Senior Chief Petty Officer Chris Stein and his 14-year-old daughter, Erin, with two of their telescopes.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Chris Stein and his 14-year-old daughter, Erin, with two of their telescopes. (Jason Chudy / S&S)

NAPLES, Italy — Senior Chief Petty Officer Chris Stein has his head in the stars.

Stein has been an amateur astronomer for more than two decades, looking at galaxies, nebulae, planets, moons and comets in his spare time.

“I took astronomy in high school,” he said. “My high school was fortunate enough to have a planetarium. That’s where the bug bit me.”

Enlisting after graduation, Stein has carried a variety of telescopes with him over the past 23 years, including to his most recent tour as the senior enlisted leader of the Navy Legal Service Office Europe and Southwest Asia in Naples.

His current telescope — he jokingly calls a “watermelon cannon” — is a $5,300, 18-inch reflecting telescope he bought last year. When assembled, it stands about 9 feet tall.

“This is the purchase of a lifetime,” he said. “This thing is a light bucket — it sucks up photons.

“The planets in this thing look just like the pictures in a text(book),” he said. “You can see Saturn in an eyepiece and … you can see the rings within the rings, and the banding on Saturn itself.

“Then, of course, seeing the banding and festoons and the whirlpools and the red spot on Jupiter with its five moons,” he added.

Despite decades of stargazing, Stein said he’ll never tire of the hobby and never run out of things to look at.

“You’re always finding different (things) in objects you’ve seen many, many times and that’s the fun part of it,” he said. “The real night sky, when you look up there, is just filled with stars.”

Since his arrival in Naples last year, he’s been out stargazing only a few times.

“I don’t get near the time to do this that I want,” he said. “One, I’m pretty busy; two, the sky here in Italy during the summer months is nasty, full of dust and stuff blowing in from Africa.

“But the winter time, the atmosphere settles down,” he said. “There’s not as much heat in the atmosphere, and by far the majority of the neat stuff is up.”

This year, he said, he expects to spend more nights and weekends with his eye to the sky.

Even though astronomy means spending a lot of time away from home — or at least outside of the home — it doesn’t mean time away from his family.

The astronomy bug has also bitten his 14-year-old daughter, Erin.

“She was 6 years old in ’96 when I got back into it (heavily),” he said. “The first time we took her out we were able to show her something other than stars.

“One star looks like the next in a telescope, more or less,” he said. “But when you can go out and see stars, and glob clusters and galaxies … that hooked her. When she knows I’m bringing out the ‘big gun,’ she says ‘Oh, I want to go.’”

“I just think it’s cool,” said Erin, a ninth-grader at Naples High School. “I love globula clusters, they’re big clusters of stars, and I like nebulae.

“I think it makes me feel special,” she said. “For all we know we’re just this one small area in all of that (sky). There has to be something else out there.

“Let’s just hope they come in peace,” Erin said.

For father and daughter, at least, peace begins at home through a special bond brought by a shared love of astronomy.

“I think there are not too many fathers and daughters doing things (together),” she said. “It’s usually the mom and the daughter. I think it’s kind of cool.”

The astronomy bug hasn’t bitten mom Sarah, although at the urging of husband and daughter she can occasionally be coaxed to the telescope.

Stein has tried to introduce others into the hobby. He’s taken his telescope to the base school’s career day.

“I (also) hope to coordinate a night or weekend (and go somewhere) close by and hook the school into it,” he said. “Maybe the parents and kids could come out.”

If the children — or parents — are star-struck themselves, Stein said, getting into the hobby isn’t as difficult or expensive as they may think.

“The cheapest and probably the most recommended way to get into the hobby is … to get yourself a good set of binoculars,” he said. “With binoculars you can explore whether or not this is something you really want to invest more money and time into.”

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