A renaissance of sorts is sweeping over the world’s second oldest astronomical society as it celebrates its 113th anniversary.
Rescued from abandonment and oblivion by members and volunteers — children, adults, seniors, students and scientists — the Astronomical Society of México (SAM) is steadfastly regaining its once indisputable dominance in interstellar observation and the popularization of the astronomical sciences.
Only France’s astronomical society is older than that of Mexico which, founded in 1902, quickly gained worldwide recognition, becoming an essential part of the intellectual scene in Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century.
In its heyday, SAM housed the first planetarium in Latin America, along with mechanics and optics workshops, a library, an art hall and two observatories, all supported and funded by the donations of its over 1,000 members.
“SAM also published the first astronomical outreach journal of the Americas,” recalls president Alejandro Farah.
A slow decline in activities and popular interest in the once renowned society came to a head in the 1990s, when internal disputes left it with only four members and its facilities were nearly completely abandoned for 20 years.
It was in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, that Farah, a mechanical design professor at the National Autonomous University (UNAM), was invited to give a lecture at SAM.
“Seeing the pitiful condition the building was in, I gradually became interested in it, along with my students. One of them became a member [of SAM], and invited me to join. In 2011, the members decided to make me their president, and it was then that we began a thorough restoration and overhaul,” said Farah.
“Back then, the library — and its collection of books dating to the 1800s — was flooded, the ceiling had fallen in places and the books were wet and infested by moths. We had to save what books we could by drying and cleaning them. We then painted the walls, put together the bookshelves and repaired the roofs. In the end, seeing the results is nice.”
After dealing with the library, the reinvigorated membership tackled the planetarium. Farah recollects that it, too, was very damp. “We dismounted the original planetarium and made it part of a museum exhibition. UNAM then loaned us theirs, which is the one we’re still using.”
Four years later, the volunteers’ work is evident not only in the society’s facilities, but also in a new range of activities — courses, workshops, telescope observation sessions and basic astronomy courses — which occupy its once forgotten halls and lecture rooms.
Farah sees formalizing the organization as the next step: “Our members are those who support SAM, with donations, membership fees or their volunteer work. We’re now looking to become a civil association, with collaboration and support from the government but not completely dependent on it.”
“SAM must now become a ‘living’ astronomy museum; alive because there will always be educational and scientific activities here, all focused on astronomy.”
The study of astronomical sciences has always had a degree of importance in Mexico, and further evidence of this is that the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) will be calling on Mexico to fill the vice-president’s seat.
IAA general secretary Jean Michel Contant said the position combines high technical, scientific and academic levels with international space politics.
“By naming it to the vice-presidency we demonstrate our confidence in México,” said Contant, adding that “it is one of the most interested and motivated countries in promoting true international cooperation.”