Just a week shy of 40 years ago, humanity’s emissary to the stars left this planet for a journey through the solar system. The twin Voyager spacecraft carry a shimmering golden record which, if placed on a phonograph, will play the sound of laughter and language and life on Earth. The record was accompanied by a message from the president.
“We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation-states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization,” President Jimmy Carter wrote.
The record and the spacecraft are likely to survive a billion years into our future, Carter’s letter continued. The Voyagers will sail through interstellar space long after we are gone, long after Earth is gone, long into futures unimagined. If someone intercepts one, the president said, the message they should hear is this:
“We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.”
The journey of the Voyagers, like the landing of the Mars rovers or the death spiral of the Cassini spacecraft, still occasions poetic calls to a higher cosmic purpose. This is one reason political leaders like to talk about space. It represents the future itself, and the last place to chart something new, to explore the way our forebears did, to follow the urge written into our foundational ethos. President Trump does not talk much about science, but when he does, he invokes space.
To date, Trump has not spoken publicly about the eclipse. Rumors about a possible presidential visit have swept through states along the eclipse path, such as Missouri, where state lawmakers have been buzzing about it all week. But on Thursday a spokesman for Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens said there was no Trump visit in the works. A White House spokesman confirmed via email to The Atlantic Thursday that the administration has no travel plans at the moment.
By contrast, governors of states along the eclipse path are using it as an opportunity to promote tourism, and to share in the excitement. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead called his state the best place to watch the eclipse. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said her state is “more than ready.”
The Trump administration has not been heralded for its support of science. The president has not appointed a science adviser, nor has he named chiefs for key scientific agencies like NASA and NOAA. But the eclipse is not merely a scientific event. Millions of people will be traveling this weekend, cramming into a ribbony swath of the continent just 70 miles wide. They will be hoping to catch a cosmic spectacle that has not graced this territory anywhere since 1979, and has not crossed its heart since 1918. For just two minutes, the sun, the giver of all life, will blink out. This terrifying, strange experience could serve as a necessary bit of perspective. It would be so easy to mark the moment with conciliation, so sorely needed in a country darkened by shadows much longer and deeper than the one the moon will throw down next week.
Trump would hardly be the first world leader to take part in such a rare marvel. Presidents and kings alike have long paid attention to eclipses, and marked them as omens, expressions of power, and moments of unity.
In 2006, a total eclipse crossed the Libyan desert, and the government erected a tent city on the eclipse path some 300 miles south of Benghazi. Most eclipse chasers set off from that city, and the roads soon swelled with traffic, causing delays of several hours. As eclipse tourists poured into the tent city, a helicopter thundered overhead. It circled the camp and landed on the outskirts. A man wearing a dark green uniform, red epaulets, and dark sunglasses emerged. Eclipse chasers say this was Muammar Qaddafi, who came to watch the eclipse with at least one of his sons.
Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist and eclipse chaser, was there. Someone from Qaddafi’s entourage was looking for him; Espenak is so well-known in eclipse circles that his nickname is “Mr. Eclipse.” “I said, I’m not responding. I don’t want to get involved,” Espenak told me earlier this summer. “I could see them saying, ‘you’re going to be our personal astronomer,’ and I wanted nothing to do with that.”
In 2016, a total eclipse crossed Singapore, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong traveled to the Singapore Botanic Gardens to watch. He wasn’t able to get a good photo on his own, so he took to social media to ask Singaporeans for their shots. People sent him silly memes, of course, but they also sent him beautiful photos of crescent suns, which feature prominently on Singapore’s flag. It was an earnest way for the PM to connect with people.
Eclipses have also reminded past presidents of our place in the cosmos, even as Earthly matters consume their attention. In August 1942, with the nation at war, then-Senator Harry Truman awoke around 11 p.m., having fallen asleep at his desk. He went outside to look at a “blood moon” lunar eclipse. He wrote a letter to his wife, Bess Truman, about what he saw.
“It was a beautiful clear night and the moon was almost completely covered by the earth's shadow. Just one little silver edge was out of it. The covered part was as red as blood and very dim. I guess that means plenty of blood will be spilled, and I don't have to be a prophet to say that either,” he wrote.
Truman sneaked out a back door and realized no one else was paying attention to the “most unusual celestial show.”
“It shows what the war does to people,” he wrote. He recalls in the letter that he then called home, advising Bess and their daughter, Margaret, to watch — but they couldn’t see it. “Maybe that means no blood spilled in that section. I hope so anyway.”
As this “Great American Eclipse” looms, it’s easy to imagine how previous presidents would have talked about it, and how Trump may still. They might have trumpeted its potential for interesting scientific research, and its promise to get people interested in science. President Obama, who inaugurated an annual White House Science Fair, spoke at length on science at the science fair in 2016.
“It’s more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world, and to share this accumulated knowledge,” Obama said.
Other past presidents might have invoked their own faiths, and the comfort that comes with trusting in a higher order. When the space shuttle Columbia broke up after reentering the atmosphere, in 2003, President George W. Bush quoted scripture: “In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.’”
To note Trump’s lack of attention to the eclipse to date is not merely to mourn this vaunted rhetoric. It’s an opportunity to share something as a country, to experience something that knows no boundary nor color nor persuasion.
We are now a community of 323 million human beings among the more than 7.4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth. We are still divided into nation-states, and in this country we are sharply divided, more than any time in recent memory, along political lines. But these are, for the most part, constructs of our minds. The spectacle in the heavens is for all of us.
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