NEAF Explores the Final Frontier at RCC

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By Keith S. Shikowitz

Space, the final frontier… since the beginning of time people have looked to the stars above and pondered who and/or what is out there. The Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF) hosted annually in Rockland County is helping to continue this desire to explore. The 28th annual event took place this April 6 & 7 at the Eugene Levy Fieldhouse at Rockland Community College.

Ed Siemenn, founder and coordinator of NEAF, told of the humble beginnings of the program, which in its first year was hosted in the lobby of  fieldhouse.  NEAF now reserves all 90,000 sq. ft. of the fieldhouse arena.

“It started as an outreach program to spread astronomy interest to new audiences and to people who had an interest in astronomy but didn’t really have any outlets or any sort of events where they could find interesting venues and speakers and things going on,” Siemenn said. “…people came and the word spread and we decided to continue it for the next year and it got even larger and more people came and we realized we had to move the venue to a bigger location and it continued to grow until about 10 years later we came back to the college here and basically filled their entire arena area.”

“Are we alone in the universe?” Over the past thousand years man has invented ways to look out into the cosmos to try to find the ever-elusive answer to this question. We have sent unmanned probes to the planets in our solar system, two which have left our solar system for interstellar space and, in 1969 – half a century ago – the United States landed men on our own moon. The USA has attempted manned missions to the moon eight times, six of which successfully landed men.

For those of us regular folk stuck on Earth without the benefit of NASA’s and SETI project’s money, resources and networks of radio telescopes around the world, we have to rely on less sophisticated tools to accomplish this goal. For the past 28 years NEAF has been holding its weekend convention, featuring the latest technology from industry brands and varying telescopes, binoculars and anything else you can imagine that the simple astronomy enthusiast can use.

In addition to the vendors, there are guest panel discussions about a variety of topics related to space, Earth and everything in between. Students from Suffern High School presented their science knowledge and projects. Many different types of clubs, including science fiction have tables at the weekend event to promote themselves and their organizations, in the hopes of attracting new members to their groups.

This year, as in the past, the Suffern High School Robotics Team Francesca Daszak, Jordan Sigal, Ethan Holand, Jason Kardan, Ron Guter, Noah Holland, and Victoria Chu along with Assistant Coach Conor Mascola, had a booth at NEAF where they were showing the robots they built which enabled then to advance at the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) Hudson Valley NYS Championships and will now go on to compete in the FTC World Championship Robotics Competition in Detroit, MI from April 23-28, 2019! The team now has a lot to do to prepare as we send the students with their coaches and their robot to represent New York’s Hudson Valley at this prestigious competition comprised of 160 teams out of over 5000+ teams competing from around the world. Our team is in the top 2 percent of all teams in the world by competing in Detroit. They meet after school everyday for three and a half hours at Suffern High School and the team ranges from freshman year to senior year.

The robotics program is less about, according to Jordan Sigal, competing with each other and more about working with each other. “It’s about growing and preparing for the real world and a career in engineering.” Unlike on the television show Battlebots, the goal is to compete and not to destroy the other team’s robots. “We do a bunch of challenges and who ever scores the most points wins, and we are going to the world championships in Detroit.”

Jason Kardan said that, “One of the words they use to describe this competition is gracious professionalism. If one of the other teams is missing a tool or something, we should provide it to them. We help each other. We’re all basically friends with each other until the exact second we are on opposite sides of the field.”

Victoria Chu, added to Kardan’s statement, “It’s like an extension of  sportsmanship almost, basically, you’re willing to help anybody who obviously needs help and just like Jason said, extend a hand when someone needs one.”

Ethan Holand, who will be going to college for engineering, but doesn’t know where yet,  brought the group back to the original question asked, “But to answer the question, ‘How did we get involved in the competition?’ All of us joined out of curiosity for building a robot or the other things that go along with it, programming, machining, designing. There’s the whole marketing part of our team and through that we meet at our school for three and a half hours a day. We’ve really grown a lot throughout the year. Through competing at the competitions, we learn how to collaborate with each other, speak to engineers in our community and really learn how to run a team.

Everyone who is involved in any kind of program always has something they enjoy best about or get out of it, Francesca Daszak enjoys going to the engineering firms. “We talk to engineers and we get a look into real life engineering, what people do in the actual business of engineering. And so we’ve actually visited a lot of engineering firms and we’ve been able to see what engineers do in real life. It’s been a really inciteful experience for us because we know if we go into an engineering career, we already know what we’re going to experience.” They have also visited places like UPS headquarters and Mod Electronics.

Ron Guter, a ninth grader, said, “It’s been rather interesting and also a really new experience, especially from the programming perspective … there’s a lot for me to learn, both having to do with programming and having to learn a lot of math concepts.”

The team has gone to championship matches before – where can the program go from there? Conor Mascola (assistant coach) feels the program is in good hands because of how well senior members mentor junior members of the team. As much as they care about the 2019 championships, they’re still very focused on how the team is going to continue on to the next year and on into the future.

People from all over the country and all over the world come to this event. Joann McDonald who has been interested in astronomy since 1985 came from Portland Maine and Jim Carroll, whose interest began in 1974 came from Lancaster South Carolina. When asked how they ended up at NEAF, Carroll replied, “Airplane.” With a rephrasing of the question, we moved on. “We just wanted to see the latest in technology astrophotography.” Carroll stated.

McDonald added, “I like the hands on visual of what you see on line. I’ve been doing on and off visual astronomy since ‘85 and just got into imaging a couple of years ago.”

They both agreed that their most fascinating thing they have seen is the planets, “The view of Saturn, and Jupiter and her moons, even without a telescope never gets old.”

The technology has really advanced in the past 30 years. According to McDonald, “The image piece back in the day would have to take film photography and one exposure for hours and hours on end. You’d have to send it away to a company to get it processed and hope it came out. Now you can take a 30 sec exposure and see a whole galaxy.”

David Alexander of San Francisco was making his first visit to NEAF this year. “I just picked up astrophotography as a hobby six months ago. I’m pretty close to retirement so I figured I’d take some time off and come and check this out. I heard that it’s got a great spectrum of all of the vendors and it’s a great place to come to check out equipment and see what’s coming out. “

Pat Mahon and Karen Seiter of Ontario Canada cam to NEAF because the size of the show attracted them. “Online it looks like a tremendous show with lots of exhibitors and seminars. We’re just getting into astronomy so we figured it would be a good learning experience, plus some of the toys they have here.” The said it might be one of those things they do every other year.

One of the groups of people Siemenn spoke of when he said he wanted to spread astronomy interest to new audiences were children like: Colin Tornow, Lara Tornow, Garrett Tufaro and Liam Tufaro. Colin Tornow was the first of the youngsters to share his opinon. He said, “I think it’s very interesting. I really like to walk around and see all the cool stuff that everyone else set up.”

Lara said she likes to do “the interacting that some of the people have set up at their stations. I also love looking through the telescopes.”

Liam Tufaro said, “I like the telescopes. I like that they are all different.”  All four kids agreed they would love to come to this every year if they could.

As the kids had fun many of the adults were looking for their latest industry hardware. Aaron Tornow said his interest was looking at the latest goods for sale. Jay Tufaro added to his friend’s statement and explained his own reasons for coming to the show. “My friend Aaron here is very into telescopes and I’m interested in getting a telescope for the kids at some point so we’re looking around at some products to see what’s out there.”

John Fontana, a solar system ambassador, is part of an outreach system for NASA and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). “Our mission to inspire people about space and the jog NASA is doing. Inspire young people especially. Involvement in NEAF is to further the mission as solar system ambassador.”

Dr. Gaston Baudat who is originally from Switzerland, is now located in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. His company Innovations Foresight LLC (Limited Liability Corporation). His involvement with NEAF started about seven or eight years ago. “We started all this astronomical stuff in 2005 and I think somebody talked about a trade show nearby that you should go to and we found this is a great place to be and we came back since. This is a great place. I like this show.” What he likes about it is that he can see a lot of people from all over, France and the rest of the world. “We get to see our customers. We see the other companies and new people. Because it’s on the east coast, it’s a big one you get a lot of people coming here from Europe. It’s a nice place to be. It’s a big one so businesswise, it makes total sense because we are not far away two, three hours. You pack your stuff and you go.”

David Whipps and Ros Hartigan manned the booth for Sky Safari, which according to Whipps is a company that makes software for astronomers. “This is a natural fit for us. These are our customers. Everyone of them. We’ve been at this show for as long as I can remember. A few of our staff have been here 16 years in a row. At least that long.”

Peter Scherff of Peter Scherff Meteorite Collections started his hobby taking art class. He wanted to make jewelry out of interesting materials, found out could get meteorites to make jewelry out of. “I have been coming here 20 years or so. As I said, growing up as a child of the 60’s I was always interested in space. I was part of a group of people who formed the Runa Hill Natural Science Center and we used to have booths here all the time. So I knew NEAF from exhibiting here for a couple of decades.”

Jeremy Bumgardner of the Central Appalachian Astronomy club in West Virginia. “I came here to network, meet great people like yourself and get some contacts.” He is starting his own astronomy retail company. Hoping to meet people here, people to work with and just enjoy myself. I’m very impressed with the size. This is our first time here. Seeing how many people who are interested in everything that’s going on around here different backgrounds in life across the country and people come from Canada and overseas too.”

Over the 28 years of NEAF, there have been many interesting and important people speaking to the guests who attend the show. Of all of those speakers Siemenn feels that the speaker that was and still is the major draw for guests would have to be Neil DeGrasse Tyson, clearly. “He had spoken with us twice, once when he was just starting with the Hayden Planetarium in the rose center and then, I believe he spoke with us maybe three years ago right after the broadcast of the new cosmos series, it was a very exciting time and there was quite a draw for us. It was standing room only and we had to stop people from coming into the theater at one point.”

Joe Rao, former meteorologist from Optimum channel 12, now working for Verizon Fios 1, has been to all NEAFS. He was attracted to the first one after, “We found out Rockland Astronomy club was going to do a little gathering… and it was little. Much, much smaller back in 1992 as opposed to what we have now. Ever since that time it’s like a snowball rolling downhill. Getting bigger and bigger. 2013 or 2014 was asked if he would do welcoming comments at the very beginning of each NEAF and I have been doing it ever since.”

Siemenn praised Rao’s participation at NEAF.  “I wanted to hook him. Joe Rao has been a friend of the event since its inception and he has not missed a single event and I would say going back over time, every NEAF I would see Joe Rao, here at the event, walking down the hall, he would stop and say hello and it occurred to me that he was such a large institution at this event but he really wasn’t recognized as such so it was maybe 5 or 6 years ago, I approached Joe and I said ‘Joe you’re such a good supporter of this event, I see you at every event, I stop and say hello, I said Joe I want to get you more involved, you’re a well – known personality. Would you be interested in coming on stage and introducing the show? He was absolutely thrilled because he was such a fan of the show. So, it kind of worked both ways for us. He was so happy to have an official part in the event and we’re so happy to have him.”

“I think the audience that is interested in space, is limitless. I think as this country moves towards doing more and more amazing technological things whether it is through NASA or private industry, there’s going to be more and more interest in everything that’s going on. For instance, take Alan Stern, who is really technically a space guy. But we had overflow attendance for his talk. I think to answer question, Where can this go? I think it’s going to keep on building and we keep introducing new things, this year we started live streaming on you tube. I think that’s going to create a whole new audience globally, because the show is now available globally. I don’t know. Adding a science fiction component has added to the interest.”

Four years ago, Starfleet International (SFI) made its presence known at NEAF. Three “ships” (clubs) from the area known to SFI, as Region 7, The USS Abraham Lincoln, (the local ship, covering the Hudson Valley), the USS Avenger from Central New Jersey and the USS Justice from Northern New Jersey were given a booth to promote their organization. “The USS Abraham Lincoln Sci fi club has a booth at NEAF every year for the past four years, I am happy to help them out. I love them being here and what they do because, we got a lot of science going on. We’ve got a lot of technology going on, but who doesn’t love Star Trek and the stuff that they do. It’s just the perfect venue for them to come and knock heads with all these other techie guys that are here and everything. I think it’s fun for everybody and everybody loves to come over to the booth and see what’s going on so, I’m glad I can do that for them,” Siemenn said.

Lieutenant Commander Joshua Shikowitz, Chief Engineer of the USS Abraham Lincoln, met a man from Georgia last year at NEAF. He ran into him again this year. He said, “He came and to thank me to tell me and told me that he joined Starfleet after coming to our booth last year.”

Vice Admiral Mike Stein, Commanding officer of the USS Justice said that he likes the science panels and the NASA people there who are doing the panels. “They make it very interesting.” He also feels that SFI being at NEAF is a “perfect fit. It is a great Idea to have SFI represented. It’s a good combination of astronomy, science and Starfleet.”

The general feeling amongst the rest of the crew of the ships who attend NEAF is in agreement with Stein and that they enjoy the atmosphere. They get to meet people involved in something that they role play, the idea of exploring space.

On Sunday, showing that Siemenn’s success with NEAF doesn’t only translate into benefits for the show, solar system ambassador Fontana went to the Lincoln booth and joined the crew of the Lincoln. Fontana is also going to do a panel at a fundraiser event the Lincoln is cosponsoring with the Montebello Jewish Center (MJC) on June 23 at MJC. Fontana is the 15th new member the Lincoln has gained as a result of its participation in NEAF, according to the ship’s Commanding Officer.

Anyone interested in more information about the Lincoln, or some of the vendors at NEAF, can go to the ship’s web site at www.ussabrahamlincolnncc71809.org information on these vendors will be posted soon on the astronomy page.

Since its inception, NEAF has become a worldwide phenomenon. Siemenn is very proud of the way it has grown and they just continually built it. “Our goal here is that every year we try to do something a little bit better, a little bigger, so we’re not a static event. Every year you come here, you’re going to see something new. You’re going to see something intriguing. One of the things that was very important to us was building the vendor base and what had happened as a natural progression over the years was.”

With the way NEAF has grown exponentially every year, is there room for it to get any bigger? “I don’t envision it having a limit, I think. When this started originally, it was pretty much an astronomy event. There was a point where we felt that we had kind of already reached out to everybody in the region that had an astronomy interest,” Siemenn said.