to forget when you spend your time by creating scenarios, where interstellar travel is ubiquitous and not regarded as anything specially worth to mention.