In 1970, Fred Espenak saw his first total eclipse. Now a retired NASA astrophysicist and eclipse expert, he had been planning for the day for seven years. And after viewing the celestial event, he dedicated more than 50 years to exploring the phenomenon.
“I drove 600 miles south to get into the path in North Carolina and I thought I was well prepared for the eclipse,” Espenak said. “I had read books, seen magazine articles about it and even managed to get some photographs of the eclipse. But after it was over, I was so overwhelmed by the spectacular, incredible sight that I knew I couldn’t let this be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Since then Espenak has experienced 20 total eclipses and been in the path of 27, sometimes traveling to different continents.
For months, Espenak, who goes by “Mr. Eclipse” online, has given talks across the country and in China about what his website describes as “The Great American Total Solar Eclipse of 2017.”
On Aug. 21, the eclipse will completely block the sun in 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina, and where totality lasts the longest, the sun will be obscured for about 2 minutes and 36 seconds.
In Kansas, the path of totality will cross Hiawatha, Atchison, Leavenworth, and on the very edge, Kansas City. Topeka will experience a partial eclipse, with Holton being on the outermost edge of the path of totality.
Businesses report accommodations in the path of totality are sold out. Many schools and universities have postponed classes or allowed absences, including Kansas State, which will not penalize students for missing the first day of class.
Chris Sorensen, Cortelyou-Rust distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State, has been a driving force in promoting the event and offering educational opportunities to the public in preparation.
“As the land grant institution, we should be the ones putting this in front of the people of Kansas and letting them know that this is happening,” Sorensen said.
Early last year he began planning, along with his department, different lectures for people to attend, astronomy nights at the Flint Hills Discovery Center and a community bus trip from Manhattan to Highland Community College for the eclipse.
“The current plan is that the buses will leave at 8 a.m. and we’ll all get there at 10 a.m., and first contact is at 11:40 a.m. I’ll give a presentation to explain and then about eight minutes after 1 p.m. will be totality,” he said.
Sorensen has never seen a total eclipse and said it is something he’s been looking forward to since he was a teenager, almost 55 years ago.
Eclipses happen around the world twice a year, in accordance with the rotation of the moon. Sorensen explained that while this is relatively common, due to the size of the planet, it’s rare for one to land in the U.S., and even more so, within 20 miles of Topeka.
“It’s just a matter of chance and probability and this 60-mile dot of totality, let alone trying to hit the United States, but this 60-mile dot hitting us is even less probable,” he said.
Espenak said that the last total eclipse over Topeka occurred in 1806. The next one is expected in 2205. However, there will be other options in the U.S., with another total eclipse occurring east of Kansas in 2024.
“Seeing a partial eclipse in no way prepares you for what a total eclipse is like,” Espenak said. “It’s a whole totally different category of natural phenomenon, it’s not like anything anybody has ever seen.”
He explained that in the last 30 seconds before the eclipse becomes total, if you look to the west you can see the sky growing dark as the moon’s shadow approaches — within 30 seconds, the sky goes from bright light when the sun is blindingly bright and you can’t look at it without your solar glasses, to suddenly the light vanishing. Birds grow quiet and insects begin chirping and “the hair on the back of your neck is standing up and you have goose pimples on your arms,” Espenak said.
“You have the feeling in the pit of your stomach that something is very, very wrong,” he said, “and you can easily understand how people who didn’t understand what was going on were terrified by this and thought it was the end of the world.”
Registration for the K-State bus trip is filling up and more information is available at k-state.edu/eclipse/. Sorensen suggests if traveling, pack food and water, leave early with a full tank of gas and fill up when able due to the traffic concerns. And most importantly, don’t forget protective eyewear.
“I have seen people weeping with tears of joy after seeing a total eclipse, it’s a very moving experience,” Espenak said. “And those who don’t bother doing it will hear from their friends and neighbors who did so and they will regret not having made the effort.”