BY: Rachel Burt

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” – Carl Sagan 

Shooting across the sky in a spectacular display that will not be witnessed for the next 6,800 years, the comet NEOWISE, the brightest comet in 23 years, became the backdrop of some out-of-this-world engagement photos the night of Saturday, July 18. 

    As John Nicotera got down on one knee on McCauley Mountain in Old Forge, all nerves were gone, replaced by confidence in his actions and the knowledge that his now fiancé Erica Pendrak was the one. 

    With the help of his friend, photographer Tim Leach, the cosmic engagement was captured in a series of photographs showing NEOWISE burning brightly while Erica agrees to marry John. 

    The comet, also known as C/2020 F3, was discovered on March 27 by NASA’s NEOWISE, Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, space telescope. 

    “I feel like she’s the missing pieces of the puzzle that I never had in my life,” John said of his new fiancé. “I think we both live in the moment and don’t take anything for granted.” 

    While most couples can recall the details surrounding the stories of their engagements, the Utica couple were thrust into the spotlight when the photos of the epic proposal went viral; people from all over the world sharing in their happy moment. 

    John, 33, recalls posting a few of the photos on Twitter, tagging the likes of Elon Musk, NASA, and SpaceX, among others, joking with Erica, 26, about how fun it would be if one retweeted or replied. To his surprise, the tweet was retweeted by former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, among nearly 2,000 others. 

    “At that point I was thrilled, like oh my god this astronaut who I envy and follow, he’s telling us congratulations,” John said. “I’m like running around the house kind of like a teenage girl saying Garrett Reisman retweeted us!” 

    The tweet was liked over 8,000 times, traversing continents and garnering media attention around the world. 

    Though the stellar proposal ended up as a magical moment for the two, the couple were planning a vacation to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon for July, but had to cancel because of COVID. This was to be the original proposal location, but with the cancellation, John had to come up with a Plan B in a matter of days. 

    At first, John just wanted to view the comet because of his love of space, but then he got to thinking the viewing would be a good replacement for canceled Crater Lake. Meeting up with Tim and his girlfriend in Old Forge, John and Erica posed for what Erica thought were normal couple pictures before John whispered to Tim that he was about to get down on one knee. 

    According to Tim’s website, his response was simple: “Don’t move for about 7 seconds.” 

    “It’s crazy how a normal night of viewing the stars and photographing a comet can turn into a marriage proposal and an image that goes viral, but that’s what happened,” he wrote. “Neowise was the brightest comet in 20+ years and I wanted to make sure to get a few photos. It is pretty easy to photograph, not so much when you have humans involved that need to be still for several seconds for a decent image to occur.” 

Together for two years, John and Erica, a physical education teacher and first grade teacher, respectively, came together thanks to Instagram. According to John, Erica loves basketball, so he sent her message about basketball and things progressed from there, with the couple dating after about two months.  

     The couple’s two boxers, Nina and Nala, were the first to know John was proposing. 

     “Before we left to go see the comet, I whispered in their ears,” John said. “I was like, ‘when we come home mom is gonna be dad’s fiancé.’” 

    About ten minutes after the proposal, the couple went back to John’s parents’ campsite, facetiming their families to share the good news. 

    “Nobody knew I was doing it that night so we got to surprise everybody, which was really fun,” John said. 

    According to Erica, the best part was the surprise of it all. Thinking John was just going along with the “impromptu photo shoot” like she was going along with viewing the comet, when he went down on one knee, she said she didn’t have a doubt in her mind, quickly replying with a “yes.” 

    For the first few days, the couple just enjoyed the happiness surrounding their engagement, but because the two are teachers and used to planning their years, they started thinking about everything and realizing that with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic cancelling many weddings, they would be pushed back to next year and venues would become booked quickly. 

    Since then, the two have looked at a few venues and are hoping to be married in July of 2021. The two envision a decent sized wedding and plan to get married around their hometowns, with Erica wishing to be married at the church she grew up attending. 

    As for the photos that started them on this wild ride, the couple is thankful to have these moments captured forever so that they can relive the proposal whenever they like. The two, who both come from small towns, did not seek the fame they got with their photos, but are grateful to everyone who reached out in congratulations and helped share in their happiness, be they friends, family, or well-wishing strangers. 

    “It was just a perfect moment that she and I shared,” John said. “To have this proposal work out and then Tim captures the best moment of my life, Erica and I can’t thank him enough. The fact that he helped me pull everything that I had in my mind off way better than I could ever anticipate or imagine, I’m just extremely grateful to him.” 

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