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Lehigh Valley Space Fest in the works

SpaceX Crew Launch
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is seen with the Earth behind from the international space station on April 24, 2021.

EASTON, Pa. - The region has two space nerds collaborating on Lehigh Valley Space Fest, an event coming to Easton in May.

  • Lehigh Valley Space Fest will be May 5-7 at Paxinosa Elementary School
  • The festival is in part organized by local NASA Solar System Ambassadors Todd Sullivan and Marty McGuire
  • There will be events for the whole family, from crafts to talks

In this case, space nerd is shorthand for NASA Solar System Ambassador, a program in which people all over the country can volunteer to bring free space education to their communities.

And two ambassadors in the Lehigh Valley are Todd Sullivan, who has been with the program since 2007, and Marty McGuire, also known as the Backyard Astronomy Guy, who was accepted into the program in late 2016.

    Lehigh Valley Space Fest will be May 5, 6 and 7, 2023 at Paxinosa Elementary School in Easton’s West Ward. More information can be found on its website.

    'Go big or go home'

    Sullivan will be the first to tell you that he has a lot of big ideas for Space Fest, including a five-year plan for how he’d like it to expand as time goes on.

    In that plan are a formal space prom, individualized space career counseling and a space health conference.

    “I think: go big or go home,” Sullivan said. “I like to do open exhibitions. You know, I like to get in front of the school auditorium, you know. It's no surprise. I'm the office Santa Claus. I just like to be bold, loud and go around making people happy.”

    But for now, he said he’s focusing on free, fun science events for every member of the family.

    There will be talks, night observation and solar viewing stations. Attendees will also be able to build mini rockets for a small fee.

    The festival is looking for sponsors and volunteers.

    Todd Sullivan: Space Dreamer

    Sullivan credits his rural upbringing to his fascination with space.

    “I blame my father," he said. "My father was always interested. And I grew up in a very remote area, so I had dark skies all the time. And I just loved hanging outside at night.”

    Sullivan said he was convinced through most of the middle and high school that he was going to go to Cornell University and study with Carl Sagan, with a local college astronomy program as his backup.

    “That was my vision,” Sullivan said. “But when I started taking advanced math in high school, I was like, ‘Maybe astrophysics isn't my thing.’”

    Easton is the eighth city where Sullivan has lived since getting married, and his travel has led him to be involved with numerous educational opportunities, including a nonprofit afterschool program in Texas.

    “For 10 weeks after school, at an inner-city school in Houston, we built a colony for 100 people on Mars,” Sullivan said. “It was a 10-week afterschool program for middle schoolers. And that was probably the most fun I have ever had.

    “At that time, I was in a construction project down in Houston, and I asked the architect to come in for one week. We built three lessons around space architecture."

    “He tested principles of mechanics. Basically, what he did is he brought in a big plastic box, and he brought a big plastic ball. And he had one of the larger kids in the class stand on the box and it started to cave in. And so he took that away, [and] put the ball. Kids stepped on the ball; because of the sphere’s circular field, it stayed put.”

    " I grew up in a very remote area, so I had dark skies all the time. And I just loved hanging outside at night.”
    Todd Sullivan, NASA Solar System Ambassador and co-founder of Space Fest

    All the kids wanted a round house after that, Sullivan said.

    That’s what Sullivan said he loves most about space — getting to share that love with other people and educate them about all the possibilities.

    He recounted a story of a young girl asking him about space jobs.

    “She's like, ‘Well, what if I don't want to be an astronomer, but I want to do space?'" he said. "'And maybe I don't want to go to space.’ I was like, ‘There's going to be farming in space. Astrobiology is already a thing. So anything that you have on Earth, they're going to need on another planet or in space,’” Sullivan said.

    “The young girl said, ‘I love flowers,’ [I said] ‘Space botany, there you go. There's your future job. Get a degree in biology, get a degree in space.’"

    "She's like, ‘I can do that?’”

    Sullivan assured her that she could do anything.

    Marty McGuire: Backyard Astronomy Guy

    McGuire said he always has loved the cosmos, but his interest has intensified in recent years.

    “I got my first telescope probably close to 15 years ago,” McGuire said. “I took it out one night and pointed it at the brightest thing I could see in the night sky.

    "And it turned out to have rings on it; it was Saturn. And from that moment, I was really hooked by figuring out what else I could see in the night sky.”

    In the past 10 years, he has built a local social media following under the moniker “Backyard Astronomy Guy,” with almost 6,000 followers on Instagram and 6,400 on Facebook.

    McGuire is based in Bethlehem, so he frequently posts on Bethlehem Facebook groups with what people can see out of their backyards that night.

    McGuire also has been a host for events at Bethlehem Area Public Library and has become something of a local news go-to for cosmic events.

    He said his favorite experience as a Solar System Ambassador came pre-COVID while volunteering at the Lancaster Science Factory.

    “I actually recorded a bunch of people lining up and seeing the moon up close for the first time," McGuire said. "And just seeing their reactions is so much fun."

    “So sidewalk astronomy is a thing. And there's a lot of people who do this and share their telescopes with the general public throughout the country and the world — and just to share that excitement and see somebody who hasn't seen the moon up close for themselves for the first time, who's only ever seen photos."

    “I think that experience is what got me started. I couldn't believe I was seeing the planet Saturn. I felt like Galileo, you know, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. My own personal discovery and sharing that with others is so worthwhile.”

    As for what the point of Space Fest is, McGuire puts it neatly.

    “If I tripped over finding Saturn by myself in my backyard, just on my own, imagine the little girls and boys and families that can embrace looking up at the night sky. What might it have inspired them to do in their lives?

    "And I'm hoping that, even if we did that for one kid, that would be an amazing thing.”