Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Totality during the 2017 Solar Eclipse as seen from Madras, Oregon. Note the prominences inside the Corona. Audrey McClellan Photo.
The Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017, is over, and most people who made their way to the narrow band of totality that extended across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina were rewarded with a clear view of a memorable total solar eclipse.

I travelled nearly 400 miles in each direction by car and ferry from my home in Greater Victoria to Madras, a town of about 7,000 people in the desert of central Oregon, to see this celestial spectacle. Tens of thousands of other people also descended on Madras, including friends from across Canada and around the U.S. The group I watched the eclipse with included David Levy, the co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and his wife Wendee. 

One of Madras’ big draws was its probability of good weather. That promise held true on August 21, but it was a closer thing than most expected. Smoke from nearby forest fires darkened skies just a few miles away from Madras during the eclipse. And though the weather in Madras was generally clear around eclipse day, clouds filled the sky just two days later. 

Madras also drew many revellers to the Oregon Solarfest held at the town’s Exhibition Grounds. A major New Age encampment widely compared to Burning Man took place not too far away in Prineville, Oregon.

Madras also attracted many members of the news media. I was interviewed by CBC Los Angeles Bureau Chief Kim Brunhuber, who wrote a great article about the scene in Madras on the eve of the eclipse and broadcast my recollections of the 1979 total solar eclipse, the only one I had previously seen. "Somebody has pied the sun!" I  said of that long ago eclipse. "It looked like somebody had stuck a pie plate in it."

Watching the partial phase of the eclipse in Madras, Oregon. Chris Gainor Photo.

Looking at a fully eclipsed Sun in person is different from any image of such an event because of the brilliant nature of the light coming from the Sun’s corona. During the 1979 eclipse, which I saw in Manitoba on a cold February day, the luminous white corona surrounding the blacked out Sun reminded me of cream from a freshly thrown pie.

This time, I got a different impression of totality. During the two minutes when we could look at the eclipsed Sun without any filters or protection and view its corona, I had the more conventional feeling that I was looking at a ring of fire. The corona appeared to have a hint of yellow, perhaps an artifact of the smoke in the air around Madras. None of the photos that I or anyone else took showed that colour, though.

Like many other observers, in 1979 I focused on the Baily’s beads and the Diamond Ring effects that mark the beginning and end of totality. This time I paid more attention to the dramatic and sudden arrival of the Moon’s shadow that darkens the landscape and the sky and lowers the temperature, followed by its equally dramatic departure at the end of totality.

Something both total eclipses had in common: the period of totality flew by too quickly. In the short time of totality, there is so much going on in every direction that it is nearly impossible to take everything in.

While it is fun to look through filters as the Moon moves across the face of the Sun during the partial phases, it is difficult to explain what an incredible sight totality is. For that brief period, you can just look up with your naked eyes and take in the strange sight of the solar corona and the dark sky around it. Venus and other planets are briefly visible. The corona's brightness usually and misleadingly appears in photos to be wispy. It is a whole different thing in person. That's why people travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles at great expense to experience totality.

I am not an especially skilled astrophotographer, so I spent most of the two minutes of totality just enjoying the sights and sensations. My wife Audrey McClellan, on her first venture into astrophotography, got some excellent photos of the partial phases and totality, far better than anything I’ve ever got.

While the crowds in Madras and other places in the band of totality were not as large as some people hoped or feared, they were still huge. Many local residents set up encampments on their land for last minute arrivals. We stayed 30 miles from Madras, and the drive back to our hotel took four long hours. 

At the Oregon Solarfest in Madras. Mary-Clare Carder Photo.

Though large numbers of people in the U.S. and Canada were interested in the eclipse, many were quite content to see a partial eclipse and stayed home. Many of my fellow members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada who were unable to go to the U.S. for the eclipse wound up helping out at public events where large crowds of people waited to see the partial eclipse through properly equipped telescopes and scarce eclipse glasses.

Back home in Victoria, the usual group of volunteers was depleted because so many of us were in the U.S. Those Victoria volunteers had to cope with crowds of hundreds of people who turned up at the Royal B.C. Museum, Mount Tolmie in Saanich, and the Metchosin Cricket pitch. I salute all those volunteers for their great work.

Other people just arranged impromptu eclipse viewing events around greater Victoria. I was also pleased to see that B.C. Premier John Horgan stepped outside of his legislative office for a look at the eclipse.

Smith Rock, Oregon, a favourite spot for rock climbers. Chris Gainor Photo.

Those who stayed home also missed out on the fascinating sights that come along with travel. On our trip to Madras, I enjoyed visiting central Oregon, where the attractions include Smith Rock and the Cove Palisades State Park, along with the High Desert Museum in Bend. Like many people I know the coast of Oregon, and I probably would have missed the lesser known features of Oregon's interior had it not been for the eclipse.

The next total solar eclipse in North America will take place on April 24, 2024, and its path of totality includes parts of Eastern Canada. I’m already thinking about where best to see that eclipse.

Kim Brunhuber’s article about Madras:

My blog entry on the 1979 eclipse:

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

In Quest of New Views of Spaceflight History

This week, a new film about the U.S. space program, "Hidden Figures," is opening in theatres around North America. The film tells the story of the female "human computers" who did the number crunching necessary to keep the first U.S. astronauts on their correct courses since even the most powerful computing machines at that time were not up to the demands of space travel.

"Hidden Figures" focuses on the story of three African American women who made major contributions to the success of America’s first astronaut flights. Like most Hollywood films, "Hidden Figures" often departs from the truth for dramatic effect, but the basic facts behind the film are correct. In at least one scene, "Hidden Figures" invites comparison between these poorly paid and anonymous African American women and the famous white male astronauts who were immortalized in the 1983 film, "The Right Stuff."

People like Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” have taken us beyond the experiences of the high-profile astronauts and flight controllers to tell the stories of lower profile and more marginalized people who made previously unsung contributions to humanity’s move into space. 

"Hidden Figures," like the book that inspired it, shows that we now look at the history of space exploration differently from the way we did back in 1983 or in the 1960s. 

The emergence of stories like this is only one change to the history of space exploration in recent years. Even before the Cold War ended 25 years ago, the previously inaccessible archives of the Soviet government and space program opened up and changed our understanding of what the Soviets did in the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. That and other changes have caused us to reconsider many ideas about the development of the U.S. space program, something I have been working on in my time as an historian of technology.

The early histories of space exploration were written by promoters of spaceflight, and they concentrated on particular artifacts such as rockets or spacecraft. Today new perspectives - including highly critical views of spaceflight - are being reflected in recent histories, and the social forces that affect technologies and many other things are considered in these histories.

The death of John Glenn last month completed the passing of the first group of U.S. astronauts. This year will mark 60 years since the launch of Sputnik opened up the move into space. The events of those early days are moving beyond living memory at the same time as a new generation with its own perspectives starts to put its own slant on space history.

In 2016 I added to my own historical work when I took on a new job as editor of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly. Quest was started 25 years ago, and is the only peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the history of space exploration. I have subscribed to Quest since the beginning, and I have contributed several historical articles and book reviews over the past 20 years.

As editor of Quest, I am searching for historical articles about space exploration, and I hope to encourage new people who want to work in this field just as the three previous Quest editors helped me find my way as an historian.

I also hope that Quest will continue to grow with provocative and ground-breaking articles and reviews that help explain the whys and hows of humanity’s first tentative steps beyond our home planet. The most recent issue of Quest, for example, contains two articles by newcomers to the field of spaceflight history, one from a professor of journalism and another from a student of visual design.

I’m proud to facilitate the dissemination new perspectives on history, and I look forward to what is coming up in future issues. I don’t know if any work in Quest will lead to a movie, but I’m sure it will be interesting just the same.