Americans gazed in wonder through telescopes, cameras and disposable protective glasses Monday as the moon blotted out the sun in the first full-blown solar eclipse to sweep the U.S. from coast to coast in nearly a century.
“It’s really, really, really, really awesome,” said 9-year-old Cami Smith as she watched the fully eclipsed sun from a gravel lane near her grandfather’s home at Beverly Beach, Oregon.
“The show has just begun, people! What a gorgeous day! Isn’t this great, people?” Jim Todd, a director at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, told a crowd of thousands at an amphitheater in Salem, Oregon, as the moon seemed to take an ever-bigger bite out of the sun.
In Chicago, however, skies remained overcast as the time of maximum coverage — 1:19 p.m. — came and went. Though the eclipse was visible, the clouds never fully parted for the thousands who gathered outside to watch at many sites, including along the Riverwalk and at the Adler Planetarium.
Carbondale, in downstate Illinois, was in the path of U.S. locations where the sun would be completely obscured by the moon. Though it was cloudy there as well, the totality was viewable for about 30 seconds, according to Adler officials.
The temperature dropped and birds quieted down as the line of darkness raced across the continent. In Boise, Idaho, people clapped and whooped, and the street lights came on briefly in the middle of the day, while in Nashville, Tennessee, people craned the necks at the sun and knocked back longneck beers at Nudie’s Honky Tonk bar.
It promised to be the most observed and photographed eclipse in history, with millions staking out prime viewing spots and settling into lawn chairs to watch, especially along the path of totality — the line of shadow created when the sun is completely obscured.
The path of totality was 60 to 70 miles wide, running from Oregon to South Carolina. Darkness along the path lasted for only two to three minutes in any one spot.
Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois was in line to see the longest stretch of darkness: 2 minutes and 44 seconds.
A crowd of thousands had gathered at nearby Carbondale, where an eclipse-watching party was taking place in the football stadium at Southern Illinois University — despite intermittent clouds overhead.
In the southern Illinois village of Makanda, population 560 and home of the Eclipse Kitchen, lawn chairs were out and excitement was building.
“More and more people are coming in all the time,” said Debbie Dunn, designated car parker for the day.
Joe Roth, an amateur photographer, traveled south from the Chicago area to Alto Pass, Illinois, to catch his first total solar eclipse — on his 62nd birthday, no less. He said the stars aligned for him — “a Kodak moment for me to cherish and experience.”
In Chicago, meanwhile, the crowd at Adler was snapping up free eye-protecting eclipse-viewing glasses hours before the eclipse started.
Though skies remained overcast, the National Weather Service said there was a potential for clouds to part during the period of the eclipse, which should last through 2:30 p.m.
With 200 million people within a day’s drive from the path of totality, towns and parks braced for monumental crowds. Clear skies beckoned along most of the route, to the relief of those who feared cloud cover would spoil this once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Astronomers were giddy with excitement. A solar eclipse is considered one of the grandest of cosmic spectacles.
With half hour to go before totality, NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, enjoyed the moon’s “first bites out of the sun” from a plane flying over the Oregon coast and declared it “just an incredible view.”
“I’m about to fight this man for a window seat,” Lightfoot said, referring to a fellow NASA scientist.
The Earth, moon and sun line up perfectly every one to three years, briefly turning day into night for a sliver of the planet. But these sights normally are in no man’s land, like the vast Pacific or Earth’s poles. This is the first eclipse of the social media era to pass through such a heavily populated area.
The moon hasn’t thrown this much shade at the U.S. since 1918. That was the country’s last coast-to-coast total eclipse. In fact, the U.S. mainland hasn’t seen a total solar eclipse since 1979 — and even then, only five states in the Northwest experienced total darkness.
Scientists said Monday’s total eclipse would cast a shadow that would race 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) through 14 states, entering near Lincoln City, Oregon, at 1:16 p.m. EDT, moving diagonally across the heartland over Casper, Wyoming, Carbondale, Illinois, and Nashville, Tennessee, and then exiting near Charleston, South Carolina, at 2:47 p.m. EDT.
NASA and other scientists were in position to watch and analyze from telescopes on the ground and in orbit, the International Space Station, airplanes and scores of high-altitude balloons beaming back live video.
From aboard the space station, NASA astronaut Jack Fischer tweeted out a photo showing about a dozen cameras ready for action.
“All hands (cameras) on deck for #SolarEclipse2017 today,” he wrote, adding: “Don’t forget to protect your eyeballs!”
Hundreds of amateur astronomers converged on Casper, Wyoming. Among them was Mike O’Leary, whose camera was outfitted with a homemade eclipse filter, its focus and aperture settings locked in with blue painter’s tape. He was there to log his ninth eclipse.
“It’s like nothing else you will ever see or ever do,” O’Leary said. “It can be religious. It makes you feel insignificant, like you’re just a speck in the whole scheme of things.”
Citizen scientists also planned to monitor animal and plant behavior as daylight turned into twilight and the temperature dropped. Thousands of people streamed into the Nashville Zoo just to watch the animals’ reaction.
Scientists warned people not to look into the sun without protection, except when the sun is 100 percent covered. Otherwise, to avoid eye damage, keep the solar specs on or use pinhole projectors that can cast an image of the eclipse into a box.
The next total solar eclipse in the U.S. will be in 2024. The next coast-to-coast one will not be until 2045.
Contributing: Sun-Times staff