In 2014 I learned about the Northeast Astronomy Forum Expo, hosted every April by the Rockland Astronomy Club at the Rockland Community College in Suffern, NY. It advertises being the world’s largest space and astronomy expo with two days of guest speakers for topical presentations, a gymnasium full of booths from nationwide astronomy vendors and clubs, a solar viewing court, etc. It piqued my interest, reviving a passion for space and astronomy that had been relatively dormant for the better part of the last 20 years. For $20 or so (one-day ticket) and featuring Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who I’d been enjoying lately as the host of the TV show StarTalk, it seemed like a fun day. Never would I have guessed how big an impact it would have on my life!
The Vendor Floor
The gymnasium full of vendors is usually where you walk in to NEAF after presenting your ticket. As an absolute green horn it was overwhelming in an amazing way. I spent the first two hours and some breaks later in the day wandering enviously through the wonders on display. You’ll find nearly every type of telescope, binoculars, and accessories you can think of and a bounty of space related miscellanea from meteorites to solar viewing glasses. It really helped me understand how some of it works together, compares to each other, etc. And beyond that, the people (vendors especially, but even the rest of the hobbyists) were always willing to chat with you for a bit if you asked a question that they could answer. I learned so much on this first day back to the hobby that I was almost immediately hooked. Eventually I began pining over some of the scopes that I was walking by repeatedly throughout the day and was pleasantly surprised that the prices were not as steep as I had imagined for scopes of their size.
The Celestron EdgeHD series of SCT scopes in particular looked sharp and the 6″ and 8″ SCTs were within an acceptable price range, but I had no idea what I was looking at, how they were different from the other Celestron models, what SCT meant, etc. They were setup in front of the HighPoint Scientific vendor stand as demo units, so I reached out to Dave behind the table and he spent a good 15 to 20 minutes answering all of my n00b questions and figuring out the right scope for me. I didn’t come to NEAF expecting to buy a telescope, so I couldn’t even answer some of his questions. What did I want to view with it: planets, the moon, deep sky objects? It never really dawned on me that anything other than the sun and the moon could be too large in the sky to fit within the field of view of any telescope. I wanted to see all of those things and not to need to buy a second scope once I was competent enough to want to use it for astrophotography.
Dave ultimately suggested the Celestron EdgeHD 8″ SCT with AVX mount, and by all accounts he made a good suggestion. I’ve viewed some gorgeous images with this scope and have received many compliments from fellow enthusiasts at various events who recognize it as a quality scope. Best of all, in the last six years I haven’t felt like it limited my ability to try anything new. It really has been quite versatile for me and I like it so much that I’ve suggested it to friends. With a new telescope on the books, I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day, but there was still more fun to be had.
The initial reason I went to NEAF was for the guest speaker presentations. The talks are sort of similar to TED talks and take place in the school auditorium. Other smaller topics (including some that are more advanced or technical at a Pro/Am level) take place in regular class rooms. I have enjoyed all of these and sometimes have a hard time balancing attending presentations with time on the vendor floor.
The keynote speaker the first year I went was Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He did a remote live feed from his office in NYC to talk about recent astronomy news, the future of space travel, etc. followed by an interactive Q&A with the audience. It was a lot of fun, but I’ve also really enjoyed some talks that I really didn’t expect to enjoy. Among others, this happened with a talk from Clyde Tombaugh’s kids about his life and discovery of Pluto as well as a talk from the chief investigator of the Challenger Shuttle explosion about how everything was pieced together to find the root cause and how the communities across states came together to contribute to one of the largest volunteer efforts in the world.
The Solar Viewing Court
The solar viewing court is outside in the quad, essentially surrounded by the sites of the aforementioned other events. It’s a great way to pass some extra time in-between presentations etc. Unfortunately, we’ve been in a solar minimum the past few years and so the sun itself has been pretty featureless, but none the less it’s interesting to see the variety of solar scopes and to try them out first hand. I have since purchased a small Coronado PST (one of the smallest solar-specific scopes made), but many of the scopes out in the court cost several thousand dollars and are far nicer than what I will probably ever own for myself.
Have a Game Plan
NEAF 2020 will be my 6th consecutive attendance. I really enjoy the presentations *and* the vendor floor, so it helps a lot if I have a strategy before I go in.
First, I try to make the vendor floor my earliest stop, unless a good presentation gets in the way, just because there are truly some first-come-first-serve deals to be had. So I figure out a week or two before the expo if there are any items I’d like to buy while at NEAF so I know exactly what I’m looking for. I also look at the NEAF vendor store sites before hand because some will let you order items, at a NEAF discounted price, and pick them up at their NEAF booth. This saves on shipping, still nets you the discount, and you don’t have to worry about it being sold out before you get there. I also review the NEAF demo items. HighPoint Scientific in particular lists all of their demo items on their website ahead of time. These are items that will be on display for the pubic to play with at NEAF, but otherwise brand new, then shipped to you for free after NEAF. These are usually significantly cheaper than the NEAF discount alone.
Second, I make a timeline of any presentations I really want to see as well as those I wouldn’t mind seeing if I end up with free time. I use this timeline to figure out when I can fit in the vendor floor browsing or if I’ll need to forego a presentation to accommodate my time on the vendor floor.
Third, I decide if I care about the door prizes and raffle drawings. A handful of vendors will have drawings for free products, some quite nice, and require you to be present at their booth at the time of the drawing to win. If you buy tickets for the event-wide raffle, the drawing is at the end of the day on Sunday in the auditorium. You don’t have to be present for that raffle to win, but it can be beneficial as sometimes they let people select a prize from a group of items. If you’re not present you’ll be left with whatever went unchosen by the other winners, which might be less exciting prizes (like a pack of books instead of an accessory for your scope).
Fourth, I figure out which day I’m going to attend: Saturday, Sunday, or both. Sunday is a little shorter and the items on the vendor floor will have been somewhat picked through, so I almost always end up going to Saturday at the very least, with the debate being whether or not to return on Sunday. I’ve not yet landed on a definitive answer, so every year is a new debate about the same conundrum. Sometimes going a second day can be a little slow if you already fully explored the vendor floor and solar court on Saturday, especially if you aren’t all that interested in the presentations on Sunday. Sometimes I play it by ear and decide at the end of my day Saturday. Tickets are a bit cheaper if you buy both days together, but not significantly so.
Lastly, don’t forget to schedule time to eat lunch or grab a drink and take a bathroom break! Even if you bring your own lunch you’ll need time to get to and from your car and eat it. They have basic hamburger and hotdog fare in the gym while the cafeteria has a slightly larger selection, but the food is unfortunately of notably poor quality at either. None the less, you’ll have to eat and drink and the lines, particularly in the cafeteria, can be a bit long and slow during the lunch rush.