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Traveling the world as “Mr. Eclipse”

Retired NASA astronomer Fred Espenak poses for photo. Photo submitted by Fred Espenak and taken by Patricia T. Espenak
Submitted by Fred Espenak
Southeast Arrow
Retired NASA astronomer Fred Espenak poses for photo. Photo submitted by Fred Espenak and taken by Patricia T. Espenak

Retired NASA astronomer Fred Espenak has spent his entire life traveling the world chasing solar eclipses, earning the nickname “Mr. Eclipse.”

Espenak finds solar eclipses so “exquisitely beautiful” that he has made it his goal to see and photograph as many as he can in his lifetime.

Espenak said he had traveled to every continent, including Antarctica, and witnessed 30 solar eclipses over the course of 54 years.

Throughout his career of chasing and studying eclipses and working for NASA, Espenak has made a name for himself in the scientific community.

According to the Quark Expeditions staff page, Espenak has participated in 29 solar eclipse expeditions, generated predictions and maps for over 10,000 solar eclipses, and developed three websites for eclipses. His eclipse photographs have been published in several magazines and were even featured on the USPS postage stamp commemorating the 2017 solar eclipse.

Espenak has been interested in solar eclipses since before he was in high school.

He first became interested in solar eclipses at 11 years old after witnessing a partial eclipse in 1963.

“I was 11 years old, and I saw a partial eclipse as a young, budding amateur astronomer from my grandparents’ summer home. A partial solar eclipse piqued my curiosity, and I started doing some reading about eclipses. I discovered that total eclipses were far more spectacular than partial eclipses. But you had to travel to, usually to distant parts of the world to see one,” Espenak said.

Of all the total solar eclipses Espenak has witnessed, he noted that his favorite was in 1995 when he traveled to India.

While the eclipse itself was only 40 seconds long, Espenak happened to be in the same tourist group as his future wife.

“She was in the same group,” Espenak said. “It was just a stroke of luck that we were on the same trip together.”

In his journeys, Espenak has not only seen solar eclipses but also dozens of cultures across the world.

“It is a great way to travel and see the world and get exposed to other cultures,” Espenak said. “You go to places that most people have only read about in National Geographic.”

Espenak said the both terrifying and captivating nature of eclipses is what drew him to them.

He describes them as both eerie and gorgeous. And when the world goes dark in the middle of the day, Espenak said he can relate to ancient people who thought it meant the end of the world.

“It’s indescribably beautiful and, at the same time, somewhat terrifying. There’s a feeling in the pit of your stomach that something very strange and odd has happened,” Espenak said.

Espanak notes that Cape Girardeau is fortunate to be in the path of totality for the upcoming eclipse in April as a partial eclipse doesn’t give viewers the same experience.

“Even if 99% of the Sun is covered by the Moon, the Sun is still too bright to look at… With a total eclipse, it starts out as a partial, but then in the last five minutes or so the temperature starts to drop… And then, in the final seconds, suddenly, the light just slowly turns down. Like someone’s got their hand on the house lights in a movie theater, turning the house lights down. The lights just fade, and you’re suddenly plunged into a very eerie Twilight,” Espanak said.

Espanak will be viewing the upcoming eclipse in Mazatlan, Mexico, with a group of about 80 other eclipse enthusiasts.

The Southeast Arrowis a SEMO student-run news partner with KRCU Public Radio.