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On clear, black nights, Ralph Horvath, 75, takes the opportunity to dust off his telescope, head outdoors, and get lost in the canopy of constellations, planets and stars.'
"People have to see it to be interested," he says of his passion for astronomy. "If they could see a double star, one that's totally gold and right next to it, one that's blue, now that's something to see."'
Horvath, of Sun City Hilton Head, is one of about 60 locals who belong to the Hilton Head Island Astronomy Club.'
The club -- headed up by Jeanne Audet, 84, a retired physician who also serves as a solar system ambassador for NASA -- doesn't meet regularly but communicates through e-mail and a bi-monthly newsletter. '
Some of the members also join Audet for SkyWatch programs, which are open to the public, held a few times each year at Coastal Discovery Museum.'
Audet, who has led the Hilton Head Astronomy Club since about 1992, says the group also has about 40 additional members scattered across the United States -- people who discovered the club through SkyWatch programs while they were vacationing on Hilton Head.'
She says people from all walks of life are attracted to astronomy because of the age-old questions it addresses.'
"I think everyone wants to know where we are, where we come from and what the universe is all about," says Audet, who caught the astronomy bug as a young girl, when her sea captain uncle taught her how to navigate by the stars.'
Longtime club member Jim Taylor, of Hilton Head, says his passion for all things astronomical started with a question.'
An object in the sky caught his eye one night in the 1970s as he was walking his dog along the beach during a vacation in Sea Pines.'
"I was looking up at these stars, and there was this great big red star blinking at me," says Taylor, 89, who is retired from the U.S. Army and a career in computers. "I wanted to know what it was."'
A little research revealed the object was the binary star Antares, part of the constellation Scorpio. It also inspired a whole new hobby for Taylor.'
"I was really intrigued, so I started looking for other stars as the dog and I walked along the beach," he says.'
Taylor spent the next few years studying star charts and the night sky. When he moved here permanently in 1979, he bought his first telescope and signed up for a basic astronomy course at USCB. He was one of the first people to join the astronomy club when it formed in the 1980s.'
Taylor says he remembers club members toting their telescopes to open spaces like the beach and Pinckney Colony.'
"I liked seeing all that was out there in space and how minuscule our Earth is compared to the rest of space," he says.'
He says he also remembers sharing his hobby with other friends who weren't members of the group, such as prominent artist and Hilton Head Islander Walter Greer and his wife, Margaret.'
He says the Greers were particularly interested in Haley's Comet when it was visible from Earth in 1986. Taylor says the couple even made a 2:30 a.m. drive to his house one morning to see the comet.'
"(Walter Greer) was always asking me what stars were out that night, and what he should look at," Taylor says.'
Taylor also learned the Greek and Roman mythology surrounding the stars and told the stories to his grandchildren, he says.'
Club member Horvath also shared his passion for the stars with his family.'
He says the 1957 Soviet Union launch of Sputnik I, the world's first satellite, caught the imagination of he and his wife, Loretta.'
"That's what charged us up and got us going," the retired subway control engineer says. '
Horvath, who also is president of The Skywatchers Club at Sun City, says he and his wife continued to study the stars after the Sputnik launch. '
They passed their curiosity on to their two daughters, and the family even built an observatory with a 6-inch telescope in their yard when they lived in West Virginia. One of Horvath's daughters, Cheryl, went on to study physics and astronomy at the University of Michigan and later became a program manager for NASA.'
"It was a big thing about space and astronomy then," Horvath says of the family's love of stargazing. "It was quite enlightening to look at the sky. Once you got into it, there was always something to look forward to, like Mars appearing every two years or a new comet coming aboard."'
Horvath says he's still looking up at the night sky with the same awe as he did back then. '
"When you see it for yourself, with your own eyes, it's very, very exciting," he says. "The stars are beautiful."'
For more information on Coastal Discovery Museum's next SkyWatch, call 689-6767, ext. 223. For more information about the Hilton Head Island Astronomy Club, call 689-3393.