Reaching for the Stars

Two Grand Valley State University students’ passion for space inspired them to create a local astronomy club.


Two Grand Valley State University students' passion for space inspired them to create a local astronomy club on campus.

Today that club is giving back to the people of Michigan with a special view of space.

Here's the story.

I want to make that impact where, like, I did something at Grand Valley, and, like, even after I leave, it's still gonna be here.

Preston Saycocie is a student at Grand Valley State University who's trying to bring what he loves to where he lives.

Another student, named Alexander Sokoly, is helping him.

The people here on college campuses are gonna be the people designing those rockets or calculating those equations or discovering the new life on the next planet.

Together, Saycocie and Sokoly are using their passion about the unknown to get others involved.

I've always been interested in space, and then just one night out of the blue, I get a call from Preston, and he was like, 'Hey, I'm starting an astronomy club.

Would you be on the e-board for that?'

And I was like, 'You know what?

Why not?'

The club meets every other week, alternating between a formal meeting and what Sokoly calls a hang-out.

But that we also just want to have fun and be part of a community, too, so we do cool events, like making solar-system bracelets or going out to the Grand Ravines Park and just sitting around watching the stars and listen to music and just enjoy each other's company.

Saycocie says he found a home with the club, one that he'd been searching for.

So, freshman year, you know, everybody's trying to find their place.

Um... I couldn't really find my place.

And so that year, I started really working with my astronomy club back home, 'cause I commuted.

His club back home is the Shoreline Amateur Astronomical Association.

Saycocie runs the SAAA social-media pages and says the club and its members are what inspired him to start one on campus.

One of those members is vice president Francisco Roldan, who says that the club is great, aside from not having its own observatory.

I have been involved with other astronomy-club societies, in Milwaukee, for example, and when I got here, of course, the first thing I asked -- 'Where's your observatory?'

[ Laughs ]

Roldan says his question got the ball rolling, and before long, the group found a location and began raising funds to build their own observatory.

The Hemlock Crossing Park was chosen, not so much because it's the greatest place to observe but because of the nature centers there.

So, you already have a component that will be part of the educational process.

Although it's the SAAA's project, the observatory is being built for anybody who'd like to use it.

Ours is defined as a public observatory.

We will train the personnel at the nature center to operate it, and we will equip it and be able to observe the sun.

Roldan says this observatory will be open-use as much as possible.

He's hoping that the open use will cause some parkgoers to discover their love for astronomy as he did 63 years ago in Havana, Cuba.

When I was about 10 years old, my school took us to a planetarium.

I had never been in a planetarium, and when I walked out of that building, I was hooked.

I was gonna be a professional astronomer when I grew up.

Roldan said Havana had similar light pollution to some of the big cities in West Michigan.

And when they projected the sky in the dome, I was amazed.

I was amazed that this is what the sky's really supposed to look like.

Roldan thinks that, regardless of where they live, people of all ages deserve to see what he saw in that planetarium.

Hopefully it'll be 8- and 10-year-old kids that come and look through the instrument who will get turned on to astronomy like I did when I was that age.

According to Roldan, the observatory is over halfway funded and won't take long to build, and, in the meantime, Saycocie has his own instrument to study the sky.

I got my telescope freshman year of college.

I went out to an event for the Shoreline Club, and they were showing people all their telescopes, and I was just like... 'This is what I want.'

And I bought it and I built it, and it's been one of the greatest things I've ever bought.

You just take it out, put the base on the ground, bring out the tube, put the tube on the base, and then it's a bunch of adjusting, and then, really, all I need to do is just put in a lens and then make sure it's, you know, pointed at something.

Both Roldan and Saycocie like telescopes but say you don't need them to experience space if you're willing to travel a bit.

I did travel with my wife to Mexico for a solar eclipse.

I went down to Missouri for the solar eclipse.

It was supposed to be a trip with my friends, but they ended up bailing on me, but I told myself, 'I am not gonna miss this event.'

Both amateur astronomers have witnessed a solar eclipse, and both had a similar take on it.

Amazing experience.

I believe everybody should be able to experience it once in their lifetime.

That is, uh -- Everybody should see one solar eclipse in their lifetime, I think.

As breathtaking as it was, Saycocie said it was not the most important part of his trip.

I decided to stay another night in Missouri, and I Airbnb'd a potentially murderous RV out in the middle of nowhere at Mark Twain National Forest, and if you've ever experienced being out alone, no lights, no anything, light music playing and just laying down on Earth and looking out into the sky, those kind of moments are just life-changing for me.

It's moments like these, Saycocie says, have shaped his goals for the future.

The big goal is to become a mechanical engineer, and then the end goal is to become an astronaut.

Sokoly is also pursuing engineering and says the workload is tough but he still finds time for some leisure activities, such as astrophotography.

So, to do astrophotography, like, on the very basic level, you take a camera, like a DSLR, and a tripod and you set it 'cause it has to be very still.

You'll leave the shutter open for like almost like a minute long, and then all that gets processed by the camera.

Astrophotography allows people to see stars that are invisible to the naked eye.

Saycocie is also excited about astrophotography, but he told us about a camera that was a little more complex.

It's called the James Webb Space Telescope, and it's -- I don't like to say it's Hubble's replacement.

It's more of Hubble's, like, successor.

The James Webb Telescope is around the size of a tennis court.

According to NASA, it will orbit a million miles from Earth, four times farther than the moon.

It's quite an undertaking.

You have to realize that once we park it up there, at least right now, there's nothing for us to go out there to fix it.

[ Chuckles ] So it's got to be -- It's quite a gamble, and it's got to be real perfect.

But I think that the new scope will discover many new things, just like Hubble did, you know?

Heavens only knows what's going to come out of that instrument.

With this telescope... it is groundbreaking.

Hubble was able to see pretty far, but this telescope will be able to see the first star's light that was born from the Big Bang theory.

Whether you're scared or excited by this, Saycocie says you can't shy away from wanting to know what we'll find.

If we lose our curiosity, if we stop asking those big questions, like, we lose our sense of being human.