The stars are aligning for Samuel Singer.
The outdoor educator with a particular affinity for the night sky has for the past few years been involved in projects that at first glance might seem starry-eyed — including an observatory and a planetarium for Jackson Hole — but recent developments have moved them along and they now appear to be on the verge of coming together.
“I am super jazzed,” said the enthusiastic 33-year-old executive director of the nonprofit Wyoming Stargazing. “It feels like my ship has come in.”
Singer was born in the Bay Area, but when he was 10 his family moved to a “tiny desert town out in the middle of nowhere” in northern Nevada.
“Out my back door was 30 miles of desert,” he said, “It’s where my love of the outdoors was born, exploring the desert, capturing lizards and snakes. I had no idea I was doing outdoor education.”
He finished high school in Tacoma, Washington, where a physics teacher taught a one-semester astrology course. Singer took it. The following semester he took physics from the same teacher who in the first few weeks approached Singer and asked him if wanted to build a telescope. Singer finished the project during his freshman year at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he majored in physics and astronomy.
“Over the next three or four years I got more and more into astronomy,” he said. “When I learned that every element of the universe, with the exception of hydrogen and helium, is created in the cores of stars, and that literally everything that exists all came from stars exploding and releasing those elements out into the universe to later recombine into the planets and us and everything, I was hooked.”
But by the end of his undergraduate days he had figured something out: Professional astronomers don’t spend their time gazing up at the sky in wonder; they spend their time sitting behind computers.
“And that’s not me,” he said. “I love talking to people, building telescopes … teaching people about the night sky.”
He wanted to continue his astronomy studies, but all the graduate programs he looked into were Ph.D.-track programs. Finally a friend sat him down, he said, and asked him what else he liked to do.
“I said, ‘I love backpacking,’” and his friend said, “Sweet, go be an outdoor educator.”
He worked for The Road Less Traveled, a summer program for teens headquartered in Chicago, leading his first trips on the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. Next came Nature’s Classroom, out of Groton, Massachusetts.
“I thought, ‘This is great. I get to play in the woods and get paid.’”
So he decided to get a master’s in education. He did a quick Web search and at the top of the list was Teton Science Schools.
“All I had to do was see that picture on the [Science Schools’] website with the Tetons” and he knew where he was headed.
He came to Jackson Hole in 2005 and spent the next few years traveling back and forth between the Science Schools in Kelly and the University of Wyoming in Laramie. At UW he taught elementary education majors how to teach physics to young students, and he spent a couple of years on the Science Schools faculty.
“And then I decided to get a Ph.D.,” he said.
After school Singer again found himself adrift. He worked for another outdoor education program, a nonprofit called Science Kids out of Sheridan, “but I had no idea what I was going to in September when those programs come to an end.”
He owned a yurt in Kelly, “but what am I going to do in Jackson?”
Science Kids Director Sarah Mentock helped him navigate his next steps. She asked him, “What do you want to do now?”
“I said, ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do,’ and she said, ‘No, no, no: Not what are you going to do. What do you want to do?’”
Singer said he wanted to lead a stargazing program, so Mentock told him to go to Jackson and start a nonprofit.
“She said, ‘It’s easy. I’ll show you.’”
Singer plunged in and by March 2013 was offering stargazing programs in the Stilson Ranch parking lot. The group also does solar astronomy, appearing through the summer at the People’s Market among other places, and planetarium programs with its 15-foot inflatable dome.
“We haven’t done enough with that,” Singer said of the planetarium shows. “I’d like to do more.”
Singer found allies. Mike Cavaroc, a graphic designer and wildlife photographer who also had done astrophotography, designed Wyoming Stargazing’s logo and website and has contributed hundreds of hours of pro bono marketing and advertising work.
“He’s been instrumental in getting Wyoming Stargazing where it is today,” Singer said.
He also met Dr. Tatiana Rodriguez, another physicist who got her advanced degrees at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania and who escaped city life to pursue her love of the outdoors.
“She’s one of our primary stargazing leaders,” Singer said.
Some heavy hitters serve on the board, including Brad Mead, brother of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and an avid amateur astronomer; Ian Edwards, a retired biomedical engineer who came upon the nonprofit at one of its early stargazing events; and Max Chapman, one of the principal investors of the reinvigorated Snow King Mountain Resort.
An early vision for Wyoming Stargazing was to create an observatory and planetarium in Jackson Hole.
“Up until two months ago it was really just an idea,” Singer said.
But one Wednesday, Chapman walked up to Singer’s People’s Market booth and invited him to dinner. Chapman soon hired Singer to develop observatires and planetariums at Brooks Lake Lodge and atop the Town Hill. The mountaintop facility is part of phase two of the ski resort’s expansion plans and could bring tens or even hundreds of thousands to the top of the mountain, Singer said.
Singer also is working to get Jackson Hole certified with the international Dark Skies movement. The “Save Our Night Skies” campaign is “an effort to preserve the incredible dark skies that we have in this valley,” he said.
“We’ve lost them in a lot of places” in Jackson Hole, he said. “That’s a shame. In a town of 10,000, that shouldn’t be the case. Flagstaff, Arizona, has a population of 65,000 and it has the same light signature that we have.”
The valley’s nighttime wonders can be restored and protected with fairly simple lighting ordinances that call for shielding to direct lighting down. Singer and his group rewrote existing ordinances and submitted them to planners, who offered comments. He’s confident the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of Commissioners will accept them.
Dark skies are important not just for spiritual, connect-with-the-cosmos reasons. Lighting ordinances that cut down on light pollution also cut down on costs, as shielded, directed light fixtures don’t need the wattage of lighting that scatters everywhere. Singer also says dark skies over Jackson could bring astro-tourists to the area.
Whether the motive is spiritual or economic, the night sky is compelling. And, Singer said, it’s a great way to get people interested in science.
“Who doesn’t love to learn about the grandiose sizes and distances of the universe?” he asked. “It’s got this wow factor that’s inescapable. And it’s beautiful, the aesthetics of it, to look up into the night sky and see more stars than you can count.”