Astronomy Voices is Love the Night Sky’s effort to gather astronomy experiences to help improve your astronomy. Find out more at the bottom of the page.

William Troxel, a resident of eastern Tennessee in the US, has been attending star parties since 1987 and is currently chair of the Bays Mountain Astronomy Club.

Although he does not have a background in astronomy, he drove 45 minutes to the Central Florida Astronomical Society’s location to attend his first star party.

In this first Astronomy Voices interview, our founder, Adam Kirk, chats with William to find out all about his first experience of a star party, including his anxieties and misconceptions about what he’d find when he got there.

The Interview

The whole interview can be watched below. It is split into separate ‘chapters’, represented by the blue dots in the timeline. Hover your mouse over the dots and click on those of most interest.

If you’d prefer to read some bite-sized snippets from the content, keep scrolling down and you’ll see we’ve pulled out the key conversations.


“I was always drawn to the night sky,” said William. “I didn’t know a lot of different things but I enjoyed just going out with my friends, lying out in the field up on top of a mountain, and just looking up into the night sky.”

Inspired to learn as much as he could about the night sky before his first star party, William went to the public library in downtown Orlando and selected a book on stars, nebulae, and galaxies.

“I was reading [a] language that to me was just Greek,” William recalled of his experience. “Because the book was using all of these terms, light years and arc seconds and all of this stuff.”

Despite not understanding much of the astronomy jargon, William was excited to attend this star party — so much so that he went 30 miles over the speed limit.

“The more excited I got about going to this, the faster I was going,” said William. “So, I got a speeding ticket.”

William finally made it to the location of the star party in plenty of time, because he had “left in the middle of the afternoon for a nighttime event.” Love the Night Sky spoke to William about his expectations of the star party and his experiences and memories spending time with a group of 150 to 200 passionate amateur astronomers that he’d met for the first time.

What did you expect to find at the star party?

Oh, I was so green. I was such a newbie. I didn’t know what to expect. This is funny because I thought that they were going to bring this huge observatory, and that they were going to roll [it] out onto the beach and open it up and everybody was going to just line up in a line and you get to go through and look at the telescope. I thought, ‘this is going to be huge.’ It’s going to be like what we call the Hubble Telescope.

What was it like when you reached? 

I was going over all of the facts that I’d tried to memorize from the book and couldn’t remember half of them. Because I was thinking they were going to ask you questions [like], ‘what do you know about the night sky?’ before they would let me in to see the stars. When I got there, nobody talked to me. Nobody said anything because everybody was setting up. At the time, I just saw them as telescopes. I didn’t know what they were. 

Later on, I learned that there were refractors and reflectors and they even had some astronomical binoculars set up. They had even had an area where they had it lit up with what I had never seen in my life but looks like little desk lamps. They had the little flexible top and they had red and blue lights in. I’d never seen anything like that, didn’t know what it was. 

So, I went up to it and there on each one of the different tables there was a star chart. Again, I didn’t know what this star chart was. I didn’t have any idea. I mean, here’s a map of the stars and I thought, “Oh, how cool is this?”

What were the age groups of the people present at the star party?

There were little kids, little boys and girls. There were senior guys and women. There were families. I mean, every age group. There were a couple of people that I later found out were members of this astronomy society. [There] were professors at the University of Central Florida and the University of Florida. They were there and they were part of the club. Then there were members there. 

What I later found out was most of the people that were there, except for the professors, were just like you and I. They were just amateur astronomers who made the very same mistakes that I did, didn’t know a single thing about it and were even learning that very night that we were there. I mean, this is one of these hobbies and things that we do that you learn constantly.

You learn from it. And every time you go out in the night sky, the biggest mistake you can make is to go in thinking, “Oh my God, I know everything about this,” because the minute you do there’s going to be something. Mother Nature is going to say, “Well, boy, I’ll show you just how much you know.”

What was your experience like?

They had a couple of telescopes that were set up for different things in the sky. One of them that I remember was the first time that I actually got to see through a telescope, the rings of Saturn.That was my very, very first remembrance of seeing the rings of Saturn. I was standing there, looking through the telescope, and I thought, “Holy crap.” I don’t remember the guy’s name but it was his personal telescope that he had brought, and I thought it was absolutely the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. 

But driving back home, I remember that I had tears in my eyes because that night, it was so clear and you could see the rings and they were just absolutely…I mean, it took my breath away. Then, when they told me how far away it was, it looked like I could reach out and just touch, grab the ring.

Now, some of the families that had the little kids, the little kids couldn’t stay up that late. But most everybody else was there that stayed because as the night got deeper, moved over, one of the telescopes, which I never could get to because the line was so long, they had it set on the Milky Way. I never got to get into that line because it was a huge line and he was having to limit the amount of time that you could stay.

How did they organize the party?

The way they had it set up was it was on the beach so they had it set up into different stations across. Because I didn’t measure it and I was so excited about being there. I want to say, I think it was seven, eight feet between each telescope. It could have been less. But they were talking about it and they were, I remember, somebody came in with a regular flashlight onto the beach, and they got so mad. It was like, “Turn your light off, damn it.”

But they didn’t take me under the wing that day because I had just joined the club. So, they hadn’t introduced me. I hadn’t been able to go to any of the meetings or anything like that, so I didn’t know anybody.

Did you find people were helpful, friendly, enthusiastic?

It’s the best that I’ve ever been to. No matter what your level is, no matter what your understanding is, whether you just do binoculars or whether you do telescopes, or whether you do radio or whether you do astrophotography, or whether you do spectrometry, it doesn’t matter.

They want to see where you are and help you to grow. There’s all kinds of help. They’re so friendly and they’re so just open. That was the biggest thing that impressed me.

They were so humble and yet they weren’t afraid to say, “I don’t know what that is,” or, “I don’t know how far that is. I just know what it is,” or, “I just know that it comes in the sky about this time of the year,” or something like that.

How long after that event then, William, did you end up with your first telescope. 

I didn’t get my first telescope, believe it or not, until 2004. I had my own binoculars and they were just ordinary [ones from] Walmart. Then my first one was in 2004 and it was a refractor. It was just a little refractor.

I found it at a yard sale in Orlando, down the street from where my condo was located. I think I paid $7.5 for it. I put it in the truck of my chair and it didn’t have any packaging with it, so I just put it in the back of a car. In central Florida, when it flooded it just ruined the roads. And so I hit a pothole and bounced the telescope and broke the telescope. Didn’t even get to use it.

My hope and my plan was to try to go back to the club one night when they’re having a star party and see if somebody could fix it, is what my thought was. Didn’t get to go back to any of the clubs, club meetings, because they switched my shift and I was working on Saturday night so that was the end of that.

Why don’t you take us on a little short walk from there to how you ended up being chair at Bays Mountain?

In 2007, I actually joined Bays Mountain Astronomy Club. I believe the timeline was two years, then I was elected the chairman of Bays Mountain Astronomy Club.

I thought, okay, you reach a point where you sort of know what to expect or what to look for. And I’ve been proven wrong so many times because every single meeting that we have, every single time that we had a star watch or solar watch, there was something new that I learned.

From that initial star party and the other ones you’ve been to, did you take away anything that you still use today when setting up your own star parties?

One thing that sticks in my mind very, very prominently, and I learned the hard way, is you never, ever, ever, ever leave your telescope or binoculars unattended. Because people are so excited, they want to see it. So, they tend to grab hold of whatever they can grab a hold of. They think they’re looking at a pretty stout piece of equipment. This is not a cheap hobby. 

If people will twist and turn things and even the best of us, if somebody grabs a hold of it and yanks it, if it’s on a motor mount or a motor drive, you’ve screwed up the gears, you’re out.

Do you follow that same principle where each station, each stand, the telescope is picking out a certain object, be it a planet or a nebula or whatever it might be?

When we were doing star parties at Bays Mountain, we did them in spring and fall. When we were doing them, and when we could do them, what we would do is, depending on what the number we thought would be coming up the night, is the number we would set up.

Our observing area is not really huge. We’ve got two observatories and then we have space for three more pods, but they’re not big, spaced out. We try to do three or four scopes and try to find one object that each scope, to start with, will be focused on. We give everybody a chance to see at least four objects.

Then, after we get those first four, then we coordinate with each other. One telescope will be saying, “Okay, let’s do Mars.” Well, then the other three would do something else, would pick another star or another galaxy or something like that that we can focus on. Because we want to give the folks that come up a chance to see different things. We have a little amphitheater and we ask everybody to have a seat. Sometimes, we’ll say, “Tonight is about what would you like to see? What will you want to see?”

We want the people to have fun with it.

Have you got any advice for aspiring or brand-new astronomers when it comes to astronomy clubs?

I want to strongly, strongly recommend that everybody who even has the smallest amount of interest in it, get out, reach out, get to know an astronomy club in your area.

There are clubs all over the world. You don’t have to pay anything to go and join, come to the meeting. You don’t have to pay at all. You can go and you can go and introduce yourself. Most clubs will even let you come two or three times to see if you like it before they want you to join.

When you’re ready, when you’re ready to step up, they can even help you and advise you, “Hey, go to this site.” Or, if they live in a bigger city that’s got an astronomy store where you actually can see telescopes, which in the US we don’t have anymore, but they can tell you where to go, what to look for. It’s so important because astronomy clubs have resources, information that every single person can use. To me, that’s the most important. I made the mistake of trying to figure it out myself.

Astronomy Voices is Love the Night Sky’s effort to gather astronomy experiences to help our readers get better at astronomy by making it simpler, more enjoyable and accessible. We do this by interviewing passionate amateur and professional astronomers about their journey, lessons, and delightful experiences. 

We believe that astronomy clubs are a great place to learn more hands-on skills from experienced astronomers, but we also recognize that not everyone is close to their local astronomy club or has the time to attend their regular meetings or activities.

Over a third of our readers have less than one year of telescope experience, we write about the people who have experience using telescopes. By doing so, we hope to lessen the learning curve, share the wisdom and knowledge of astronomy club enthusiasts with everyone who can access Love the Night Sky.