The temperature dropped and birds quieted down as the line of darkness raced across the continent.
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 shadow — a corridor just 60 to 70 miles (96 to 113 km) wide — came ashore in Oregon and then began traveling diagonally across the country to South Carolina, with darkness lasting only around two to three minutes in any one spot.
“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 and temperature soon dropped noticeably.
A solar eclipse is considered one of the grandest of cosmic spectacles. NASA solar physicist Alex Young said the last time earthlings had a connection like this to the heavens was during man’s first flight to the moon, on Apollo 8 in 1968. The first, famous Earthrise photo came from that mission and, like this eclipse, showed us “we are part of something bigger.”
Hoping to learn more about the sun’s composition and activity, NASA and other scientists watched and analyzed from telescopes on the ground and in orbit, the International Space Station, airplanes and scores of high-altitude balloons beaming back live video.
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.
The Earth, moon and sun line up perfectly everyone 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 has not thrown this much shade at the US since 1918, during the country’s last coast-to-coast total eclipse. In fact, the US mainland has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1979 — and even then, only five states in the Northwest experienced total darkness.
The next total solar eclipse in the US will be in 2024. The next coast-to-coast one will not be until 2045.