Space man

Astronomer Jeff Setzer has devoted much of his life to stargazing and is a skilled traveler in the awe-inspiring geography of the sky
Ozaukee Press staff

Jeff Setzer once had a chance to live many children’s dreams and attend Space Camp.

Setzer instead opted to stay on the ground and get a telescope. Looking at the sky has become a lifelong passion.

The Saukville native, 49, who lives in West Bend, is the longtime president of the Northern Cross Science Foundation, which meets at the Jim and Gwen Plunkett Observatory at Harrington Beach State Park in the Town of Belgium.

He remembers his first telescope with its 10-inch lens. He ordered it through a magazine back in the days when people made phone calls on a land line and sent a check for a deposit. He quickly began observing planets.

“I had a pretty good telescope for an eighth-grade kid,” he said.

Now, he’s got more than 40, including one with a 22-inch mirror that requires a six-foot ladder to operate.

As a result, Setzer is on his third vehicle and considers himself a “mini-van connoisseur.”

Setzer grew up in Saukville reading “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and saw “Star Wars” three times at the Rivoli Theatre in Cedarburg. His father taught science fiction literature at Homestead High School.

It wasn’t just space that interested Setzer. “For me, half of it was looking in the stars and half of it was how the telescope worked,” he said.

In high school, Setzer earned a medal at the state forensics meet for a demonstration on how to see Halley’s Comet. He has since learned other comets look more interesting. Last month, he captured a time-lapse video of Comet NEOWISE.
Setzer figured he would someday make telescopes for a living, but found those jobs to be rare. He got into computer-aided design and has worked the last 28 years for GSC, an engineering consultant in Germantown.

His design skill combined with his hobby led him to create a unique eyepiece that has come in handy during the Covid-19 pandemic. The eyepiece, which Setzer made with a 3D printer, is measured precisely to allow cell phone and tablet cameras to focus on what a telescope shows.

People rest their device on the eyepiece and take clear photos, thus seeing through a telescope without putting their eye up to it and spreading germs. Setzer gives his design away for free.

However, astronomy gatherings where enthusiasts would use his invention have all been canceled due to the conoravirus. State parks have reopened, but they close at 9 p.m. when astronomers start to look at the sky.

Setzer still goes to Harrington Beach’s parking lot “for a little bit of normalcy” and talks loudly to well-spaced fellow NCSF members and friends. The park, he said, has less light pollution than higher-populated areas.

Outreach is the biggest part of the foundation, and Setzer said he has helped colleges and high schools understand how to use their telescopic equipment. He likes to share his knowledge with children from Milwaukee who have never seen stars or been out of the city during their camping trips to Harrington Beach State Park.

Setzer reminds young people interested in the space that a telescope costs “less than your Xbox.”

The ideal places to view space aren’t always ideal for visiting, however.

“Camping is a necessary evil for all of us,” Setzer said of astronomers.

One of the best places Setzer has been to is Valentine, Neb., a tiny town just south of central South Dakota where it is extremely hot.

“Normally, I would not think that’s a good vacation spot,” Setzer said. But it’s extremely dark — perfect for star gazers. The Milky Way seen from there, Setzer said, looks like an arch and even casts shadows on white objects.

“At night, the stars are so close people think they literally can grab them with their hands,” he said.

To see the rare total solar eclipse in 2017, Setzer scouted spots for a couple of years and made the nearly eight-hour drive to Vienna, Ill., where the eclipse lasted longer than nearly anywhere in the country.

“It turned out to be a horse camp, which was interesting,” he said. The horses were put in stables, and once it got dark, “the nighttime animals came out to do their thing,” Setzer said.

He took photos of his group with a GoPro camera and saw the shadows change. He was amazed by the 360-degree sunset and Baily’s beads, a diamond ring effect of sunlight.

The experience turned out to be one of the highlights of his life.

“That’s a spiritual moment whether you’re religious or not,” he said. “Everything is totally different.”

Another total solar eclipse will happen April 8, 2024, and Setzer plans to travel to the best place to see it.

Another one on Sept. 14, 2099, will occur right over his house in West Bend. He is “actually mad” he won’t be around to see it and would like to create a time capsule for the city.

For now, Setzer watches the sky from his backyard deck. He likes using his old Celestron telescope he got on eBay for $200. It needs to be manually pointed at stars, unlike today’s computerized versions, and will track them for 24 hours, turning once to counter earth’s rotation.

He often makes a list of space items to observe. He likes deep-space objects outside our solar system called planetary nebula. They are remnants of dying stars whose outer shells are illuminated from the inside. On his big scope they look almost like the clear photographs in books and magazines.

His favorite planet to view is Jupiter. It changes colors and has shadows cast on it from its four big moons.

But he also checks out some others.

“If Saturn’s out, you look at Saturn just to do it,” he said.

He knows the craters and Apollo landing sites on the moon, whose phases determined Setzer’s social schedule before the pandemic. “Full moon people think is the best time to look at the moon, but it’s the worst time,” he said, adding the direct light eliminates all its shadows.

Star gazers, he said, must learn to train their eyes to see in low light. Where he can pick out 12 cloud bands on Jupiter, an untrained eye can maybe see two.

“It is not like watching TV or playing a video game or even learning golf,” he said.

Then, stargazers hope for clear skies and tolerable temperatures. Ground fog and dew can ruin perfect optics in an hour.

“Astronomy will teach you humility and patience,” Setzer said.

Just trying to comprehend the vastness of space, the size of its objects and how long it has taken light to travel to be seen still amazes Setzer.

“We’re a tiny speck in a cosmic ocean,” he said.

He wants to explore as much of that sea as possible behind a lens, and share his passion with others.

“There’s an infinite universe and I have a finite amount of time to see it,” he said.

For more information, visit Setzer’s blog at or the NCSF website at



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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