STANSBURY PARK — Watching Patrick Wiggins work a star party is like watching a master showman.
Temperatures in the 40s, and a few dozen people are with him at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex in late May, waiting for Wiggins' signal. It's 10:12 p.m., and the sky's a deep turquoise. Few in the crowd are sure about what they're waiting for; they just know that in 29 seconds something amazing is going to happen.
"Watch the sky for a moving satellite. Ten, nine, eight ...," Wiggins says.
There it is, a little moving pinprick among stars.
"Now!" Wiggins says. The satellite gives off a flash of light, then goes back to dot-size. The crowd joins in a chorus of oohs and aahs.
"Iridium flare," Wiggins explains. "It's the sun reflecting off the satellite's panels."
Other Salt Lake Astronomical Society members have telescopes at this star party, but after making the rounds, many of the children there return to Wiggins because they think he's funny. He says things like, "Be careful on the ladder. The laws of gravity are strictly enforced here."
He downplays his role in SLAS, though it's obvious he's not a bit player. Other members refer questions to him, which he answers confidently. Awed, one man tells him, "You must eat, sleep and breathe astronomy."
"This is my day," Wiggins replies. "I stay up watching the night sky until 6 a.m., go to bed, get up at 2 p.m. and start it all over again."
At 61, the vegan and avid walker has boyish eyes and a spare, lean figure. It's not unusual to see him running around the room, full of energy when giving solar system demonstrations. On a recent afternoon, Wiggins sits at a local eatery, sipping from a huge tumbler. Embroidered on the collar of his turtleneck are the letters SPOC. SPOC — a tribute to Star Trek — stands for Stansbury Park Observatory Complex, where he's volunteered since 1975.
Since then, Wiggins has talked to thousands about astronomy through his work at Hansen Planetarium. Over the years, many people have seen Wiggins' name in newspaper articles about space, and many have also seen him on TV. When he retired as the planetarium's education specialist, he continued doing school visits and demonstrations as a NASA ambassador and for the University of Utah. Radio listeners might also remember him for his traffic and astronomy reports on KSL.
As an amateur astronomer, Wiggins has helped discover a handful of asteroids. Long, lonely and oftent boring hours usually yield at most a small graph charting the course of an asteroid.
Still, "it's like building a house," he said. "(The construction) is drudgery, but it's great to live in the house when it's done."
He admitted his obsessive compulsiveness can be both a blessing and a curse.
"Probably makes me difficult to live with," he observed wryly. His first marriage lasted 25 years, his second five years, his third marriage a year. Pain and pride laced his voice as he talked about his career highlight, collaborating with his second wife whom he referred to as Dr. Holly.
He smiled wistfully. "My Amelia — an imaginary friend that I'm going to meet someday, some lady who likes to fly — she's out there somewhere."
Though Wiggins is best known for astronomy, his first love is aviation.
"Gorgeous!" he said of night flying. "You turn all the lights down to a minimum at the cockpit, and you can almost imagine you're in space — especially if you head out to the west desert where there are no lights. I have these sound-canceling headphones so basically, you're just silently gliding. Everywhere you look, there are stars."
A few afternoons later, he's taking visitors for a ride in his plane, a white Cessna four-seater. It's easy to appreciate Wiggins' love of flying as he looks down at the sight of houses, fields and cows reduced to miniature size.
Ironically, Wiggins has this other passion for jumping out of perfectly sound planes. May 29 marked the 45th anniversary of his first skydiving jump when he was a teen in Ohio.
Wiggins' starry life began in Ogden. Then he moved to Elko, where his mother met his stepfather and they moved to Ohio. He moved back to Elko, where he later graduated from high school.
His mother, Donna, who died more than 10 years ago, was a woman ahead of her time. It was the '50s, yet Donna worked full time as an RN, leaving Wiggins and his half siblings in the care of a nanny. She drove race cars once upon a time. She also encouraged Wiggins in his skydiving aspirations despite the disapproval of other mothers.
"(Mother) wouldn't let me skydive until she tried it herself to make sure it was OK," he said. "Here, I was taking the skydiving class 17 times (because I was underage), and she was off sneaking jumps."
Wiggins acknowledged that skydiving became his escape from a difficult home life with his stepfather. "They were not happy years," he recalled. He winced over the memory of an old parachute-turned-hammock, his makeshift bed at the skydiving clubhouse. His mother's influence helped him through that time.
"I definitely got my drive from her," he said. "It wasn't so much her talking to me, as seeing her take some really adverse situations, live through them, not give up and just keep going." When he does physics demonstrations, he uses a tablecloth that belonged to his mother, as a tribute to her. When he donated the refractor house at SPOC, he named it after her.
A year after high school he joined the Air Force as an aircraft mechanic. He later served in Vietnam and the National Guard, retiring after 26 years as a master sergeant.
"I had no direction in life," he said. "I have to credit the military for basically setting me on the right path. Who knows what kind of person I would have been had I not joined the military?"
Without a college degree, he couldn't fly in the Air Force, so he went to the airport for flying lessons. All that was put on hold with his Vietnam and Germany tours. Once he got off active duty, he attended flight school and got his flight-instructor certification.
In 1974, he moved to Salt Lake City and got a job at Hansen Planetarium, where he shared his astronomy passion for 26 years.
The Stansbury Park resident has a soft spot for kids who show up at star parties with their notebook for extra school credit. He had his first brush with astronomy when he was a kid himself.
"The first thing I ever saw through a real telescope was Saturn," he said. "I still remember that. Eight years old. And that'll live with me forever."
Later in high school, someone from NASA came to his school assembly to talk about the Apollo lunar program. The visitor asked how in the world would they fit everything in a cube the size of a soccer ball. The experience stirred Wiggins' imagination and led to his interest in astronomy as a career.
"When I'm at a star party, it's like déj?vu. I'm doing for other people what that NASA guy did for me."
His voice broke as he fought back tears. "I wish I could find him and say thank you."
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