Solar eclipse casts dark sky over Tennessee Tech

For two minutes and 33 seconds, the sky over Tennessee Tech fell dark just after 1:29 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, as more than 10,000 people on campus experienced a total solar eclipse, the first to pass over Cookeville in 539 years.

Guests traveled from all over the U.S. and the world to help fill Tucker Stadium for the event. Travelers were greeted from Australia, Sweden, Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and beyond.

Tech alumnus, NASA astronaut, former commander of the International Space Station, and U.S. Navy Captain Barry Wilmore joined the crowds with his parents and daughters.

“There are a couple of places on this planet, and I have had the pleasure of leaving the planet a couple of times, that hold a place in my heart and Tennessee Tech is one of them,” Wilmore said. “I don’t remember everything that happens in my life, few people do, but there are certain things that you don’t forget and that (eclipse) is one of them.”

Even for Wilmore, who has accumulated 178 days spent in space, experiencing totality at Tech was “thrilling.”

“I could not have dreamed it up,” said Mary Kidd, Tech physics professor and NASA subject matter expert for the event. “It was the best thing I have ever seen. There are no words to describe that. You just have to see it, and now I want to see a lot more.”

Kidd was among a number of scientists with telescopes, cameras and equipment for recording the historic event set up inside Tucker Stadium. Her work is part of the Citizen CATE project, which established a chain of telescopes across the U.S. to record images of the sun’s corona.

Despite her understanding of the incredible opportunity for science of the solar eclipse, the most striking part of the event for her was the human experience. Chair of the Tech Physics department Steve Robinson, who was also a NASA subject matter expert for the event, agreed.

“I have been interested in astronomy my entire life and read about eclipses but I wasn’t prepared for it. It just blew me away,” Robinson said.

Outside of Tucker Stadium, an eclipse festival brought science to life, featuring the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Traveling Science Fair, Tech STEM Mobile, the opportunity to create eclipse prints with the Appalachian Center for Craft, and other activities.

“What an amazing experience,” said President Phil Oldham. “We are fortunate to have a university that puts science, technology, engineering and mathematics at the forefront and experiencing an event like this together is just incredible. We are looking forward to having many of the people who were with us today back on campus as students.”

Tech was a NASA official viewing location for the eclipse, which won’t happen again in Cookeville for more than 500 years.