The Blue-Collar Eclipse

Finally, a spectacular celestial sight is accessible to all Americans, not just affluent globetrotters.

A group of people cheer with an American flag in the background.
People in New York's Central Park watch as astronaut Neil Armstrong takes the first step on the moon on July 20, 1969. (AP)

You might say I’ve been chasing eclipses my whole life—I just haven’t caught one yet. I’ve been an astronomy enthusiast since my youth in the 1970s, the era of the Apollo program. Along with millions of people across the world, I watched Neil Armstrong take that giant leap onto the moon’s surface in July 1969. After watching the first moon landing, I was eager to see the moon block out the sun during the total solar eclipse of March 7, 1970. But as an 8-year-old in Cleveland, Ohio, there was no way for my single mom to take me to the Deep South in the middle of the school year. So I was a forlorn kid that day, standing in the partially eclipsed sunlight, trying unsuccessfully to observe a projected image with a homemade shoebox camera. I was already disappointed when the TV news announcer that evening really burst my bubble. He said, “If you missed today’s total solar eclipse, you’ll have another chance in the year 2017.”

Being just a kid, I took that to mean there would not be another total solar eclipse anywhere in the world for 47 years. I did some math and discovered, to my chagrin, that I would be 56 years old in the year 2017. Living to such an advanced, geriatric state was inconceivable then; 2017 was the 21st century, the futuristic world of flying cars and vacations on the moon. It seemed like an eternity.

But a human lifetime passes in a flash. I turned 56 in April. It is now the year that has loomed over my entire life. In all these years, the words “eclipse” and “2017” have been synonymous in my mind. Nearly five decades have rolled by, the millennium has turned, and I’ve gone gray waiting for the culmination of my life’s expectation in 2017.

Sometime in the last 47 years, I learned that total solar eclipses are actually commonplace. One happens somewhere over the Earth about every 18 months. But that’s the rub. Eclipses have been happening everywhere except the United States. I belong to an entire generation of Americans who has reached adulthood without experiencing totality in their own nation. Those Americans who have seen totality since the 1970s have ventured outside the country, even to the farthest reaches of the globe.

In the meantime, I’ve seen many other glorious sights in the sky, including eerie lunar eclipses, scientifically interesting partial and annular solar eclipses, a very rare pair of Venus transits, and numerous beautiful conjunctions of the moon and planets. But a total eclipse of the sun remains the Holy Grail of sky sightings, and this spectacle has remained elusive.

Total solar eclipses are only visible over a narrow and ever-changing range of locations across the world. The fortunate few who have seen totality declare it to be the most awe-inspiring sight. The sun is obscured by the moon, suddenly plunging the landscape into deep twilight and revealing the solar corona, a wispy, delicate crown encircling the sun. Eclipse observers have a heart-pounding, visceral reaction, as studied and documented by eclipse psychologist Kate Russo. Some observers, such as eclipse filmmaker Mark Liston Bender, director of the new series Eclipse Across America, have an “eclipse epiphany,” their lives transformed by an encounter with totality. Many become “eclipse chasers,” traveling the globe for another immersion in the moon’s shadow.

According to the late Leif Robinson, longtime editor of Sky and Telescope magazine, “No one should pass through life without seeing a total solar eclipse.” I have long wanted to follow the advice of my departed friend and editor, and experience the wonder of a total solar eclipse. But like many others in similar circumstances, I have not been able to do so. There has not been a total solar eclipse anywhere over the continental United States since 1979. I first learned of the 1979 eclipse, which passed over the Pacific Northwest, many years after the event was over. In 1991, I wanted to visit Baja, Mexico, for a total eclipse, but the circumstances prevented a border crossing. By 1998, I was a contributing editor to Sky and Telescope, and Robinson offered to connect me with a speaker gig on an eclipse cruise. But my pregnant wife’s due date was close to the eclipse date, and I could not accept the offer in good conscience.

It’s been suggested to me that, if I’ve wanted so badly to see an eclipse, why haven’t I just gotten on a plane and jetted off to some distant locale to see one? It may come as a surprise to some people, but not everyone is in a position to do so. Like many working-class Americans, our family lives on a budget that does not include fancy international eclipse vacations.

By contrast, many eclipse chasers have substantial means, and some are quite affluent. At the recent 2016 eclipse in Indonesia, many private yachts were reportedly on hand to enjoy the spectacle. Eclipse yacht charters are available for $140,000. Less expensive—in a relative sense—eclipse cruises and expeditions are available for $2,500 per person.

Many people who chase eclipses, known by the nickname “umbraphiles,” are professional scientists whose excursions are financed by their institutions. Others are single and childless, or empty nesters with grown children; these umbraphiles have sufficient disposable income for annual eclipse voyages. While eclipse vacations abroad might be feasible for professionals from the fashionable suburbs, they are unobtainable for those of modest means—working-class Americans and families from urban areas, like ours, who struggle to make ends meet. As much as my wife and I would like to provide our children with enriching experiences, the expense of global travel is out of the question. Like many single-income families, we can’t afford to fly, and our travel options are limited to road trips.

But at long last, totality is returning to the United States. The August 21, 2017 eclipse is the “blue-collar eclipse.” It’s the eclipse for the rest of us, those unable to globe-trot in search of the moon’s shadow. Instead of a fancy eclipse getaway in a faraway land, the path of totality is within a day’s drive for the majority of Americans. Plenty of financially struggling families may be able to scratch together enough money to give their kids an unforgettable experience.

The 2017 eclipse is perceived by many as a “science” event. I can attest from personal experience that lots of Americans, including many in the working class, are not enamored of science. Blue-collar types tend to be practical, with both feet on the ground, and many science topics, especially astronomy and space, can seem irrelevant to their lives. While science is indeed a factor in this eclipse, it must be emphasized that totality is primarily a natural wonder to behold. Most people are amazed by a gorgeous rainbow, a dramatic thunderstorm, or the wonder of the aurora. Totality is the ultimate natural phenomenon. It is a universal human experience, shared by people of all cultures throughout all history. Every American should take advantage of the rare opportunity presented by the 2017 eclipse.

Since totality is universally regarded as a wondrous, inspirational sight, one would expect that eclipse chasers would want everyone to share in it. I’ve repeatedly suggested, online and in direct conversations with umbraphiles, that the eclipse community should be proactive in helping disadvantaged kids experience totality. I’ve suggested that, since the 2017 eclipse is here at home, umbraphiles can use some of the travel money they are saving to sponsor underprivileged youth to accompany them to totality, perhaps through something like an essay contest. I’ve also suggested that chaperoned groups of kids be escorted to totality, perhaps through youth service organizations.

The responses to these suggestions have been tepid at best. Most people have dismissed the notion, citing logistical difficulties. I’ve been disappointed that the eclipse community is emphatic on one hand about the inspirational value of totality, and yet on the other hand, has passed on an opportunity to provide such inspiration to disadvantaged young people.

The above notwithstanding, there are some in the eclipse community who are indeed committed to making a difference in young lives. Mike Simmons of Astronomers Without Borders is providing more than 100,000 eclipse-viewing glasses to underserved youth in communities across the country. This will enable kids to safely observe the partial phases of the eclipse from their hometowns. However, not all these locations are along the narrow path of totality, where the sun is 100 percent eclipsed. Most of the continental United States will only observe a partial solar eclipse, in which the sky does not darken and viewers are unable to see the majesty of the solar corona.

It is unfortunate that most Americans in urban areas will not experience totality, but eclipse enthusiasts can still help out. Service organizations, church groups, scouting groups and other youth-oriented programs in communities along the path of totality could partner with their counterparts outside the path to bring kids from urban areas to share the experience. I’ve worked for more than a year and a half to promote this idea around Cleveland. Eclipse chasers who would normally shell out thousands of dollars for chartered cruises and international airfare could contribute to defer the expense.

The 2017 eclipse is the first “coast-to-coast” total solar eclipse in a century. With the interstate system, every American, including those of modest means, has a chance to experience the awe and wonder of totality. For my own part, my family has been invited to an eclipse gathering at the farm of family friends in Tennessee. While my kids are excited, they have not anticipated this eclipse for as long as their dad. I hope every American will take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity—especially on behalf of the 8-year-olds of 2017.​​​