Late one night in the spring of 1990, members of the Minnesota Astronomical Society gathered on the shores of Lake Harriet with their telescopes to marvel together at the wonders above. In attendance that night was Kingfield’s resident astronomy enthusiast, Michael Kauper. Kauper recalled that on that clear night, “the most noticeable sound was people coming to the telescopes and saying, ‘oh my god, that’s so beautiful.’” In the years that followed, the Astronomical Society built a proper observatory far from the light pollution of the city, but Kauper never forgot the joy of a neighborhood star viewing party.
Last Friday, Kauper brought his lifetime of experience in astronomy education to Pershing Field Park for the new Planets in the Park program series. Volunteer astronomers set up their telescopes for an unusually strong view of Jupiter and its moons, Saturn, and the waxing crescent moon. More than 60 people came out that night, glowsticks and star wheels in tow, to peer between the clouds and get a glimpse of our planetary neighbors.
Kauper, sporting a white beard and a cuff dangling from one ear, jokingly blames the Cold War for sparking his interest in astronomy.
“My father pulled me out of bed and had me watch Sputnik float over our house,” Kauper said, referencing the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first human-made satellite. From then on, Kauper was glued to the skies. He spent late nights lying in the backyard of his family’s home in Farmingdale, New York with a flashlight covered in red cellophane (to maintain his night vision) and a pile of blankets, identifying constellations as they passed overhead.
From there began a long life of amateur astronomy studies that Kauper brought to generations of the like-minded and the unsuspecting. As a candidate for a Ph.D. in geophysics at the University of Minnesota, Kauper rented a room from Marian Turner, who ran a daycare center in her home.
As the upstairs tenant Kauper would show kids things through his telescope.
“I would do activities with them,” Kauper said. “I hated the university and so I asked Marian if I could be her partner in her childcare business. That was that. I did that for 40 years.”
In 1975, Kauper became the first man to hold a daycare license in Minnesota. Both Turner and Kauper wanted their young charges to be in on the action of the world, conducting science experiments, cooking together, even helping to build their own backyard playground.
From the start, astronomy was a central component of the curriculum at Turner and Kauper Family Child Care. A model of Polaris, the North Star, hung from the ceiling in the playroom, ready for orbital demonstrations. One of the kids’ favorite lessons was the one that explained why we have seasons on Earth through a human reenactment of the planets’ orbit. The children were then thrilled to explain the science to their parents, many of whom could not have done the same, at a dinner party for families.
Kauper and Turner regularly took the children on camping trips to look at the night sky through telescopes away from city lights because, as Kauper will tell anyone, “the best tool for an amateur astronomer is a tank of gas.”
“The kids knew more about astronomy than any college freshman. I wanted them to understand our place in the universe,” Kauper said.
His daycare served the children of Southwest until 2015, when the daycare was shuttered by Hennepin County officials, as a result of a self-reported incident involving a child left alone in a car for several hours. Though courts granted them permission to reopen the next month, the pair never returned to full operation.
Following Turner’s death in 2017, Kauper said he fills his days babysitting for the children and grandchildren of families that passed through his daycare over the years and teaching introductory astronomy to adults through the Minneapolis Public Schools continuing education program.
Kauper said he has been advocating to launch an event like Planets in the Park since that night at Lake Harriet’s shore more than 30 years ago, but with no success. Finally, he found support for the idea through Heather Susag, the director of Pershing Field Park. Susag came to Pershing in January of this year and said that when Kauper emailed her with the idea to host an astronomy education event in her park, she was immediately excited to help put it together.
The crowd that came out for stargazing was a mix of regulars at the park and those who aren’t necessarily drawn by the park’s usual slate of sports and arts-and-crafts activities.
“It was such a different thing to do in the park,” Susag said. “The community and the kids and the families loved it. What 8-year-old gets to look through a 4,000 dollar telescope at their local park and see a planet?” she said.
Planets in the Park will come to Pershing Field Park again soon. Organizers said they would like to host another event this fall, weather and celestial objects permitting. When the next date is decided, announcements will be posted on the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board website as well as the Fulton Neighborhood Association page on Facebook.