Wantage woman follows the stars

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  • Grace Casalino of Wantage assembles an Apollo Saturn V model before Monday night's presentation. Photo by John Church

  • Grace Casalino delivers a talk to a crowd at Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Vernon. pHOTO BY jOHN cHURCH


WANTAGE — Grace Casalino, 63, of Wantage took her first real look at the sky with the help of S&H Green Stamps.

“I was always interested in astronomy,” said Casalino. “We couldn’t afford a telescope. My mother saved her S&H Green Stamps and bought me a pair of binoculars.”

As a 12-year-old in Newark, Casalino was fascinated by space. “I got books, learned the constellations.” She needed a better view of the cosmos. When she was 16 she invested in a telescope. “I saved my babysitting money and bought a secondhand telescope. It was probably the cheapest telescope you could buy.” The scope was originally sold through the Sears holiday catalog.

“I thought I died and went to heaven.” It was a step up from using binoculars. “When I think about it I really could not see much out of it. The craters of the moon did appear bigger.”

Casalino set up her observatory in her bedroom. After carefully reading books she borrowed from the library she knew what celestial bodies could be seen from her upstairs window. “I would get up and open my window real quietly and aim the telescope.” Her clandestine star gazing was not as secretive as she thought. “I heard my father going downstairs and then I heard my mother and father talking. It was late at night. I opened my door and said ‘what's going on out there.’ My mother said ‘Your father thought he heard someone breaking into the house.’ I said ‘It was me. I opened the window to look at Mars.’”

Her parents accepted Casalino’s nocturnal activities. She continued to read everything she could get her hands on. The Internet opened up new sources of information and she is now on the NASA e-mail list.

“They send me news items so I am up on everything.”

Moved to Sussex County

“When I moved up to Sussex County I said we really need the astronomy club. I met Al Carcich, we got together and we got a few more members. So we have these programs. I am happy I am involved in astronomy again.” The dark sky of Sussex County is more star gazing friendly than the light polluted sky of Newark.
She has no formal training, describing herself as self-taught but her love of the heavens and the knowledge she's gained over the years is vast. Casalino shares her fascination with space with others through presentations she makes to others. “Years ago I did an adult night school type of thing. I was part of a team of people and we all had subjects. I gave lectures on comets, meteorites, asteroids, the moon, Mars, Venus and the planets.”

Collecting models

Casalino started her hands-on experience by collecting and assembling plastic model kits. Part of her presentation Monday night in the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Vernon was a display of her model collection. “I built these. They sat on the shelf collecting dust.” But now she dusts them off to show others, who can pick up on her enthusiasm.
While browsing the Internet she occasionally finds an addition to her collection. “I have so many at home I have not even made yet. They are in boxes but I am slowly getting them together."
The models add to her presentations and she learns from them as well. “I learned so much more about space by putting these models together. Each one has a story to tell.”
The latest model kits produced are not of manned spacecraft but of the latest space explorers — robots. Mankind did not put a footprint on Mars. “That honor goes to the robots now. We put four robots now on Mars: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and now Curiosity is up there.”
Despite her passion, her husband Mike and her three stepchildren do not have much interest in astronomy.
“My husband is not into astronomy at all. He likes sports and when he watches his ballgames, I take care of my astronomy.”
But she continues to prepare lectures on varied subjects and to build model kits.
“My dream is, someday, I will have my own little observatory at home.”

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