The queue to view Saturn at a recent Montauk Observatory event | Montauk Observatory photo
The queue to view Saturn at a recent Montauk Observatory event | Montauk Observatory photo

With the long-awaited construction of the Montauk Observatory’s observatory at the Ross School nearly complete, a familiar face to East End astronomers has stepped up to serve as executive director of the non-profit community astronomy group.

Donna McCormick was serving as president of Southold’s Custer Institute when she was first introduced to the astronomy community working to put together the South Fork’s first public observatory.

She lives in Selden, but “I travel for astronomy,” she said of her long interest in the East End’s skies, which are far more conducive to stargazing than the skies under the haze of light thrown off from suburbia.

The Montauk Observatory's dome at The Ross School.
The Montauk Observatory’s dome at The Ross School.

“I came across them when they were starting up — we crossed paths and helped each other out. They’ve been looking for ways to establish roots,” she said.

“Looking to the future of our organization, the Montauk Observatory Board recently began searching for the person who could lead us into our next chapter and we believe we have found that person,” said Montauk Observatory board member Sean Tvelia in an email introducing Ms. McCormick to the group’s members earlier this month. “Donna has served on the observatory’s advisory board for many years and brings years of experience working in the not-for-profit sector. We are excited to welcome Donna to this new position and look forward to growing the observatory under her leadership.”

Ten years ago, the Montauk Observatory hosted its first star party at Montauk County Park, then known as Theodore Roosevelt County Park, in Montauk.

But while the sky conditions in Montauk were ideal for astronomy, the bureaucratic conditions were less so.

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, then working as the South Fork’s Suffolk County Legislator and a former science teacher from Montauk, had long been a stalwart supporter of the Montauk Observatory.

But then-County Executive Steve Levy vetoed his plan to purchase the telescope from the Biosphere II project in Arizona, and members of the observatory then worked to fundraise together to purchase their 20-inch Meade RCX 400 telescope, a research-grade telescope at a fraction of the cost of the Biosphere telescope.

But the county still resisted their efforts to build an observatory to house the telescope in Montauk, and the group set off in search of a new venue.

In recent years The Ross School has welcomed the Montauk Observatory’s astronomers, who organize regular lectures at the school’s Tennis Center and bring their telescopes to the school for evenings of stargazing.

The Montauk Observatory is now putting the final touches on an observatory dome to house its telescope at The Ross School, and Ms. McCormick said she hopes to make it available for remote online access for students, researchers and the general public.

She also hopes to stream the organization’s longstanding lectures series on their website.

The Montauk Observatory is planning a grand opening for the observatory sometime this fall, and has stepped up its lecture series offerings, with two lectures planned in the next two weeks.

The first lecture, to be held tonight at 7:30 p.m., will be given by Dr. Ian Czekala, who grew up stargazing under the dark night skies of the East End. Now 28 years old, he just received his PhD in astrophysics from Harvard University and will join Stanford University as a research fellow this fall.

He will talk about his experiences of studying to become a professional astronomer and describe what it is like to do research at several of the world’s largest observatories.

More information on Dr. Czekala’s lecture is online here.

Next Thursday, Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m., Dr. Mike Inglis will discuss NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, reviewing our current understanding of Jupiter, what the latest mission will hopefully tell us, and the mission’s plan to search for evidence of life on Jupiter’s moons.

More information on Dr. Inglis’s lecture is online here.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com