About 15 years ago, while Tom Stahley was teaching science at Skyview High School, he got an idea.
“Part of earth science is teaching about eclipses,” he said, recalling that time. “And one year I decided we should probably remind these kids to take in this event if possible. So it came to me to give out cards.”
Stahley, 63, and now retired, printed business cards with details about the next total solar eclipse, on Aug. 21, 2017.
“This is your invitation to a once in a lifetime event,” the card said.
Stahley picked the outside of the Casper College Tate Geological Museum at 10 a.m., as the meeting place. Casper, Wyoming, unlike Billings, is in the path of totality, meaning the sun will be completely hidden by the moon.
The card suggested the students bring their friends and spouses, which brought comments from the 14- and 15-year-olds who couldn’t imagine being married.
“I said, ‘We’ll grab lunch and a cold beverage — I prefer iced tea,’ ” Stahley said, smiling. “They said, ‘We’ll be old enough to drink? We’ll be there!’ ”
He figures he handed out 1,000 cards before he retired in 2015. Stahley doesn’t know how many students will join him, but he intends to be at the museum parking lot on Monday morning with his wife, Sue. His hair is longer than it used to be, but former students will find him in a long-sleeve rust-colored Columbia shirt, pants and a tan hat.
Thousands of people are expected to flock to the southern Wyoming city, as well as other Wyoming towns in the direct path of the eclipse. For Stahley, it will actually be the second time he’s experienced such a dramatic event.
On Feb. 26, 1979, three years out of college, he drove with a few of his former classmates to Lewistown to watch a total solar eclipse. It lasted only 90 seconds, but “it makes you feel pretty small,” he said.
“I could sense the temperature drop as the sun went over,” Stahley said. “I saw a few things in the sky, planets and stars.”
He quickly shot some photos, using special filters on his camera. Though the full eclipse will last longer this time, he intends to forgo taking pictures and instead watch the people around him, listen to the sounds “and take in more of the senses rather than just the visual.”
The first eclipse affected him enough that he knew he had to make every effort to see a second one. He decided to share such a profound experience with his students.
Don’t forget the protection
During a total solar eclipse, the moon aligns perfectly with the sun, but only within a 70-mile-wide path. It will go from Oregon to South Carolina, moving across 14 states, said Joel Guthals, president of the Yellowstone Valley Astronomy Association. The moon will totally block the sun for about two minutes along that path.
In a lunar eclipse, the Earth gets between the sun and the moon, casting a shadow on the moon. During a solar eclipse, Guthals said, the moon is directly between the sun and the Earth.
"In a solar eclipse, there’s an alignment of the sun, the moon and the Earth so they’re in a line,” he said. “Based upon the distances and the geometry, the moon is directly in front of and between the Earth and the sun so that the moon blocks the light of the sun.”
People who are in the path of the eclipse can see the drama unfold moment by moment. They'll also be able to see the sun's violent atmosphere, called the corona, become visible as a ring around the moon.
Sometimes a total solar eclipse goes unnoticed because it occurs over the oceans or a less-inhabited land.
“It is rare when there’s a path of totality that goes right across the continental U.S. so millions and millions of people can see it,” he said.
Montana residents will encounter a partial eclipse, with Red Lodge experiencing a 96 percent eclipse and Billings, 93 percent. In Billings, it will begin at 10:21 a.m., with the maximum effect at at 11:39 a.m. and the eclipse ending at 1:03 p.m.
Guthals emphasizes the “absolute importance of people wearing proper eye protection.” Even the darkest sunglasses aren’t enough.
“We should never ever look at the sun without eye protection with proper eye filters,” he said. “Even in the path of totality I’d be very cautious because if you look up and watch as it’s going into totality, you could get eye damage.”
NASA has recommended specific brands of eclipse glasses that make it safe to view the event. They also have been available through online outlets and certain retail stores.
With so little time left before the eclipse begins, the glasses may be difficult to find. Guthals suggests an alternative way of viewing it.
Take two pieces of paper and hold one piece a foot above the other. Place a pinhole in the piece of paper that’s closer to the sun.
“The disk of the sunlight will actually go through the hole and be projected on the second piece of paper and you can watch the eclipse that way,” he said. “People have been doing that for thousands of years.”
Join the crowd
In Billings, people who want to experience the partial eclipse in a crowd are welcome to take part in the Montana State University Billings Eclipse Party from 10 a.m. to noon on the lawn west of the Liberal Arts Building, off Normal Avenue. The first 350 who arrive will get special solar viewing glasses to safely watch the eclipse, said Stuart Snyder, professor of physics.
“We’re also setting up a solar telescope that lets people look directly at the sun,” he said. “They’ll be able to watch the progression of the eclipse as it goes along.”
The telescope also will let people one at a time view sunspots, prominences and granulations of the sun’s surface, Snyder said. Refreshments will be served, and guests can ask questions of the staff that will be on hand.
Snyder, who will be at a meeting in Rexburg, Idaho, will be in the path of totality. He is excited to be part of what he called “a once in a lifetime event for most of us.”
It helps to understand that the moon doesn’t orbit the Earth in a completely ideal circle, Snyder said. It’s slightly elliptical.
“So even if they line up perfectly, it could be an instance where the moon is too far away or too close to the Earth to get that total eclipse,” Snyder said. “It takes perfect alignment and perfect Earth-moon distance for these things to occur.”
Around the world
Pat Cormier remembers his first total eclipse. Like Stahley, Cormier and four friends drove to Lewistown in 1979 and walked up a hill 10 miles outside of town to watch. There probably weren’t more than 20 people there.
“It got dark, and it was just amazing the way the animals reacted,” Cormier said. “You could hear the pheasants and there were coyotes howling.”
Since then, he and his wife, Angie, both retired teachers, have traveled the world to chase eclipses. No two have been alike, Pat said.
“They’re different for two reasons,” he said, “One is the activity of the sun and the other is the distance between the Earth and the moon. If the moon is closer, it blocks out more.”
Only once, not counting Lewistown, has Pat gone without Angie. That was on a trip to Egypt. Otherwise, they have traveled together to view total eclipses in Mexico, Venezuela and Romania.
Angie said at first, the eclipses provided an excuse to see the world.
“But then I got absorbed in the feeling when the actual eclipse happened,” she said.
She remembered in Venezuela looking around and seeing people from around the world watching the eclipse together, and the respect she felt for the event of such a magnitude. And she recalled the intensity.
“It felt like it was the beginning of a big event, the beginning of the world or a couple of minutes before the end of the world,” Angie said.
Pat recalled a recent conversation with a man who had watched a solar eclipse for the first time.
“He had a camera, but when it went into totality he just sat there and watched,” Pat said. “He never took a photo.”
Pat, who said watching an eclipse is "just magic" looks for the planets and stars that appear when the eclipse reaches totality.
“You can see the brighter ones,” he said. “It doesn’t get dark enough to be night, it’s more like a deep dusk.”
At least 1 RSVP
Come Monday morning, Amanda Eastman plans to be in Casper to view the eclipse. She first learned about it in 2010 when she was in Tom Stahley’s earth science class.
“I remember at the end of my freshman year he gave us these cards to come to the solar eclipse,” she said. “I didn’t think too much about it.”
By the time Eastman was a junior, Stahley had retired from the district and gone to work as a teacher in Powell, Wyoming. She began to think it would be fun to see how many of her classmates she could get to meet up with Stahley in Casper.
So Eastman created a Facebook page, using the small card that now was filled with pin holes, as a focal point. She invited 109 people, and 41 clicked on the "going" option, while another nine expressed interest.
Eastman doesn’t really know how many classmates will show up. She and some friends plan to leave early Monday for the drive to Casper to meet up with Stahley and his wife.
Eastman, now 21, is excited to see her former teacher, and to experience the eclipse.
“It’s funny,” she said. “It seemed so far away at the time, and now it’s almost here.”