Little Aden trotted to a silver-tipped, cardboard spaceship as it poked out of a cut-down patch of grass in a vacant field. He took a seat in the spaceship and adjusted his helmet, part of a white and blue astronaut costume with shiny patches and “oxygen” ducts.
Aden pointed out of the window on the side of the spaceship to his brother, Noah, who wore a neon vest and waved two pieces of orange plastic, serving as marshaling wands. Unbeknownst to NASA, Aden and Noah were prepared for “liftoff” all thanks to their father Paul Newson’s big idea in Reservoir Hill.
It all started with a spacesuit.
Newson was shopping at Costco when he saw it for sale. His purchase snowballed into an idea that combined his two passions — his kids and photography. The Baltimore-based photographer wanted to widen Aden and Noah’s imaginations and find an open space where they could get the most out of a spaceship launch.
A large vacant field on Druid Park Lake Drive behind his home in Reservoir Hill was perfect, but it would need some work. Weeds and grass on the property had grown several feet tall. Newson and his neighbors call 311 about the property several times a year.
Cutting down part of the field for a launchpad would not only blow his kids’ minds, he said, but it’d be an opportunity to show the community what’s possible.
“They only believe what they see,” Newson said.
Newson put a stake in the field and tied a rope to it. He tied the other end of the rope to a weed whacker to create a circular launchpad. He also used trimmers and his neighbor’s lawnmower to make a small pathway to it. He didn’t want to make the pathway too obvious, though, he said, because people might use the easy access for dumping. For over two hours, Newson tended to the patch of field, navigating the scurrying rats as he worked.
Neighbors and passersby watched his progress. Several asked what he was doing and shared excitement and anticipation about the launchpad and open space, Newson said.
“To see the hope and joy that something simple like that could bring was affirming,” he said.
The launchpad was only a part of the big idea — his sons needed a ship. Newson used a box from a furniture delivery as the foundation for the spaceship. He cut out the wings and used white paper — intended for a backdrop — from a photographer friend to cover them and the body of the ship and used silver contact paper for the tip. Aden, 2, and Noah, 6, “helped,” Newson said, but they found more enjoyment playing with the Scotch packaging tape for most of the process. Making the ship took three days, and Newson praises his wife’s patience for agreeing to store the over-six-foot-tall cardboard creation in the living room.
Newson felt bad that both sons couldn’t be in spacesuits and fit inside the spaceship at the same time. He decided to make Noah an air marshal and found it to be an opportune time to stress the lesson that there’s value in each job.
People stopped their cars and took pictures. Newson posted his own photos on Nextdoor and received hundreds of reactions and several direct messages from people who said the photos made their day.
Coming together as a community and finding ways to make a neighborhood better are things Newson doesn’t shy away from. When he lived in Madison Park, he hired several squeegee workers to help him take apart an old wooden playground that needed a makeover. While his family didn’t get to reap the benefits of what they plan to do with the space before they moved to Reservoir Hill, he’s satisfied that it could promote a different narrative about Baltimore.
“It’s not all doom and gloom in Baltimore. People are laughing and kids are playing,” he said.
During a trip back to the launchpad, when the astronaut and air marshal were off duty, Noah and Aden ran out to the open space. The ship didn’t hold up too well following the launch, so Newson laid it horizontally and called it a “rocket” instead. Noah and Aden ate their lunches out of it for several days.
After climbing in and then out of the rocket with Aden following closely behind, Noah crouched to the ground playing with a colorful plastic toy and examining the area for bugs.
“I love bugs. They’re so cool. Every time I see a new bug, I look at it,” Noah said, ushering his brother over to a part of the rocket with a small trail of ants.
Noah wants to be a paleontologist when he grows up, Newson said. Aden just wants to be Noah.
Newson has dreams for the vacant field. He could see a sunflower field, a maze or a pumpkin patch in the space, which would be great for pictures and community engagement. The city has since cut the rest of the field down, so the maze, he said, might have to be on standby.
When Newson walks away from the launchpad, holding Aden on one hip as Noah strolls ahead, he points to the alleyway behind his house.
“Do you see how straight that is,” he asks. “I could see [the neighborhood] having a soapbox car race down here.”
And just like that, another big idea.