I first read about the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse back in 2011 while I was still a student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL. Ever since then and up until the moment of totality, I had been counting down the years, months, days, hours, and minutes until the one-of-a-kind celestial event.
A Stop in the Smokies
While living in Lesotho I became accustomed to mountainous landscapes. Since returning stateside I have yearned to visit a mountain range again. As it turns out, driving from Maryland to Carbondale happens to pass through Tennessee Appalachia. A good friend and former Peace Corps colleague, Eric Noseworthy, was born and raised in Sevierville, TN. Fate would have it that we shared the same host family during training (his cohort came a year after mine). During the one-year service overlap, we increasingly referred to each other as “Brother Thamae” which was an ode and tribute to the surname of our wonderful hosts. We had first spoke of a visit to his homestead in Tennessee while still serving in Lesotho. I remember the night in 2015 vividly; we were both in capital of Maseru and the Director of Programming and Training invited us to her house for a dinner. We broke away from the group for a bit and sat on her balcony. We must have discussed anything and everything under the Moon over a 6 pack of Windhoek. Concluding this conversation, it was resolved I would pay a visit to the Smoky Mountains as soon as possible once we had both returned.
That plan came to fruition on August 14th, 2017 as I departed Maryland and embarked on the 535-mile journey to meet him, his sister, and her husband (Molly and Sam). I arrived in Abingdon, VA (just across the border from TN) around suppertime. I had previously met Molly and Sam in Maryland last year when they came to visit Eric during one of his brief trips back from Lesotho. Sam is a mechanic and overall Volkswagen guru, employing his talents to his family’s operation, Autowerks. Molly is an artist in every sense of the word. Her many talents include pottery, drawing, and teaching to those interested in adopting her craft through her business, Dirtwerks Clay Studio. After some heartfelt reminiscing and catching up, we dined at a local favorite called “Bonefire Smokehouse BBQ”. The next stop on the journey would be at Eric’s parent’s house in Sevierville, TN. We wished Molly and Sam the best and I left them with a parting gift of some solar glasses and a promotional poster for the eclipse. A tentative plan to meet up with them again on the return trip was made.
The winding path to Brother Thamae’s home-of-origin was beautiful, even under the summer night’s sky. The air was crisp and as fresh as could be. We arrived to Eric’s father, Rick, waiting for us on the porch. Unsurprisingly, the hospitality immediately vested upon us was impeccable. Eric’s mother, Pam, was scheduled to work in the early morning and had since retired for the evening, but not before preparing enough food to ensure we were satiated for weeks. However, Rick, Eric, and I had a chance to meet and tell stories over a couple beers. Rick spent many years as a Park Ranger at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and also participated in many archaeological surveys across the greater Tennessee area. I was instantly enthralled with the many anecdotes he was kind of enough to share; including his personal discovery, protection, and excavation of the Gray Fossil Site, which dated back to the Miocene-epoch– the oldest of its kind ever discovered in Tennessee.
The following morning Eric and I set out to visit the many landmarks and natural reserves within the greater Gatlinburg area. We began with a leisurely drive through Cades Cove trail, stopping a few times along the way to revel in the breathtaking beauty of mountains and greenery. In addition to the natural beauty the park also features historical preservation sites. Next we stopped at the Fox and Parrot Tavern for an afternoon refresher and then continued on to the artist’s district of Gatlinburg. It was here I tasted and purchased a BBQ sauce made from ghost chili and moonshine, aptly named “Pappy’s Moonshine Madness” from a store called The Artsy Olive.
With the day of exploration only half in the books we set out to meet Eric’s friend, Eddie, at the Greenbrier River trail. He arrived in a surplus HUMVEE, the likes of which I have never seen. We loaded up and I took advantage of the vehicle’s design to record video while standing in the back. Have a look:
That evening we arrived back at Eric’s parent’s house where I was finally able to meet his mother, the sweet and loving Pam. She prepared an unforgettable meal of lasagna and chicken. I can only describe it as a meal fit for kings. Prior to dinner I was treated to a tour of Rick’s home library. He maintains an impressive collection of scientific journals, as well as a plethora of fossils and other archaeological artifacts. The trip wasn’t complete without gazing into the Milky Way atop Clingmans Dome.
– – http://imgur.com/a/ijSdM
A Collegiate Homecoming
The prospect of returning to Carbondale was always on my mind since graduating. Many fond memories can be recalled from the years I attended the university (2006-2011). Of note:
- The men’s basketball team making the Sweet 16, losing to Kansas by 3 amid plenty of controversial calls (still bitter about that one.. exacerbated by the fact my younger sister is currently a Jayhawk).
- DA BEARS making it to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1985
- Seeing Widespread Panic and B.B. King for the first time at SIU Arena in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
- President Obama’s historic victory in 2008
- Playing for the club baseball team from 2006-2009
In addition to these events I met a couple lifelong friends and solidified my interest in information systems, culminating in a degree field which ultimately qualified my résumé for a job at NASA.
Visiting my former professors in the school of Information Systems and Technology (ISAT) was delightful and nostalgic. There had been some turnover which was to be expected. However, the ones that remained were enthused to catch up.
I have developed a greater appreciation for nature over the years. Revisiting some of the more scenic areas in and around Carbondale proved to be a treat. Introducing areas such as Kinkaid Lake’s Spillway, Giant City State Park, and parts of the Shawnee National Forest to my friends and colleagues was a blast.
It took a few months of persistence but I was eventually able to get into the official NASA 2017 Solar Eclipse team thanks to kind efforts by my supervisor and the associate director of heliophysics at GSFC, Dr. C Alex Young. I began attending meetings June and was taken aback with the incredible talent that comprised the team. From research scientists to outreach specialists- it was truly an honor to work alongside them throughout.
My duties consisted of two primary roles: 1) participating in pedagogical outreach initiatives with the Office of Education, and 2) Assisting the NASA EDGE team in their social media campaign/broadcast for the eclipse.
NASA places a significant amount of resources into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education, and rightfully so. What better way to capture the hearts and minds some of those students living in the path of totality than to have a NASA scientist and outreach team present at their school? That’s exactly what we did in the surrounding area around Carbondale. Moreover, the website team developed an entire directory of resources for both formal and informal educators. During these school visits, we facilitated discussions on how eclipses work, how to safely view one, the science behind them, and how they have been historically interpreted. Such activities comprised of: making Eclipse Fans, showing maps that indicate the Earth-Moon-Sun relationship, and holding Q&A discussions with the students.
In addition to the school visits, NASA, along with a few other organizations such as PBS Kids, Louisiana State University, Southern Illinois University, and the Adler Planetarium, all setup informational booths in the SIU Arena for a two-day stretch preceding the eclipse event. It was here I had the pleasure of manning the “Solar System Sciences” booth. With NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn ending on September 15th, 2017, it was the main topic of discussion. We had a great deal of supplementary materials to disseminate and I took this opportunity to discuss the fascinating discovery of a liquid water ocean beneath the crust of the moon Enceladus.
August 21st, 2017 – The long-anticipated day had arrived. One could sense the excitement in the atmosphere as folks transversed the town and arrived at Saluki Stadium in the early morning hours. NASA, along with the aforementioned organizations, had numerous activities planned for public engagement. It was a festival atmosphere- the congregation of people for the sole interest of participating in scientific discovery. Scores of young learners, enthusiasts, educators, children, and media representatives made up the crowd in and around the arena/stadium.
NASA EDGE is a TV show that broadcasts in the format of a video podcast. Their content explores different missions, technologies, and projects developed by NASA. It is hosted by Chris Giersch, Franklin Fitzgerald, and Blair Allen who also produce the program. They were selected as one of the official NASA broadcasters for the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse. The broadcast went for over 4 hours on Eclipse Day as they hosted many different scientists and subject experts to discuss the various aspects of the celestial event. Personally, I was on the team which populated the various social media platforms that NASA EDGE publishes on, such as Twitter. As part of that initiative, I also worked with a team of student volunteers from the university and together we posted eclipse content to the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat feeds. Thanks to the tireless efforts of these volunteers, I was able to walk around the area in and outside the stadium to engage with the public. There were plenty of glasses yet to be distributed and once first contact occurred (when the first partial eclipse began) at 11:52:26 am, I was sure to very loudly remind everyone to look at the skies. Much to the bemusement of all those around, of course, I continued to make this announcement while distributing the glasses and answering questions about the science behind the partial eclipse event.
One utility that came in handy was what is known as a “pinhole projector”. One of these can be fashioned in many different ways, but it basically amounts to creating a hole on a piece of paper or plastic and then projecting the shadow onto a light-colored surface. This achieves the effect of showing an eclipsed projection of the Sun. Other ways of observing this effect can be seen by looking at the shadows of leaves.
Totality was nothing short of magnificent. I was one of the lucky folks invited to the roof of Saluki Stadium to observe the event. The greatest fear for any enthusiast on eclipse day would be to experience the event under total cloud cover (which would be considered a total bust). Totality in Carbondale was to begin at precisely 1:20:05 pm. At about 1:15pm some thin, scattered high-altitude clouds began to roll into the area much to the dismay of the revelers and myself. Thankfully at about 30 seconds prior to totality, the clouds broke away and everyone was greeted with a sight of pure awe and wonder.
The corona of the Sun was completely visible and darkness fell upon the region. Birds began to take flight, nocturnal bugs began to buzz, and, quite astonishingly, there was a 360° sunset. I had never seen anything like it and was absolutely mesmerized at the sight which had befallen the 20,000 eager observers in the stadium. I took a quick video of the 30 seconds leading up to totality. You can really gauge the crowd’s reaction in this clip as the Sun broke through the clouds:
After totality my colleagues and I observed the phenomenon known as “shadow bands” which occur immediately prior and after a total solar eclipse. These can be described as similar to viewing sunlight reflecting off the surface of a swimming pool. The primary cause for these bands are slivers of sunlight passing through the turbulent layers of atmosphere; similar to the way stars “twinkle” in the night sky. I then took to walking around and asking people about their immediate reactions to what they had just witnessed. The responses ranged from awe and wonder to pure jubilation. From there I spent the remainder of the partial eclipse walking around the crowd as they exited and performing more outreach with my trusty pinhole projector.
The entire experience was overwhelmingly positive. Being able to tie in so many various personal elements with professional work was an unforgettable amalgamation.
– – http://imgur.com/a/RUisW
Official NASA 2017 Total Solar Eclipse website:
If you have any questions relating to the eclipse, SIU, or NASA in general, I’d be happy to answer in the comments. As always.. thanks for reading! Hang on to your glasses for the November 11, 2019 Mercury transit of the Sun and for the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse!
This post is dedicated to my late grandfather, Donald L. Wohlrab, who passed away on September 28, 2017 due to complications from Alzheimer’s. He was a well-respected man and I owe a great deal to the wisdom and kindness he imparted upon our family and others over the years. May he rest in peace.