Bridge to the Moon

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Space is cool again, especially in Pawtuxet Village.

Scott MacNeill and Jason Major, two self-proclaimed "space nerds," set up their telescopes on the center of the bridge that spans Warwick and Cranston in Pawtuxet once a month and give passersby a chance to view the night sky. It's both a fun activity and an educational experience for those who participate.

"I'm a huge moon watcher and these two guys offer such insightful and fun facts," said Marta Martinez of Friends of Pawtuxet Village. "It's becoming a hub for moonstruck residents who look forward to it as much as I do. We're lucky to have these two experts join us and I know I look at the moon differently." 

MacNeill, who studied engineering at Anthem Institute in New Jersey, is the Director of the Frostry Drew Observatory and can also be found at the Ladd Observatory on Tuesday nights. Major, a graphic designer by day, studied studio art at Rhode Island College and runs a space blog called Lights in the Dark. Both said their interests in space were sparked by science fiction--particularly Star Trek. MacNeill said he studied engineering because he wanted to visit space, but Major's love for space really took off when he was in his 30s. He became engrossed after seeing photos from Mars and later, got to see a launch at the Kennedy Space Center in 2011. Now, the two are sharing their passions with Pawtuxet Village patrons through "Sidewalk Astronomy." 

The catalyst for Sidewalk Astronomy was Mary Grady, an adjunct geography and environmental science professor at Rhode Island College and writer who is "interested in helping people to connect to natural history and their local environment." She had the idea a few years ago when she saw the amount of people that came out to see the SuperMoon. The park at Stillhouse Cove was full of people coming out for Moonrise, she said. She heard the idea of "sidewalk astronomy" online, and approached an astronomer at Ladd Observatory to try and make it happen. Unfortunately, though the astronomer liked the idea of bringing telescopes out to Pawtuxet Village, her schedule was too ful to help. But soon, Grady found MacNeill and Major.

"Last fall, I ran into Scott at an event and brought up the idea, and he was up for it. Later, when I got to know Jason, I suggested it to him, and they both were up for it," she said. "So we just picked the full moon in June and gave it a try. They both really enjoyed it."

Since then, they've done it each month. And people are loving it.

"It's rewarding to see how people of all ages, from little kids to old folks, are amazed and excited by the view," said Grady. "Many have never looked through a telescope before."

Indeed MacNeill and Major say, people are thrilled. They meet people who are in their 60s and 70s who've either never used a telescope before or had one and never knew how to use it. They said some even cry after catching a view of the moon, a planet, a star cluster, or some other celestial being. While they view, MacNeill and Major answer questions on how far away the moon is that night, whether astronaut landing spots are visible, what certain "dark spots" are and whatever others they may have. They can look at the moon through Major's telescope (that he actually won in an Astonomy magazine Twitter contest) or sometimes, planets through MacNeill's, which can focus on one object in the sky as Earth rotates.

In addition, the Pawtuxet River Bridge has been an ideal spot for these telescopes to make a home, the two say (plus, Major said, being in such a public space takes away the "creepy factor" that may exist if they did it in a park.) The two have access to foot traffic as people exit the area's multiple restaurants and attractions. After they finish their dinners or shopping sprees, people walk over the bridge to take in the rest of their surroundings, bringing them right past where MacNeill and Major are stationed for a pleasant surprise.

"People didn't go out that night expecting to get a view of something in space. They went out for whatever other reason they had and then we're just like 'hey wanna take a look at the moon or Saturn?'" MacNeill said. "At first they're a bit apprehensive, thinking 'really? I get to see something in space right now?' Then they look and say 'that's an amazing view.' It really blows their mind unexpectedly. That's something I don't see at the other observatories."

Though the bridge is a pretty ideal spot for viewing the moon, other planets and celestial beings are blocked by the light of full moons and aren't always visible during them. That made MacNeill a little hesitant to do the viewings then. However, he said he realized people don't usually observe the sky at all because of light pollution from streets and businesses. The full moon gave people a reason to look up, and a chance for him and Major to interact with people like them who have a passion for space.

"A lot of people, especially younger people, are thinking 'how can I get involved?' [Sidewalk Astrononomy] gives us the chance to dispel that notion that you need to be somebody super special or super select to be involved in this stuff," said MacNeill. "Really anybody has a chance at it. You just have to really want it."

Having an interest in space wasn't that socially acceptable when Major and MacNeill were young, they say. MacNeill used to hide his Star Trek pin inside his jacket and Major said he didn't join space clubs at school for fear of being labeled. However, they said, being a "geek" this day in age is great. The two are excited that Sidewalk Astronomy is one small initiative that will help encourage or foster an interest in space.

"Space is cool to a level that probably hasn't been since the late 60s . . . and being a geek is super cool now," said Major. "So you can love that stuff and hopefully when these kids grow up, they continue to love it. In our own little way, we're helping that happen." 

The two plan to host a few more viewings for people to enjoy. Grady said they're planning the next one for this Sunday night, so be sure to catch them. Viewing is free, but they happily accept tips. 

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