“Space gear” lets us celebrate the night sky while the Sun’s still shining.

The Orion Nebula
Massive stars form in clouds of molecular gas within the Orion Nebula. At its center is the brilliant Trapezium Cluster of newborn, massive stars.
ESO / G. Beccari

While astronomical artifacts like the Nebra Sky Disk and the Dendara Zodiac are reminders of our many generations of celestial observation, we now have computer models and phone apps to keep track of the goings-on overhead. Still, for many astronomy nerds, there remains an urge to literally wear the cosmos on our sleeve.

I’m talking about the cosmic-themed apparel, jewelry, and bumperstickers by which we salute our love for astronomy. Nothing proclaims “space nerd” quite like a galaxy-print backpack or a cosmic tattoo. Off the top of my head, I can tell you that I have space-themed cases on my laptop, tablet, and phone. I have NASA and Mars t-shirts, crescent Moon earrings, a black dress covered in tiny silver stars, and “otter space” novelty socks. That aforementioned galaxy-print backpack is one of mine. I have space laces on my Doc Martens.

Besides serving as badges of awe, these tangible astronomical expressions help us to recognize and connect with fellow stargazers out in the world. I've had friendly astronomy-related exchanges with strangers in grocery stores, parking lots, and waiting rooms that began with, "I love your [*insert space-themed item here]" and ended with shared appreciation for the cosmos.

It wasn’t always this way. As seemingly the only student at an all-girl private prep school who was drawn to astronomy, I got a lot of side-eye for my strange interest, and wearing a sweatshirt festooned with glow-in-the-dark stars, planets, and comets didn't help.

But somewhere along the way, STEM subjects — and being an astronomy nerd — became cool! Today, space gear is everywhere. When I’m out and about, I see rocket socks, solar system shirts, eclipse necklaces, and nebula cardigans. When I've stopped to offer a compliment, I've had delightful conversations with the wearers — like the older woman in a starfield hoodie who said her son bought it for her after a stargazing camping trip, and how much fun she'd had learning more about the universe than she ever dreamed existed.

During a Reddit gift exchange, my Secret Santa sent me a handmade needlepoint of the Pleiades. I worked with a physical therapist who had Saturnian moon Iapetus tattooed on his arm, and we chatted about dark skies and star parties while I counted out reps with resistance bands.

And there’s the slightly embarrassing anecdote of my spotting someone wearing a Mars T-shirt at Westercon in 2016.

"I like your shirt," I said as we passed in a corridor.

"Thanks!" he called over his shoulder as he hurried off.

About a half-second later, I realized I'd just mumbled "nice shirt" to NASA flight engineer (and internet-famous “Mohawk Guy”) Bobak Ferdowsi.

One of my favorite space gear encounters happened in a University of Wyoming parking lot. I was in Laramie for the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers, and sci-fi writers and astronomy enthusiasts Jerry and Kathy Oltion had driven down from Oregon so that Jerry — who also writes for Sky & Telescope — could talk to us about the design, construction, and use of telescopes. Late one night, the attendees were lined up outside to peer through one of Jerry’s homemade telescopes. While awaiting my turn to climb up the ladder to the eyepiece, I noticed Kathy’s stunning pink and purple shawl, patterned after the Orion Nebula.

“What made me think of adjusting the pattern for celestial purposes was looking at the blocking photos of the previous shawl and then seeing a photo that Jerry had taken of the Orion nebula and realizing that the shapes were very similar,” Kathy told me via email. “I found some yarn from an indy dyer that would fit the project, and small clear crystal beads for the edges to represent the background stars. Next, I found some larger crystal beads to place in the ‘neck’ of the shawl where the Trapezium stars would naturally be.”

Orion Nebula shawl
Kathy Oltion's Orion Nebula shawl includes crystal beads at the neck to represent the Trapezium stars. (The legs of a telescope mount appear at left.)

The result was stunning. Kathy has worked on other cosmic projects, like a doily and a cozy (for a chemistry analyzer) that depict planetary transits across the sun, nebula-themed hats, a crocheted Polaris star, and a yellow hexagon “mirror” in honor of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Not many people recognize her astronomical themes, but Kathy says, “I love it when some of those folks get it.”

Sometimes that recognition of stargazing interest can make someone’s day.

One recent chilly morning, Jax the giant Danelab and I came across a man delivering heating oil. He looked grim as he coiled up the truck’s thick hose at the end of his errand, but I noticed his navy blue jacket with iconic NASA lettering in lime green (Seattle Seahawks colors, for those keeping score). I got his attention by pointing at his jacket and unzipping my coat to reveal the same logo in white emblazoned across my black shirt.

He broke into a warm smile that rivaled the Sun. “Hey! Hey! I like that!” he exclaimed with a chuckle as he gave Jax a pat. “You have a good day!”

Just a week earlier, I was checking in for a medical screening when I noted the receptionist’s shirt decorated with cartoon Jupiters, Saturns, and stars scattered across dark fabric. She laughed when she saw my own space-themed shirt, then said, “The planets just have a really uplifting vibe, you know?”

I do know. Human beings have a long history of looking to the sky in wonder, and of attempting to recreate scenes of stellar phenomena. A shared affection for the night sky keeps us reaching for the stars, and connecting with each other here on the ground. Let your astronomy nerd flag fly!

For Sky & Telescope gear, come find merch — including notebooks, insulated mugs, and more — at our new online store!


You must be logged in to post a comment.