Fred Espenak was serenaded by crickets during a total solar eclipse in Zambia in 2001.
A total solar eclipse that stretches from coast to coast in the US, the first in nearly 100 years, is coming August 21.
For the truly lucky, at least 12 million people, the eclipse is coming to them. People who live in the 70-mile-wide path of totality that spans 14 states only have to put on eclipse-viewing glasses and step outside to watch the moon block out the sun.
The rest of us are going to have to work a little harder. We’re going to have to go to it.
Fred Espenak is the type of person who doesn’t wait for a total eclipse to come to him. For nearly 50 years, he’s traveled to every continent — even Antarctica — to witness the natural wonder he rates “1 million” on a scale of 1 to 10. The retired NASA astrophysicist met his future wife during an expedition to India. He was serenaded by crickets during an eclipse in Zambia.
Espenak, 65, is known as Mr. Eclipse, but he didn’t earn his nickname by chasing after and photographing these cosmic events. Read the fine print on NASA’s eclipse website and you’ll see “Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak.” Since the late ’70s, he’s published eclipse predictions and maps, including details like time, place, type and duration.
NASA research scientist Lika Guhathakurta, who’s known Espenak for nearly 25 years and worked alongside him, calls his contributions “monumental.” There’s even an asteroid named after him. He’s also co-author of the book “Totality: The Great American Eclipses of 2017 and 2024.” (Yes, there’s another one coming to the US in seven years.)
Espenak, seen here in Libya in 2006, has traveled to every continent to see total eclipses.
Espenak witnessed his first total solar eclipse in 1970. At 18, he persuaded his parents to let him drive 600 miles, from New York to North Carolina, “unchaperoned.” After it was over, he was hooked.
“I knew that this could not be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had to see another one as soon as possible,” said Espenak.
A few years later, he drove 1,200 miles to Canada to see another one. A year after that, he traveled to the Sahara Desert. He’s now witnessed about 20 total solar eclipses.
This time, he’ll likely watch the eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, where he’s speaking at an astronomy convention the previous week. But if the weather forecast looks bad a few days before, he’s prepared to drive 800 to 1,000 miles to get to a better location.
Forget about changing your location on eclipse day though, he says. NASA is predicting heavy traffic. Even if you manage to get somewhere else, there’s no guarantee of better weather. “It’s not always the wisest idea just to jump in the car and blindly go chasing after holes in the clouds,” Espenak said. “Sucker holes we call them. It’s best just to wait it out.”
I talked with Espenak about the big event dubbed the Great American Eclipse, how a partial eclipse in no way prepares you for a total eclipse, and why you’d better not skip this one. The interview has been edited for brevity.
Q: You’ve said, “In rating natural wonders on a scale of 1 to 10, a total eclipse of the sun is a million.” What makes it so hard to convey what a total eclipse is like to someone who’s never seen one?
Espenak: A total eclipse is unlike anything anyone has ever seen.