Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Countdown Is On For The Great American Eclipse

My photo of the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1979. Chris Gainor photo
A year from now the United States will be enjoying a magnificent astronomical event - a total solar eclipse. 

While these types of eclipses generally occur about every 18 months, they only take place over a narrow band of territory a little more than 100 km wide. And in recent years, total solar eclipses - where the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun and covers all of it - have only occurred in distant parts of the world.

On August 21, 2017, the band of the total eclipse will cross the United States starting on the Oregon Coast and then moving east - through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina. It will be visible from Casper, Wyoming; Kansas City, Kansas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Nashville, Tennessee, amongst other cities.

The period of totality will last up to two minutes 42 seconds, depending on where the observer is. While the usual precautions are needed while watching the partial phases of the eclipse, the sky goes dark and viewers can look directly at the fully eclipsed sun during that all-too-brief period of totality.

Partial solar eclipses can often be seen because they are visible over much of the Earth when they take place. On the day of this total eclipse in the U.S., viewers all over Canada will be able to watch the Moon cover much but not all of the Sun, and proper shielding will be needed.

But total solar eclipses are so rare and so dramatic that many astronomers travel thousands of miles to view them.  

I have only seen one - the last one in North America, which took place on February 26, 1979. It passed over Oregon and then up into Manitoba, including Winnipeg. I and a few friends were waiting to see it in Oak Point, Manitoba, on the centre line of the eclipse, where totality was longest. 

For the short period of totality, the sky went dark and where the Sun had been, one saw the strange and eerie sight of the Moon’s black disc covering the Sun, surrounded by the streamers of the Sun’s corona. Many photos have been taken of total eclipses, but there is no substitute for seeing one in person. A friend of mine who was not interested in astronomy but came along anyway was shaking at the end of it.

Many astronomers had travelled to Manitoba to see the eclipse, and the night before, the Elks Club in Lundar, Manitoba, threw a memorable town celebration for the visitors, including a great roast beef dinner, skits and even some NASA films - and the films were a draw because this was before video recorders were widely available.

So when what is already being called the Great American Eclipse takes place next year, I plan to be in the path of totality. Watch this space a year from now for my report. 

And for those who miss that eclipse, another total solar eclipse will take place in North America on April 8, 2024. This time, the path of totality goes through Mexico and then Texas, heading northeast to Ohio and other northern states. It will be visible in parts of southern Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. I hope to see that one, too!

If you are interested in seeing next year’s total solar eclipse, there is a great deal of information already available online.

Monday, 8 August 2016

How a Checker Cab Helped Get Apollo to the Moon

James Webb arrives in his official Checker Marathon at the White House, January 17, 1963. Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Adapted from an article I wrote for the Winter 2015 issue of The Checkerboard News, publication of the Checker Car Club of America, Inc.

For many years, I have been a proud owner and driver of a 1981 Checker Marathon. Checkers were made until 1982 by the Checker Motor Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan, mainly for use as taxi cabs. Among the car's other claims to fame, Robert De Niro drove a Checker in Taxi Driver, the 1976 Martin Scorsese film, and the car was one of the stars of Taxi, the television series that aired from 1978 to 1983.

From time to time, I wondered if Checker cars played a role in America's space program. About 20 years ago, I found out that at least one Checker that can legitimately be said to have helped the Apollo astronauts get to the Moon.

The story concerns James E. Webb, the Administrator of NASA who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and who is given much of the credit for Apollo’s success. During the time he ran NASA from 1961 to 1968, Webb had to manage the agency and the massive nationwide effort behind Apollo. He also had to make sure that the U.S. Congress supplied the funds for the expensive effort to get to the Moon.

In his 1995 book, Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA, historian Henry Lambright told how Webb worked with Congress. In asking for the massive sums needed for Apollo, Webb knew that he “could help make his case that every penny was needed if he did not appear to be living luxuriously as administrator.”

Although Webb was entitled to a government limousine, the canny native of North Carolina instead used a black Checker, Lambright explained. “It’s the little things that can get you into trouble in Washington,” said Webb, who had previously served as President Harry S. Truman’s budget director.

Lambright explained that the Checker helped Webb appear “the frugal country boy” when seeking funds from Congress.

Webb received many honors during his life for his work at NASA, and the agency named its next major space telescope after him. The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is due for launch in 2018.

While I have been unable to find a photograph of Webb with his Checker, I am happy to recommend Lambright’s book, which was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb in 1966. NASA photo via Wikipedia.