Share Your Sidewalk Experiences!

As the title says; it is your turn to tell us a few stories.
E-mail me one (or more) and I'll put them online!




John Foster of San Francisco writes:

I took my finished telescope for a night out on the sidewalk last Friday.
Mojo and Jane were setup when I got there so I dropped off my scope (which
was tiny compared to theirs) and searched for parking. It didn't take long
to park and get set up. "No waiting for the Orion Nebula!" shouted my out of
town guest. The line formed and I heard it for the first time.

"Oh, wow!"

I smiled big because that's what I said after seeing first light just a few
weeks before. But this was coming from a random person that didn't know
anything about telescopes. The next person in line gets their turn.


The little kids got their turns while their Dad asks why we're out here on
the sidewalk. Another women leaves and comes back with more people because
she's so impressed by sight in the three scopes. By the end of the evening I
was cold, my feet hurt and I'd answered the same questions over and over
again. But what a fun time!

"How far away is..."

"Can it see the space station..."

"Did you tape a picture of that in there..."

Best of all was "you built this yourself? It's so clear!" That was the
reward (if there needed to be one) for all the hard work of grinding,
cutting, sanding, painting and scrounging parts.

I think the best compliment for my creation was Jane saying, "you can add
more power" then offering her barlow for the evening. The Cassini division
and banding on the Saturn became visible!

I learned a lot about my telescope in those three hours. Like that it's a
little sticky in it's left/right motion. But the up/down is right on. I
thought it was smoother but you start to feel the subtle after you've
tracked something for a whole night. That my focuser while precise is hard
to use because turning it makes the whole scope shake. So I have to make a
change, wait for it to settle, then make another change.

But hey, you'd expect a back yard built telescope to have a few problems!
Ships go on shake down cruises and so should telescopes. All in all I'm
pretty happy overall with it's performance. And I can fix these things or at
least try out some mods and see what they do.

The next time there's a clear night I'd highly recommend bringing your scope
out and making an evening on a side walk. You'll learn more in three hours
than you ever would by yourself in your own backyard. If not in San
Francisco try it wherever you are.

John Foster


Brett Schwartz of Pennsylvania writes:

My most exciting (and peculiar) sidewalk astronomy experience took place
during last year's Labor Day weekend. I was at my beach house, and had my
6" Dob set up outside to let the occasional passer-by check out Jupiter and
its moons. I was thrilled to see how enthusiastic some people were about
seeing Jupiter through the lens.

However, around 10 o' clock or so, I saw a police cruiser drive by. I
didn't think much of it at the time, until he may an abrupt U-turn in the
middle of the street and stopped right in front of my house. Well, this can
be a little intimidating for a teenager in high school like myself if you
know what I mean! Anyhow, with my heart pounding, the cop got out of his
car, and walked right up to me, checking the Dob out the whole time. He
really didn't know what to make of it! So, I said, "Hi, it's a telescope."
He looked at me, then the Dob, and back at me again. Then a smile came
across his face. "Oh, buddy, I thought it was a cannon or something!"

Well, that was quite a relief! At least he wasn't going to take me back to
the station on account of terroristic threats! (Maybe he was concerned
because the former mayor of the town lives across the street from me!)

Anyhow, I got to talking with the police officer, and asked him if he wanted
to take a look at Jupiter. He looked through the eyepiece, and a huge grin
came across his face. "Wow! That has to be the highlight of my weekend!
What a sight!" So, in the end, it turned out to be a great evening. I know
I'll never forget the look on his face when he first took at look at the
largest planet in the solar system. It's moments like those that I feel
good about myself being able to share the universe with anyone who just
takes the time to look!

Keep your heads looking up,



Dan Davidson of Reading, Pennsylvania writes:

A few years ago, I lived in a small development in the suburbs of Reading, Pa where I live. One night I took my 10" dobsonian reflector out to the sidewalk to do a little star gazing. I had it out about an hour before dusk to let the optics cool down a little bit when a couple who lived down the street from me happened to be walking by. The looks on their faces told me that they didn't quite understand what I was doing. After a couple of minutes of standing there, the man said to me in a stern tone, "Is that thing loaded?". I just looked back in dumbfounded amazement and said "No, I don't think so." His wife slapped him on the shoulder and responded " See, I told you it was a golf bag out to dry! " I couldn't help but start to laugh. After I had explained it was a telescope and not a tactical nuclear missile, I had a great time showing them the wonders of the night sky.

Almost every night I would have the scope out, neighbors from all over the neighborhood would stop by to take a look. There still isn't a feeling that quite compares to seeing the reaction on people's faces the first time they see the rings around Saturn or the Andromeda galaxy. A few of them have gone on to join the local astronomy club I belong to or even fashion there own telescopes. Alot of the fun in Astronomy , for me at least, is giving people their first look at the heavens above and doing my small part in making the night sky seem a little more real to them. Sidewalk astronomy is the best!

Dan Davidson Reading, Pennsylvania

Tom Field, on CompuServe writes:

Wow! If you've never tried sidewalk astronomy, you oughta! Last Saturday I set up in town at the monthly the Denver Astronomical Society's first quarter star party. The moon got a little low (and there were 30 or so telescopes there) so I viewed Alberio. Having an eleven year old go inside and drag his mother out to see the colors was the high point of the evening! People like to see color!! (Hint: after they've seen the stars, tell them you're going to defocus a little to bring out the color. Then do it. It works) Alberio is visible 1 mile from downtown Denver with street lights making it almost daylight. And it's easy to find. I enjoy pointing out to viewers the similarities between the colors they're seeing and the different colors in a candle or campfire. "They're different temperatures..."

The next night, Sunday, having read a little about Dobson (and his merry band of sidewalk astronomers) I screwed up my courage dragged by C8 out to the sidewalk right in front a local ice cream parlor on a busy street. Sure I was blushing and sweating a bit as I set up. "Will anyway come or will I look like a propeller-hat nerd?!" I had a non-stop line of viewers for two hours! Having Rukl's text (mostly the full moon view inside the front cover) to help them navigate and to point out what they were seeing was *very* helpful. Also, coaching them on finding the right viewing position to actually see the image in the eyepiece was occasionally necessary: "Yeh, take your time. Sometimes it can take a minute or so to get your eye positioned right. Try moving away from the eyepiece a little..." [Usually it's only 5 or 10 seconds with the long eye relief LV eyepiece] "Uh, you don't have to touch the eyepiece..."

Often I will help them see things that I believe they'd not otherwise see. "See that smooth area [Serenity]. Well just above it, see those two craters? [Eudoxus & Aristoteles].. Okay, can you see how the left rim of the crater is glowing in the sunrise. See those points of light to the left... etc etc" "Notice the rippling? That's just like the ripples in the air you see over a hot car or above a campfire. The waves of heat in the air above us..." Even a little science: "Now that smooth area is the result of ..."

I debate whether to instruct them on the focus knob, but usually show them by pretending to grab it and rotating my hand (not the knob) a tiny bit, "This is just like focusing binoculars. Turn it just a little, like this until the view isn't blurry." I also watch them as they focus, because some people crank it a half turn or more and I then have to refocus it for them. The sloppiness of the SCT focus is a bother. I don't think JMI's motorized focus (on the drawtube) would be any easier for them, since there is no intuitive feedback from the buttons). A manual drawtube focuser would be best I believe.

Standing by the telescope, people would ask me, "why are you doing this?" I'd suggest they have a look through he eyepiece at the moon, "take a look!" To their totally spontaneous exclamations of "Wow!", "Oooouuuu", "Oh my god", "I can't believe it", "I never knew you could see it so close", "Let me go get my wife..." I'd respond, "I do it because I like hearing people say what you just said!" and we both laugh. There's a real joy in sharing something beautiful, especially if the other has never seen such a thing.

I was surprized how many people expressed an interest, or confessed they had a telescope (often, perhaps a Tasco, ) they never used. The kids were wonderful. They'll talk and talk ... with their parents beaming on. It was also a good opportunity to talk about light pollution, solicit new club members, and meet new people.

So, I urge you to try it. You've got to be a little tiny bit of a showman, but not too much. Once you've set up, one or two (if that) "You want to look at the moon?" queries to passers by is all it'll take to get things going. (Next time I'll have a small sign: "Free views of the moon" that I'll hang from the "No Parking sign or the newspaper box I leaned on)

It's not often (in my life, anyway) that I've felt I gave so much so easily. And the joy of giving is wonderful...

Melissa Evans (responding to Tom) on CompuServe writes:

My 6" Newt lives in my car. If I'm at a place where there are people, and the lights still allow a view of brighter planets, or if the moon is good, I'll set up "Big Red" and entertain a number of people. There are unexpected rewards: once while in front of a Starbucks, the servers sent me an order of latte; a pair of Dutch men were so happy to look through the telescope that they came back with a spray of beautiful orchids for me. Since I'm still baffled by the sky despite all my charts and programs (twenty visible stars do not constellations make), I can't tell people much about what they're seeing, but they are THRILLED nonetheless. A view of the moon knocks people's socks off.

Since Red has a Dobson's mount, I encourage viewers to move it around, then use the Telrad to find the object again. Men love the Telrad. Parents scold their children for bumping the telescope, then I tell the kids that it isn't broken, don't feel bad. This little telescope is about the right height for young kids, but is still too big for the littlies. When grown men look through the eyepiece, I'm concerned for their backs.

I do wonder about the ones who pass by without the slightest curiosity.

Christopher Scott (on CompuServe) writes:


Great report about your experiences!

My club (Tacoma Astronomical Society) has recently implemented a sidewalk program (Star Watch) We go to grocery store parking lots, or anywhere that there are people and set up our scopes. What a fun time it is!

I like it when we set up in daylight and aim the scopes at the moon--about half the people have no idea the moon is visible in the daytime! We get strange looks and they ask how we can see stars in the daytime. One peek is all it takes. My favorite viewers are the ones who have never seen the moon through a scope. I had one guy last night convinced that I had put a picture of the moon on the end of my scope. I had to take the dew cover off and show him that I did not! I still think he thought I was pulling his leg!

Last night we had about 250 people come by and look through our scopes!

We have some nice signs that we set up--looks very professional. The signs draw then in for sure!

Try and get your club involved with the program, I'm sure others would enjoy it as much as you do. In our club we must have at least three members present for safety. That's OK because we can set the scopes they bring on different objects. One on the moon, one on Jupiter, and the other on deep sky or doubles. Our club insurance also covers us because it is an official club event. If you want some more details as to how we do it let me know

Good luck in your future sidewalk shows, and thanks for taking it to the public!


Christopher, in a later post, writes:


We had another night last night at a near by grocery store--went great!

We had 6 scopes set up, the largest being a 12" f7.5 dob!

Our signs say "Free public viewing tonight with the Tacoma Astronomical Society Star Watch program" We also have a cool graphic of some scopes and Mount Rainier. They turn heads for sure!

Some people seem to think we are trying to get money out of them no matter what you do. I had a guy ask why we were doing what we were doing and I said (among other things) because we wanted to let people know about our observatory--he was convinced that there was where he was going to have to pay the big bucks!

A FAQ would be great to do--let me know what you need!

We like to get as many different styles of scopes out there as we can. I take along a ladder with me for those that are shorter. I think the kids like to climb anyway. You bet I tell them to focus. Everyone's eye is different, so why not. I had a lady last night who took her glasses off and made a funny face while at the eye piece. I told her to focus and she said it was fine. I knew better so I took her hand and put it on the focuser knob--boy did she ooh and ahh when the image of the Moon was pin sharp!

I think a good ladder is nice to have though--it gives shorter ones a boost and lets the shaky ones steady themselves on something other than your scope.

One thing I do is put a relatively cheap eye piece in--they get filthy fast!


Jim Craig (on Science Astro. Amateur) writes:

During the recent apparation of Comet Hyakutake, I pulled the 10" Dob into the driveway, brought out the binoculars and a small Cassegrain and set up so a few friends could take a look at the comet. I wasn't quite prepared for what was to follow but my experience in theater and in a planetarium came into play.

It started with one of the neighborhood kids (a fairly smart 17 year old) wondering what we were up to. Before long, nearly everyone in the neighborhood was in my driveway.

Besides looking at the comet, we also looked at a waxing crescent moon and, when it finally rose to a viewable height, Jupiter. There was a streetlight only 1/2 a block away so fainter objects were out of the question.

I answered their questions about the comet (glad I had some recent articles about the comet on hand) and about everything else we could see... to the best of my ability. If I didn't have answers, I'd run inside, grab one of my astronomy books and try to find the answers.

The most frequent comments/questions were: "Did you build this telescope yourself?" (I had in a class with Dobson) "How big is the comet?" "Wow! That's awesome!" "I've never seen the moon like that before!" "Is there another comet that's supposed to be visible next year?"

There were also the questions about aliens, collisions with the Earth and so on.

A recent back injury has made it difficult for me to take the scope out but as soon as I'm able, you can bet I'll be out there. It's rewarding to see people take such an interest in the universe around them. And isn't that what sidewalk astronomy is really all about?

I can't wait for Comet Hale-Bopp to become naked-eye visible in my neighborhood!

--Jim Craig

George P. Normandin (on Science Astro. Amateur) writes:

Jim Craig wrote:

wondering what we were up to. Before long, nearly everyone in the neighborhood was in my driveway. Besides looking at the comet, we also looked at a waxing crescent moon and,

I answered their questions about the comet (glad I had some recent articles about the comet on hand) and about everything else we could see... to the best of my ability.

The most frequent comments/questions were:
"Did you build this telescope yourself?" (I had in a class with Dobson)
"How big is the comet?"
"Wow! That's awesome!"
"I've never seen the moon like that before!"
"Is there another comet that's supposed to be visible next year?"

Jim, I belong to a group that is mostly interested in public education. Our observatory, part of the Kopernik Space Education Center, is open to the public every Friday night, but we don’t kick people out who show up on other nights. Of course we often have some school or other group there on off nights. But working with the public (i.e. those who just drop in) can be the most fun. Last night a couple showed up while I was taking CCD images of Hale-Bopp. They seemed fascinated by it, but I pulled the ST-6 from our 20 inch, and gave them the tour i.e., M-22, M-17, M-27, M-11, and M-31/32. It was worth giving up a chance to do some imaging just to hear all the Oh, Wow!!!!! I think I got a couple of new members!!

A recent back injury has made it difficult for me to take the scope out but as soon as I'm able, you can bet I'll be out there. It's rewarding to see people take such an interest in the universe around them. And isn't that what sidewalk astronomy is really all about?

Ya... showing off the sky and BS'ing about astronomy, "the big bang", etc, can be a blast. To each his own, but I'm often amazed by amateurs who would rather observe alone, or with other astronomers only. We have had a number of knowledgeable amateurs only hang around our group for a short time because they weren’t interested in working with the public. I wish that everyone who owned a telescope would do just what you did about once a month!

good luck! Oh, BTW..... sell snacks next time!! ;)

George N.....



Again, If YOU have a story you would like to share on this page, E-mail me. Thanks, all!

Last update: 02/11/01