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Steamboat Magazine

Seeing Stars

07/17/2017 02:55PM ● By Julia Ben-Asher

By Jimmy Westlake

By Julia Ben-Asher

When Jimmy Westlake was in first grade, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. When Westlake was in high school, people walked on the moon’s surface. 

Westlake watched history being made with wide eyes. 

“I always had known that I wanted to do something with space,” he reflects on the eve of his retirement from Colorado Mountain College. 

For an eighth-grade science project, Westlake made a 6-inch telescope by hand to explore the night sky from his Georgia backyard. 

“It was during the hours that my family couldn’t be with me outside that it occurred to me to take pictures,” he says. “They wouldn’t have to be up past midnight to see what I was seeing.” 

In high school, he took all of the math and science classes that were available to him, and went on to the only undergraduate astronomy program in the Southeast: Valdosta State University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree with a double major in astronomy and physics. 

He received a master’s degree in astronomy from Louisiana State University, and taught at Young Harris College’s Rollins Planetarium for 15 years. He earned an additional bachelor of science degree in psychology at University of Alaska Anchorage, before landing in Colorado. 

Throughout 40 years of teaching, Westlake has continued his astrophotography, capturing exquisite detail in the moon, long exposures of stars, and skies in striking colors. He has had 26 photographs featured as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. 

His monthly astronomy column in Steamboat Today and weekly radio broadcast, “Cosmic Moment,” invite audiences into the complex, unlimited universe of astronomy in a way that’s both informative and accessible. 

He introduced new courses at CMC, team-taught with biology professor Shawn Sigstedt, exploring the prospects of life in the universe, and cosmology: the history of the universe from the Big Bang until the end of time. Westlake will teach both as web-based CMC classes during his retirement. 

Westlake likes getting students outside the classroom. “We spend a night outdoors for star parties with telescopes and learn our way around the sky,” he says. Through the CMC Sky Club he led trips to Rabbit Ears Pass, Hawaii – six times – and the Arctic Circle to study the northern lights. In April, the club took its last Westlake-led trip to Pasadena’s Mount Wilson Observatory. 

Westlake orchestrated CMC’s haunted house, the "Screamboat Chamber of Horror," each Halloween for two decades, raising funds for Sky Club’s globetrotting and an endowed scholarship fund for science/engineering students. 

“I have a pretty strong passion for it,” he says. “I like to think that rubs off on folks.” 

When the Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower let loose 60 meteors an hour in May, Westlake was newly retired. He and his wife, Linda, who also retired from CMC in May, have purchased a 40-foot RV, and they plan to hit the road and spend more time with their family.  

“We’d like to work in the National Parks,” Westlake says. “We love Yellowstone. I’d love to do astronomy programs for the park visitors.”  

“Exciting other people about our place in the universe, and the joys of just going outside, looking up at the sky and understanding some of what you’re seeing – I like sharing that with people,” Westlake says. 

Jimmy Westlake’s Nighttime Photography Tips: 

Use a digital camera that can be mounted on a tripod. You’ll be using long exposure and need to keep the camera steady.  

If you want to shoot a patch of sky that shows Orion, set your exposure for about 30 seconds. If the exposure is any longer than that, the Earth’s rotation will start to turn the star dots into streaks. 

Set your ISO pretty high, around 1600. 

Don’t expect to hit one exposure and get it right on the first try. Play around with your settings, take lots of different shots, and see what you like.