This is the tenth article and podcast Seattle Astronomy has done to preview possible places from which to view the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States next August 21. We’ve talked with folks from Madras, Oregon to Columbia, South Carolina and points in between. It’s time to look at the closest viewpoint for Seattle eclipse chasers: The Salem Fairgrounds in Salem, Oregon are just 219 miles from Seattle Astronomy world headquarters, and will be the site of an eclipse viewing party headed by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI.)
Good viewing in Oregon
“Oregon is really advertised as the best place to view the eclipse, and we’re expecting ten million visitors to come down to Oregon for that one-day event,” said Jim Todd, director of space science education at OMSI. “Oregon needs to be ready.”
That latter is something of an understatement. Todd says they expect about ten thousand people to attend the OMSI-sponsored party at the fairgrounds, an event that has support from Rose City Astronomers in Portland, the Oregon Observatory, and NASA, among others. The party will feature science lectures, astronomy-related community groups, and entertainment, including a performance by the Portland Taiko drum ensemble.
Salem is a bit north of the center line of totality, which crosses I-5 about halfway between Oregon’s capitol city and Albany. But the total eclipse will last nearly two minutes at the fairgrounds, and Todd said there will be numerous other viewing points in and near the city, including at Willamette University and Volcano Stadium in Keiser, where the Salem-Keiser Volcanoes baseball team, a class-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, are planning a Monday morning baseball game for next August 21 that may feature the first “eclipse delay” in the history of organized ball.
“It goes without saying: we can’t do this alone,” Todd said. “We just have to educate the public and make sure they understand what’s involved with the eclipse.”
They’re doing that through planetarium shows, workshops, and social media to get the word out, especially about about safe viewing of the eclipse during its partial phase. They’ve also been in touch with government officials from the Oregon governor’s office on down to make sure they’re thinking ahead for eclipse day. With huge crowds expected, things could get chaotic, espeically if there are clouds around and people have to scramble to find a clear sky for the moment of the eclipse.
“It will likely be hot, it will likely be crazy as far as traffic jams. Airports, hotels, you name it,” Todd warns. “It’s going to be a crazy day. It’s going to be one of those days people are going to remember where they were on that very day when they were looking for the eclipse.”
Todd also serves as a co-director of the annual Oregon Star Party, which has set its 2017 event for the days before, of, and after the eclipse.
“We plan to do viewing from Indian Trail Spring in the Ochoco Mountains,” he noted. The site is somewhat south of the center line of the path of totality, and will enjoy about a minute and 27 seconds of total solar eclipse.
One concern about eclipse day is that many people will simply head for similar remote areas and gridlock roads there.
Todd has seen one other total solar eclipse, that back in 1979. He was a senior in high school and had to wrangle his way around official authority to do it.
“My science teacher was going to keep the class inside,” he recalls with a laugh. He got permission to head to Goldendale, Washington with another family, where they escaped cloudy Portland skies—it was February—and saw the eclipse. Next year may be a bit easier.
“Fortunately for us [the eclipse is] going to be in August, when we have a great chance of clear skies,” Todd noted.
The job fits
Todd is a true space nut. Like many of us, his interest was cemented when he watched Apollo 11 land on the Moon. He taught himself space science and astronomy, then took an internship at OMSI. He never left; he’s been there 33 years.
“It’s been my way of getting close to NASA by getting close to all of the astronomical events,” he said. “It’s one of the very few jobs where the hobby has actually become the job. I was able to combine my passion with astronomy and space science with the teaching and computers and so on. It was a perfect fit.”
Portland is an astronomy city. Rose City Astronomers is one of the biggest clubs in the country. Proximity to pretty good dark, transparent skies may be one reason for that.
“Portland has a science-minded audience and they love these kind of events,” Todd said. “We like to think, too, that OMSI had a role in that.”
Tickets to the eclipse party at Salem Fairgrounds are $8 and are available now through the OMSI website.
Podcast of our interview with Jim Todd: