Space truly our final frontier

ON February 20, 1962, John Glenn lifted off in the Friendship 7 capsule and became the first American to orbit Earth, circumnavigating the globe three times in almost five hours.

In the darkness at Gladstone, 10-year-old Owen Bennedick rallied his father to set up a spotlight usually used for roo spotting to shine at the capsule as it passed overhead.

Fifty years later, Owen Bennedick is still watching the sky as the owner of the Wappa Falls Observatory near Yandina. It's a backyard curiosity, a humble tourist attraction, a hub for local stargazers and the first port of call for media following up reports of unusual sightings in the sky.

And for Owen, it is the place where boyhood dreams that he formed with his stargazing cousin come true.

“We used to go and sit on a mountain top and pretend we were astronomers and dream of owning a 10-inch telescope.”

He ticked that one off the list 20 years ago, and now has 11 functioning telescopes, plus three that he is rebuilding, one of which he believes will be the biggest in Queensland when it is finished.

His observatory is open to the public of an evening. He also visits schools where students are studying space, and takes his gear to public vantage points when there are events of note happening in the sky.

He thanks his lucky stars today that a few people took enough interest in him when he was younger to encourage his interest in the sky.

While other children are afraid of the dark, he found comfort under the blanket of the night sky.

“I didn't have a particularly happy childhood,” he said.

But his father thought his stargazing was a worthy enough activity to spend £49 ($98), the equivalent of two weeks wages, on a new pair of binoculars for the boy.

Owen's interest in the sky was also encouraged by his cousin, Kerry, who invited him to have a look through his home-made telescope, built from a chimney and glass from a ship's porthole, and later taking him to the Alloway Observatory in Bundaberg.

A music-lover, Owen grew up to own a hi-fi business but was able to make a move towards establishing his own observatory after shifting to the Sunshine Coast in the late-80s.

He ran a recording studio and a PA and stage equipment business, and needed land and easy access for the trucks, and bought acreage west of Yandina where the dark sky at night made for interesting viewing.

Over the years, he has invested heavily in his observatory equipment gut perhaps just as thrilling for visitors is being able to hold a piece of space in their own hands.

Owen has a meteorite collection, which includes bits of the moon, Mars, Mercury, a piece of asteroid that fell in Argentina, and a ring-in – a piece of trinitite from the Trinity nuclear bomb test in New Mexico in 1945, sealed in a lead glass case – which he picked up at the Yandina markets. “Visitors can hold them in their hands. Where else can you hold a piece of outer space in your hands?” he said.

Owen has seen too many occurrences with his telescopes to name favourites and said there were new ones all the time, like a “moonbow” – a rainbow by moonlight – early one morning this week. Some of the things he has seen cannot be easily explained.

“I was vice-president of a UFO group for a while. That should say enough,” he said.

But the sights he has seen at his observatory have stayed with him. He remembers the haunting faces of children from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster area, who visited his observatory on a trip, and an 11-year-old boy from Seoul, Korea, who cried hysterically upon leaving.

“Nobody could work out what was wrong with him. It turned out he hadn't seen stars before,” Owen said.

Owen takes pleasure in introducing people, particularly kids, to the sky. “I love seeing their eyes light up when they see something they haven't seen before,” he said.

He said stargazing was the perfect hobby for young people.

“People spent time and energy with me. Now I go out and try and inspire other people. I like to see someone else enjoying life.”

Two years ago, Owen heard the unedited conversation John Glenn had with NASA radio operators as he orbited the earth in 1962.

Glenn remarked upon a bright light he could see in the vicinity of Rockhampton. Owen Bennedick and his father were only 70km away with the spotlight. In the crackly tapes, a boy's dream came true.

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