The first solar eclipse Fred Espenak saw was electrifying.
It was March 7, 1970, and Espenak, who had just earned his driver’s license, drove his family’s car from Staten Island down to North Carolina.
“I thought I was really prepared for the eclipse. And then the moon shadow swept over us, and we were plunged into totality,” he said, referring the zone of complete darkness that occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun and fully blocks the star. “I promised myself that this could not possibly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience because it was just so beautiful, so spectacular.”
Decades later, Espenak, 64, a retired NASA astrophysicist, enjoys the nickname “Mr. Eclipse,” for his research on eclipse predictions and eclipse photography. A well-known figure in the universe of eclipse chasers, he’s traveled all over the world to see 27 total solar eclipses — no easy feat given that a total solar eclipse graces any given place in the world just once every 375 years.
Espenak’s most memorable eclipse took place in India in 1995. It was a long trip there to see a short, 41-second eclipse. He was traveling with a tour group, and one woman happened to catch his eye. “I just said, ‘Hmmm.’ Nice hair,” Espenak said. The 1995 eclipse was Patricia Totten’s first, though she had been trying for more than 20 years to see one.
In the years that followed, a shared interest in eclipses and science (Totten is a former chemistry teacher) helped them stay in touch. Years later, the two began dating, and they got married in 2006.
Fred and Patricia Espenak, both retired, now live in Arizona Sky Village, an eastern Arizona village designed for astronomers who want to make observations with minimal light pollution.
“I’ve always wanted to live someplace where I could go out and really see the Milky Way any night,” Fred Espenak said. But to get away from the light pollution that plagues so much of the U.S., the Espenaks have “abandoned civilization, so to speak,” he said.
The nearest grocery store is 60 miles away. Their backyard is a great expanse of desert, and the couple has seen rattlesnakes, bobcats, and coyotes pass near their home. The village even has rules around outdoor lighting at night: namely, there can’t be any.
There are no streetlights, headlights must be curbed, and the Espenaks’ home is even outfitted with blackout curtains. All this means that if Espenak wakes up at 1 or 2 a.m. to go stargazing in the two observatories he built, he’s often able to see the Milky Way and galaxies far, far away.
“I think it’s wonderful to be married to somebody with a passion,” said Patricia Espenak, 73.
The two have turned their love for eclipses into a full-time hobby. They travel the world together, from China to Antarctica, chasing the celestial phenomena. “All my world travels, with solar eclipses, [have] given me a greater appreciation for different cultures,” Fred Espenak said. “A greater acceptance to appreciate the diversity of the people on this planet.”