Staffers Experience the Total Solar Eclipse –

 In Science

Five staff members traveled to locations around the U.S. to witness the total solar eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017. It was the first total solar eclipse that any of us had seen in person, and we all came away awed and inspired. Here’s our attempt to convey what it felt like to be present for this amazing event. 

Tariq Malik, from Carbondale, Illinois

Saluki stadium at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, hosted a massive crowd of eclipse watchers.
Saluki stadium at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, hosted a massive crowd of eclipse watchers.

Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In 16 years of space reporting, I’ve never felt anything like this. 

It’s hot, in the 90s, with a forecast of partly cloudy skies for the thousands of spectators (I am one of them) in Southern Illinois University’s Saluki Stadium (A saluki is an Egyptian dog, SIU’s mascot.) Totality is at 1:20 p.m. CDT, and all eyes are on the weather. Twenty minutes before totality, a dark cloud parks itself over the sun (No!) with the moon ever creeping across the star’s face. The crowd starts stomping. Now they’re chanting: “Move that cloud! Move that cloud!”

A short break in the cloud, and the now the sun is almost totally eclipsed. I check with my eclipse safety glasses. But the cloud closes again. 

I had a whole plan for this eclipse. I’m going to look for planets — Mercury, Venus and Jupiter —and shadow bands. I want to see the strange shadows. And now all I can think about is this cloud, and I’ve forgotten the planets and weird animal behavior and the rest. I’m on the phone with MSNBC (they want my immediate reaction later), and now we’re all screaming because there’s another tiny break in the cloud — and there it is! The totally eclipsed sun, for just a second.

I scream at Denise Chow (of Live Science). She’s standing on the field 20 feet away. “Denise! It got dark!” I scream incredulously, though I knew full well what was going to happen. Had been preparing years for this. And yet….

I feel small. I feel like the universe. And connected to everything in between. 

And then the sun peaks back out though the cloud and MSNBC is asking me what it was like, so I wipe the tears from my face and try to explain. I don’t do it justice. 

I understand what all those eclipse chasers were trying to say now. With just 1 second, not even the full 2 minutes and 38 seconds we had hoped for, it was enough. And I’m going to see it again.

April 8, 2024, I’m looking at YOU. [Rare Coast-to-Coast Total Solar Eclipse Thrills Millions Across U.S.]

Calla Cofield, from Rexburg, Idaho

The day started out bright. Very bright. Like midsummer, blue sky, laundry-detergent-commercial brightness. As we walked two blocks to a public park, we passed people sitting in chairs on their lawns (or roofs), wearing eclipse glasses and looking up at the sky. Everyone is outside. Everyone is waiting. 

When we reached the park, we picked a spot on the grass among a few hundred people, put on our own glasses and laid back to watch the moon’s progress. 

When I slipped the glasses off for a moment to look around, the world had become noticeably dimmer. Not exactly in the way it gets dim in the evening, because the sky was still bright blue and the sun was still overhead; This was something unique, something that didn’t make sense. The light that wrapped around us was slightly green; my eyes couldn’t quite adjust to it. Strange is very best word to describe it, and it was a little disturbing to watch that dimness grow. 

Then, in the last 30 seconds before totality, things got really dark. When the moon fully covered the sun, I couldn’t believe the blackness that descended. This wasn’t twilight, this was more like an hour after sunset. The 360-degree sunset was more vivid that I’d imagined it would be; the entire horizon was on fire. The bright red color faded into orange and then into the deep blackish- blue that surrounded the sun and the moon. 

The uneasiness I’d felt was gone; I was filled with joy. Some people were shouting — the way you shout when you’re startled or when you’re at a sporting event — but the only noise that slipped out of me was the word “wow,” repeated over and over again. The event wasn’t shocking or invigorating, it was calming and inspiring. 

If I become an eclipse chaser after this, it’s not so much because I want to repeat the experience but because I want to have time to think about it more deeply. I could barely absorb everything that was going on before it was over. 

When the sun crept back out from behind the moon, the world seemed so much brighter than it had right before totality; our eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and this strange green light seemed brilliant by comparison. [Solar Eclipse 2017 in Idaho: Totality From Rexburg]

Sarah Lewin, from Greenville, North Carolina

I spent most of my early eclipse time trying to take pictures of it. We were on an isolated balcony in the North Carolina mountains, and the sun beating down on us made it incredibly warm as I held solar binoculars in place so my fiancé could slide a phone under them for a disappointing shot.

The weather forecast had warned of a thunderstorm happening shortly after 2 p.m. — totality would hit at 2:35 — but there was no sign so far, save a cloud or two casually floating by. I’d spent the previous night peering up at an incredible number of stars in the sky, and seeing the Milky Way for the first time, and even a shooting star. (It might have been a Perseid; it angled from that direction.) Before this, my skywatching highlight was spotting the Big Dipper in Central Park one time, and seeing the total lunar eclipse in 2015.

The sun stayed bright in the sky through most of the partial eclipse, as I looked for a change in the quality of light, as I worked with projections and photos through filters, but the shine was steady as the sun sliver slimmed. Until — 

Wait, OK, it’s getting really dark now!” I said, a bit panicky… but it was just an isolated cloud passing over.

Then, after a time, behind the cloud, there was a bright, shining ring. And the cloud dissipated — it didn’t drift away that I remember, it kind of dissolved — and there it was. Totality, sharp and white against the darkened sky, with sunrise all along the mountains surrounding us, a few stars and Venus making rare daytime encores. And for those 2 minutes and change, I didn’t even try to take a picture. (Luckily, my mother did.)

After, all there was to do was sit back and feel the sun return and the balcony warm, image already fading in my head of just what exactly that crisp ring had that the photographs never capture. And then to drive back, 3 hours turning into 8 on the overcrowded streets.

Hanneke Weitering, from Nashville, Tennessee

Crowds gather to watch the total solar eclipse at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville.
Crowds gather to watch the total solar eclipse at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville.

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