Amateur astronomers have always been goodwill ambassadors for science education, but in extraordinary times sidewalk astronomy can be used to bring neighbors together and chip away at an unfriendly, paranoid world. This is a story of such an instance at a time when our nation was scared and reactionary, with people making snap judgments of everything they didn’t understand.
In the autumn of 2001 I was in my driveway with my 6" Dobsonian telescope doing some planetary observing. About a month prior a new couple had moved into the house across the street and had mostly kept to themselves. Over the course of the evening’s observing, I could see that my neighbors across the street were sneaking furtive glances through their blinds at me. I didn’t think much of it, until the police arrived fifteen minutes later with their flashing blue lights effectively destroying my dark adaptation.
It turns out the neighbors (not being particularly knowledgeable of amateur astronomy equipment) thought that the Dobsonian telescope was some sort of rocket launcher. Because my house was in the flightpath of the nearest airport they thought I was trying to shoot down airplanes. This may sound ludicrous, but keep in mind that this was within 2 months of the 9/11 attacks. Everybody in the country was suddenly more suspicious of their neighbors. Luckily, the responding police officers knew exactly what the telescope was and were quick to kill their lights. I offered to show them a few sights and they stayed for a while. They apologized for bothering me, and then walked across the street to the neighbor’s house, inviting the paranoid couple out to see the moon. They obliged, apologized to me for thinking I was a terrorist and introduced themselves.
The neighbors learned a valuable lesson that night about getting to know their neighbors and not to jump to conclusions about people, and in time they became enthusiastic supporters of amateur astronomy by helping me organize neighborhood star parties for special events such as planetary oppositions and lunar eclipses. Amateur astronomers are uniquely positioned to be goodwill ambassadors, not just for space science and education, but also for helping to bring their communities neighborhoods together in unexpected ways. My night vision may have been obliterated, but a potentially frightening situation for me in time turned into a boon for my community.
Attached are recent images of me and my telescope at an outreach event at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. It is a late nineties Orion Deep Space Explorer Dobsonian which has been extensively modified in the decade and a half since I bought it at as a teenager.