Working eclipse vacation – The Space Review

 In Science
EclipseThe total solar eclipse of August 21, as seen from Greenville, South Carolina. (credit: J. Foust)

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“Are you here on a working vacation?” asked the older gentleman standing next to me last Monday, on the concourse of a ballpark in South Carolina.

At first, I didn’t understand what he meant. “I’m just here to watch the game, and the eclipse,” I said.

“Lots of folks here, they’re on working vacations,” he said. Then it dawned on me what he meant: on a Monday afternoon in late August, the ballpark was at capacity—standing room only—for what would otherwise be a routine game. A lot of people were playing hooky from work or school to be here. Working vacation, indeed.

Serious eclipse watchers—so-called eclipse chasers—had long ago made their travel plans. Available hotel rooms and campsites were booked far in advance of the eclipse.

Weekday day games aren’t uncommon in baseball’s minor leagues, scheduled sometimes to accommodate travel for the home or visiting team, allowing them to get on the bus and make it to the next city before the middle of the night. Some are even scheduled in the late morning for visiting day campers.

Rarely, though, do they draw a sellout crowd. And in this case, the draw was not on the field—the finale of a four-game series between the visiting West Virginia Power and the home team, the Greenville Drive—but in the sky. The game started at 1:05 pm, shortly before the start of the eclipse that would soon darken the skies. If the weather held up.

What was widely known as the Great American Eclipse of 2017 could be seen across the United States, in a narrow band of totality that stretched from the Pacific coast in Oregon to the Atlantic coast in South Carolina. Millions of people lived in the path of totality, and millions more were expected to travel to the path to witness the eclipse (see “The science and spectacle of the Great American Eclipse”, The Space Review, February 6, 2017).

Serious eclipse watchers—so-called eclipse chasers—had long ago made their travel plans. Scrutinizing weather data and other factors, many had settled on a portion of the path from Oregon through Idaho into Wyoming to see the eclipse. The odds of clear weather were highest there: far enough inland to be free of coastal fog, but still early enough in the day that any clouds from afternoon storms would have yet to form. With the sparse population of that region, it meant that available hotel rooms and campsites were booked far in advance of the eclipse.

Those eclipse chasers, some motivated by science but others simply thrill-seeking a cosmic spectacle, likely turned up their noses to observing from South Carolina, like an oenophile offered a glass of Two-Buck Chuck. The eclipse would cross the state, from northwest to southeast, in the middle of the afternoon: peak time for the formation of afternoon storms. Moreover, given the time of year, there was always a chance a tropical storm or hurricane could eclipse the eclipse.

But, for those of us on the East Coast without the time, budget, or simply the advance planning to undertake a cross-country expedition to the intermountain West, South Carolina offered the best opportunity to see an eclipse on the cheap. So, with no professional duties for the eclipse—the web was already saturated with articles about eclipse planning, tips, and warnings to not stare at the sun without wearing special glasses—I planned a long weekend road trip to the Carolinas. Even if weather didn’t cooperate, I’d have the consolation prize of visiting some cities I had, at best, only driven through, and checking out their ballparks: mixing the Great American Eclipse with the great American pastime.

On Saturday night, the team hosted “NASA Night,” which it primarily commemorated by putting a NASA theme to graphics on the scoreboard.

The first stop on the trip was Columbia, South Carolina. It was one of several cities in the path of totality, from Salem, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina, that hosted minor league baseball teams that planned events around the eclipse. The Columbia Fireflies planned an entire weekend of events at its new ballpark, culminating with a “Total Eclipse of the Park” on Monday afternoon. During that game, the players would wear special themed jerseys with lettering designed to glow in the dark (as if people would be looking at the jerseys, and not the eclipse, during totality.) In front of the stadium was a giant pair of eclipse glasses.

On Saturday night, though, the team hosted “NASA Night,” which the team primarily commemorated by putting a NASA theme to graphics on the scoreboard. (The timing of the event coincided with the 71st birthday of former astronaut and NASA administrator Charles Bolden, a native of Columbia; a scoreboard message between innings wished him a happy birthday, but it wasn’t clear if he was actually in attendance.)

Columbia ballparkA giant pair of eclipse glasses stands outside the ballpark in Columbia, South Carolina, during the weekend of the eclipse. (credit: J. Foust)

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