Eclipse-viewing party draws huge crowd to Big Oak Park

SMYRNA — When Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation (DASEF) president Dr. Stephanie Wright ordered 540 eclipse viewing glasses for their event in Smyrna, she thought she was overestimating. To her surprise, they sold out they sold out within 30 minutes of opening their gates. The eclipse viewing party drew record crowds to the Big Oak Park Mt. Joy Observatory in Smyrna on Monday. Incoming traffic backed up onto Rt. 13 and parking overflowed onto the shoulders up and down Big Oak Road.

“We had no idea there would be this many people here!” Dr. Wright said. “We were thinking we’d have maybe 400-500 people, but there has to be at least a 1,000 here. We had an event where some NASA folks came down and that drew a lot of people, but I actually think this event is the biggest one we’ve ever had.”

So in demand were viewing glasses, that this reporter witnessed a transaction where an entrepreneurial young man resold his $1 glasses for $10 moments after the supply was sold out — a cool 1,000 percent return on investment. Commemorative t-shirts DASEF had made up for the event sold out shortly afterward.

Luckily, for visitors who didn’t make it in time to purchase glasses and didn’t bring any of their own, many other viewing options were available. There were several telescopes with solar filters set up, the observatory’s large telescope, homemade pinhole viewers and Sunspotter folding Keplerian telescopes.

This photo was taken near Smyrna at the peak of Monday’s solar eclipse at 2:45 p.m. The photographer used a 1000 mm lens with a red filter to make the image. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Manning the wooden Sunspotter devices was one of about 40 DASEF volunteers: April DeAtley of Agilent Technologies, a developer and manufacturer of scientific instruments. The small folded eclipse viewer is a very old concept adapted from a Galileo design, she said.

“It’s a type of camera obscura, and it’s actually very simple,” said Ms. DeAtley. “Light from the sun goes through the lens, bounces off the mirror and we can see it on the sheet of paper and the outline of the moon. We can actually also see sunspots as well, because those are slightly cooler parts of the sun. It’s a really safe and neat way to watch an eclipse.”

Long line for visitors to Mt. Holley to take a turn looking at the solar eclipse through the facilities huge telescope. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Ken Gross and his 11-year old son Jacob, of Camden took a look at the eclipse through all the telescopes DASEF had on offer, in addition to seeing it through viewing glasses.

“It’s nice how this turned out because it’s one last summer activity for the kids before they go back to school after summer break — most schools are starting back up later in the week,” said Mr. Gross. “Jacob is a science kid, so coming out for something like this is like cleaning out the summer cobwebs and getting him back in a learning mode while still having fun. This is an awesome facility, we’ve never been back here before.”

Jacob said he wished he could have been in the path of the total eclipse to see it briefly become night outside, but seeing it get dim and watching the sun become a sliver was still “cool.”

“Looking at it through the telescopes was awesome, but I liked it more

Agelina Shinas, of Smyrna, takes a turn viewing the solar eclipse through a telescope with the help of volunteer William Holler, of Wilmington. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

just staring at it with my glasses on,” he said. “I usually forget that the sun is so ball-shaped because I always imagine long rays coming off it.”

The event also included a moon bounce, face painting, a scaled planetary walk and other kids activities. There were food trucks and alcohol vendors as well.

Painted Stave Distilling in Smyrna and Fordham & Dominion Brewing Company in Dover collaborated on a limited whiskey release sold at the event called “SunSeeker”. Ron Gomes, co-owner of Painted Stave Distilling, said that only 130 bottles were produced in the limited run.

Anna Downes, of Dover, helping her 5-year-old daughter Clara view the eclipse through one of the many telescopes set up for visitors at Mt. Joy Monday. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“The release is one of a kind,” he said. “It’s a single barrel wheat whiskey, distilled from a summer wheat beer (SunSeeker) produced by Fordham and Dominion Brewing in Dover. Post distillation, the whiskey was rested in one of our barrels for 18 months.”

Mr. Gomes said that during the event the entire limited release sold out and they were able to raise an addition $1,000 of funding for DASEF in the process.

“This was an unbelievable turnout, if we had known, we’d have brought a ton of water to sell and more cocktails,” said Mr. Gomes. “We’re already on our second beer run. It’s a wonderful thing to see the community out here together like this.”

Attracting attention to DASEF

Eight-year-old Serena Abushakra visiting Delaware from his home in Dubai was among thousands that swarmed onto the grounds of Mt. Joy observatory to witness the solar eclipse Monday. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Dr. Wright was excited to see so many community members interested in the eclipse, but perhaps even more excited for them to come visit DASEF — an institution that she feels is often left hiding in plain sight.

“We’re have a beautiful park on 39 acres and although we are earth and science focused, we do programming from everything between dinosaurs and outer space,” she said. “It’s great to have everyone here and bring attention to what we do. Our mission is to help people to understand the earth and its place in the universe, to appreciate it.”

DASEF has been a state fixture for more than 28 years — a non-profit organization contributing to the academic development of over 559,000 students, educators and others by sharing activities and programing consistent with current aerospace research and development. Dr. Wright says they’re perpetually in the process of growing.

Ted Nutter, of Dover, making use of protective glasses to watch the progress of the solar eclipse. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“We’re right in the middle of installing a new half-acre ‘Galaxy Garden’ where our galaxy will be mapped out and represented by 300 different plants set up in astronomically correct spiral arms,” she said. “Once it’s completed, visitors will be able to walk through and see all the spiral arms of the galaxy until they come to the one leaf on a plant that represents our little solar system — it’ll be great for giving you an idea about our place in the universe.”

Dr. Wright said DASEF is unique in that it’s an organization that doesn’t build or add onto its programing until the money to move forward is banked.

Thousands converged on the Mt. Joy Observatory south of Smyrna to see the solar eclipse Monday. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Smyrna resident Bradley Daniel, 7, keeping an eye on the sky at Mt. Joy observatory. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“We’ve invested $8.7 million dollars in our facilities already,” she said. “We get funds from NASA, grants and contributions from businesses like Agilent Technologies, IBM, DuPont and ILC Dover. But, we only build when we have the money. We don’t want debt because that’s how small organizations like our go under.”

They’re currently in the middle of their largest project yet, a three-story 40,000-square foot Innovation Technology Exploration Center (ITEC). Although the building, which will have classrooms, exhibits space and dorms capable of sleep 110 people, already makes an impressive display visible from Rt. 1, it’s still about $8 million away from completion.

“It’s a very exciting project and every phase of it is planned out and designed — we just take it one step at a time as we get the money,” said Dr. Wright. “We just finished insulated the inside of the building. If we got all the money we needed tomorrow, the building could be fully complete in a year and a half.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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