For a moment on Aug. 21, many of us in North America, maybe most of us, were thinking and watching one thing, the moon eclipsing the sun.I travelled into the path of totality, to Idaho Falls, which was chosen by NASA as one of its official observation sites. In the nights leading up to the eclipse I attended a series of mind-blowing lectures by different NASA scientists.
A scientist from NASA’s deep space exploration unit looked out into the audience and said he tells kids today that theirs will be the last generation to look at the moon and not see lights on it.
I learned that sunsets on Mars are not red, like we see in the movies, but blue, and humans will be colonizing the planet within 20 years.
An astrovisualization artist showed a computer rendering of the universe and our place in it and then zoomed out to show how far we’ve been able to see with our probes and telescopes. I don’t have words to describe how vast it was, infinite is the best I can find, and we’ve only just begun.
On Aug. 21 with our eclipse glasses on, we watched the moon slowly glide over the sun. The temperature dropped, and the light around us turned flat, like looking through sunglasses. Crescent shadows danced where sunlight filtered through leaves. On the horizon, the sky darkened like a storm was coming.
Then came totality. Those of us who experienced it know it has nothing in common with a partial eclipse. The moment the moon completely covered the sun, its rays changed from blazing yellow to a startling white swirling in blue around a black orb. In the NASA lecture series, the artist had described it as the Eye of Ra from Egyptian hieroglyphics. The celestial power of the moment was visceral. An involuntary gasp came from deep inside me. I was on my parents’ lawn in the countryside outside Idaho Falls, and in the distance I heard people scream. Far away, a dog brayed. The crickets began to chirp, birds sang and stars appeared. The dome of the sky was dark blue, and on the horizon it was like dawn and dusk at the same time, a twilight zone between day and night.
It lasted for 1 minute and 49 seconds — not long enough. As the moon began to slide away, the diamond ring appeared, an effect caused by the sun shining through the moon’s valleys and mountains. We had to put the eclipse glasses back on, but we’d seen what we came for.
For three hours afterward, we watched bumper-to-bumper, out-of-state traffic slowly drive past my parents’ house toward Interstate 15. People waved and smiled. One man yelled, “thanks for the eclipse.”
One NASA scientist said that on the International Space Station, the first day people talk about their hometowns, the second day they talk about their countries, but by the third day everyone is just a human.
For me, the eclipse was a chance to look beyond the petty squabbles dividing us on Earth, to look forward to the future.