Star Party fail (and prevention)

One of the members of TAS brought the following to the attention of the online forum members and I thought it was worth sharing for both a laugh and to point out things that do help to make a successful star party.

On the NASA web site they’ve got a full planning checklist for a star party aimed as planning an event around the passing overhead of the ISS. I’ve copied it after the jump just in case NASA decides to change the original page.

When to plan your Star Party
An evening with nice weather, few clouds and a Space Station sighting opportunity is best. Check for the best International Space Station sighting opportunities in your area and plan your party around that opportunity.

Where to plan your Star Party

A local museum or observatory, a park or an open field, or even your own backyard are good places to throw a party. Have a facility available to go inside, and enough activities to entertain the kids if the weather turns bad. You can always go back outside when the weather clears. You may also want to check weather related Web sites for forecasts of your area.


Viewing the Stars

Even though you want the highlight of your party to be the International Space Station passing overhead, you also want to allow plenty of time for stargazing. Rent or borrow a telescope and be sure to have a constellation map nearby.

You could allow the following time for each activity for a 2 ½ hour party agenda

20 minutes Greet arrivals, socializing for adults, free play time for kids
20 minutes Refreshments
30 minutes Arts and crafts for kids
30 minutes Organized games, activities and space trivia
30 minutes Stargazing and watching the Space Station fly overhead
20 minutes Socializing for adults, free play time for kids

Star Party Planning Schedule

4-6 weeks in advance

Select date and time for party
Choose location for party and make reservations, if necessary
Develop party agenda (arts and crafts, refreshments, etc)
Book entertainment, if any
Don’t forget to run the Skywatch applet and check the weather forecast

3-4 weeks in advance

Purchase invitations
Mail invitations (2 ½ weeks before party)
Plan games and activities

2 weeks in advance

Purchase party supplies (decorations, favors and activities) Be sure to buy extra in case additional people show up
Plan menu and make grocery shopping list
Arrange help to set up, clean, prepare & serve food & coordinate games
Check sightings times again

1 week in advance

Gather tables and chairs, toys, coolers, serving dishes, and other supplies you’ll be using at the party
Follow up with the invited guests who have not yet RSVP’d to determine final head count
Order cake and balloons
Prepare any foods that can be frozen for the following week

2-3 days in advance

Charge video camera battery and make sure cameras are working
Do grocery shopping (don’t forget film)
Get cash for paying helpers

1 day in advance

Prepare remaining food, including cake or cupcakes
Clean and child proof party area

Party day

Finish last minute food preparations
Pick up cake and balloons (day before if Mylar balloons)
Set up and decorate party area
Set up games and prizes

Star Party Supply Checklist

Party Ware Tablecloths, plates, napkins, cups, utensils (forks, spoons, knives)
Decorations Balloons (helium or regular), banners, signs, streamers, confetti
Favors Favor bags, items to go in bag
Food Cake, cupcakes, ice cream, candy, drinks (juice, soda), ice, snacks
Misc. Serving dishes (trays, platters, baskets), serving utensils, camera, film, video camera, videotape, tables, chairs, ice chest
Activities Games, arts and crafts

Now for the deconstruction.

Most of the list seems geared toward a kids birthday party but planning ahead and having events available other than just watching the stars is a good idea.

A cake, confetti, balloons, film (film!? Who uses film these days??!) should be saved for the aforementioned birthday party and child-proofing the party area would probably involve putting fences around the scopes and who wants that?

Cash for paying helpers? YES! Well, not really. If you’re having a fund-raising star party ok, but most star parties are volunteer efforts, not paid affairs.

Other than picking a tentative date, don’t bother planning weeks in advance or setting up “entertainment” other than the scopes and other gadgets used to get a better look at the skies. Unless you live in the desert or parts of California, the weather will likely not cooperate and you’ll have to reschedule. Magicians and clowns just hate that.

What you can do for a multi-purpose star party is the following:

  • Pick main and alternate dates. Where I live the weather frequently doesn’t cooperate and there’s a good chance the first date won’t make. There’s also a good chance the second date won’t either but such is life.
  • Arrange for as many volunteer scopes on each date as you can get commitments for. It always helps to have “extras” and a lot or field full of scopes is an impressive sight and both brings the public in and helps keep them there.
  • Find volunteers to head up child or non-astronomer activites that can be going on before, during and after the main event. These should be astronomy or science related since half the purpose of a true “star party” is to get more people interested in the heavens.
  • Get local media involved so they can help get the word out. There are few things better than hoards of “the public” descending on your star party and getting charged up by looking at the myriad interesting objects up there in the sky.
  • Find out what interesting planets, constellations, clusters and nebulae will be visible during the party and make sure the volunteers know how to find or have the tools to find those objects and show them off. If the ISS, Shuttle or a bright satellite will be passing overhead make sure everyone knows about it in advance and get people gathered together and looking up!
  • If you can, arrange for the non-scope area to be near the scopes but in a covered and/or enclosed area that is safe from rain. It should be large enough to accomodate as many people as expected and close to the scopes so you get good traffic between the two halves of the event.
  • Help get the area set up ahead of time, make sure there’s plenty of room for the scopes, the non-scope area is clear and ready to go and that you’ve got a few people who can mingle and keep the overall flow of the event moving.
  • Takes lots of pictures during the event and publish those along with notes from the event so that you can help keep the buzz going until the next event.


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Author: Michael Harrison

Husband, Programmer, Irish dancer, tinkerer, astronomer, layabout (as much as possible)

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