The Secret Lives of Parks

A Brief Shining Moment

Episode Summary

Experiencing the rare but spectacular event that is a total solar eclipse requires being in the right place at the right time. For April’s eclipse, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Texas—a place deeply connected to the night sky and space exploration—seemed to be the perfect setting... but would the weather hold?

Episode Notes

They say the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas... but what about the middle of the day? Not just any day—in this episode, we experience the recent total solar eclipse at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park and discover how the history of this Hill Country ranch connects it to the night sky and the heyday of the U.S. space program.

Host Todd Christopher captures the sounds of the awe-inspiring celestial event from the LBJ Ranch as ranger Kevin Goodwin shares LBJ’s space cowboy roots and NASA’s Molly Wasser breaks down the science behind solar eclipses. Original theme music by Chad Fischer

The Secret Lives of Parks is brought to you by: 

Todd Christopher – Producer & Host 

Jennifer Errick – Producer & Host 

Bev Stanton – Online Producer

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 30
A Brief Shining Moment

Todd Christopher: They say the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas... but what about the middle of the day? In this episode, we experience the recent total solar eclipse at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park and discover how the history of this Hill Country ranch connects it to the night sky and the heyday of the U.S. space program.

I’m Todd Christopher, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.

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Some of the most colorful words in the English language are those that describe people who are drawn to different natural phenomena. Thalassophiles, for instance, feel at home on the sea. Dendrophiles love forests and trees. Pluviophiles are happiest when it’s raining.

And then there are those of us who will plan for years in advance and travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to chase the rare and fleeting spectacle of a total solar eclipse, when the moon perfectly and completely obscures the face of the sun, revealing its silvery corona and plunging us into a few moments of supernatural darkness. We are known as umbraphiles ― the word literally means shadow lovers ― and I guess you could say that what follows is a story about (with apologies to that offbeat vampire series) what we do in the shadows.

A total solar eclipse is only visible along a narrow band of the Earth’s surface known as the path of totality. It’s different every time, and outside of that path, the most you’ll see is a partial eclipse ― and while that still can be pretty great, it’s just not the same thing.

So, on the Saturday before last month’s eclipse, I ― like an estimated 1 million other travelers ― headed to Texas. It was my second time making a journey like this. I saw my first total solar eclipse on a perfectly clear day in August 2017, when I reported from Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the so-called Great American Eclipse that crossed the nation from Oregon to South Carolina. For this most recent American eclipse, the path of totality stretched from Texas to Maine, and the Lone Star State, based on historical weather conditions, seemed to be the best bet for clear April skies.

And that’s really all you need to see totality: clear skies in a place along that band of celestial serendipity. In 2017, the path of totality spanned some 60 miles. For last month’s eclipse, it was nearly twice as wide. All of which is to say: A lot of places would do.

But a total solar eclipse is an extraordinary event, and it’s no surprise that people by the tens of thousands choose to experience it in an extraordinary place: a national park site. I had plenty of company seven years ago in the Great Smokies; more than 47,000 people entered the park for the eclipse, making it the single busiest day on record there at the time. Elsewhere, Grand Teton National Park experienced record visitation on the days leading up to and including the eclipse.

This time around, I would have a very different experience. The day before the eclipse, I set out from San Antonio to the Hill Country, past fields of bluebonnets and along country roads flanked by the clusters of Ashe juniper known to the locals as cedar brakes, and headed to a special, quiet place — an historic place with what I discovered was a deep and meaningful connection to the wonders of the night sky and mankind’s quest for space travel: Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.

Kevin Goodwin: Well, welcome! We’re glad you’re here for our eclipse-centered festivities. As we talk about today, “LBJ: Space Cowboy,” what we're talking about is the connections that LBJ, but specifically the LBJ Ranch, has to the space program.

Todd Christopher: That’s Kevin Goodwin, a ranger at the LBJ site, addressing a crowd of visitors from across the country, and the world, under an expansive canopy. It was one of several shelters erected for the occasion on the airstrip at the LBJ Ranch ― the asphalt runway, stretching more than 6,000 feet, that connected the ranch to the rest of the world, helping it become a fully functioning “Texas White House” more than 1,300 miles from Washington.

Kevin Goodwin: This airstrip was built to fly the C-140s in here when he was president, which was Air Force One when the president was on board. He likes to jokingly call it Air Force One-Half because it's the smaller plane (laughter) But when he was here, a lot of the things that he did to further the space program and to be involved in the space program, actually were connected to things that happened at the ranch.

Todd Christopher: Perhaps the most significant thing happened in October 1957, when Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader. The Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the Earth’s first artificial satellite, ushering in the Space Age and, as LBJ saw it, throwing down the gauntlet.

Kevin Goodwin: In 1957, when Sputnik was launched Lady Bird, the president and some friends were here at the ranch. And so he tells the story...she tells the story also in her diaries of looking out at the sky walking around the ranch, this land that they had known so long -- the stars are beautiful here... yes, when it's clear you can see the stars very well at night, and so he would, they would, walk around.... Lady Bird describes it as little diamonds, brilliantly shining diamonds in the velvet sky. And we've always had this closeness to the land. We've always had this idea of the world around us, how big the universe is... and imagine the world-changing event of a satellite -- the first satellite -- being launched into orbit and considering all the possibilities that humanity could accomplish. Not just the possibilities that humanity could accomplish, but for LBJ it’s the possibilities that America itself could accomplish. What is our place in the quote-un-quote space race? What is our thrust in the space program? What is it for? What is this spirit of exploration guiding us to? They both talked very specifically about that when Sputnik was launched. And they were here. They were here experiencing that.

Todd Christopher: Lady Bird Johnson later wrote about that day: “Each of us was pondering what the future now held. We had lived with the sky all our lives, and suddenly it was as though we had never seen it before.”

By that evening, LBJ had already begun outlining a course of action, and less than one year later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was launched, thanks in large part to his determined efforts in Congress. In 1961, as vice president, he was appointed chair of the nine-member National Space Council, and after a successful Mercury mission made Alan Sheperd the first American in space, LBJ secured additional funding for the Gemini and Apollo programs that would in many ways define the decade — even holding budget discussions at the Ranch after assuming the presidency. He was at the helm for many of the triumphs and tragedies of the American space program, and in the final weeks of his administration, the astronauts of Apollo 8 orbited the moon and captured the iconic photograph known as “Earthrise,” the image that forever changed humanity’s perception of our fragile blue home.

It's a fitting postscript, since LBJ saw the space program not only as a technological achievement, but a confirmation of American values.

Kevin Goodwin: And so all of that starts here. The reason we called it “LBJ: Space Cowboy” is because LBJ has this connection to the public through the ranch. It's how he invited people here. Our sign says all the world is welcome here, right? And everybody sees that on our sign, when you came in... the reason that all the world was welcome here is because LBJ actually would invite folks like the German Chancellor to the Ranch instead of the White House. He would invite senators, congressman. He would make that personal connection with people. That's part of what he did with the folks from the space program that came here, and maybe not even knowing that he was actually a part of the founding of NASA way back when, and that connection to the land, the connection to this, yes, American exceptionalism, that that he would have had as part of his worldview, but also this ambition, this drive that’s there from a very early age--that LBJ becomes connected with space program is perhaps no accident.

Todd Christopher: And in a way, LBJ’s life itself was a yardstick that measured mankind’s quest for space, bookended by truly momentous events. A month after he was born in 1908, the Wright brothers were conducting their first successful public flights of an hour or two. And a month before he died in January 1973, the astronauts of the Apollo 17 mission were the last Americans – the last humans – to set foot on the moon. Again, here’s Kevin Goodwin.

Kevin Goodwin: In his lifespan, we went from not being able to get up off the ground to being on the moon. And so just think for a second what might happen in our life.

What might we be a witness to? What causes? What things are we involved in that is pushing that envelope of human achievement and human discovery, and what can we learn from LBJ at LBJ's Ranch? Who said all the world is welcome here. That's why we just yelled out all these different states that we're from, right?

What can that lead to in our life?

So thanks for hearing about LBJ and the space program. But again, thank you for being here. We hope you enjoy the rest of your time.

Todd Christopher: Inspired by the talk, I walked around the terminus of the airstrip where a little community of eclipse-chasers was bustling. In one tent, rangers and volunteers shared information and handed out eclipse viewers, while scientists and staff from NASA answered questions and led educational activities. In another tent, visitors stamped their passports in a portable park shop offering memorabilia commemorating the event – much of it featuring a fun image of LBJ and Lady Bird watching the Apollo 11 launch that had been photoshopped to give them eclipse glasses. And

I’m not at all embarrassed to say that I diligently completed the eclipse activity booklet and solemnly took the oath that officially made me a Junior Ranger.

There were also a couple of commercial shade structures, roughly the size and shape of an amusement park kiddie ride, and those struck me as an optimistic touch. Like any self-respecting umbraphile, I had been glued to the weather forecasts for weeks and knew that the outlook wasn’t great. In a reversal of expectations, much of Texas was facing cloud cover, while the far Northeast seemed to be in for sunny skies.

But whatever the weather and visibility, a total solar eclipse was coming, so I spoke with Molly Wasser, a public information officer at NASA, to better understand the celestial mechanics behind it all. And the first thing eclipse chasers do is to compare notes. I shared my account of watching the last eclipse from Cades Cove in the Great Smokies, but I have to say, Molly’s story was even better.

Molly Wasser: Yes. So, in 2017, I was in Salem OR at the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes baseball stadium, running an eclipse event there. It was the first baseball game ever paused for an eclipse.

Todd Christopher: That's fantastic! And that's documented? That's the first ballgame to be...?

Molly Wasser: Yes, it was the first ball game to ever have an eclipse delay, so I guess they -- they paused the game for an eclipse delay -- and then, after totality, they started the game again.

Todd Christopher: And that was a good place to be! I had a colleague who went to John Day fossil beds in Oregon. It's very clear and dry that time of year. So you lucked out, that's great.

Molly Wasser: Yeah. Not a cloud in sight, which today tomorrow we'll see.

Todd Christopher: We will see!

Having seen totality... for someone who's never seen it, how do you even begin to describe it? Because I know it's easier to see a partial eclipse -- the odds are in your favor to see that -- but totality is really something special. How do you even put it into words?

Molly Wasser: Yeah, it's really almost a heart-stopping moment to see totality. I got an adrenaline rush when it happened. I mean, I'd been ― I work at NASA ― I've been working, thinking about this day for years, even before I started at NASA. I'd planned to see the 2017 eclipse and when it happens, as it's happening, the light dims. It gets cooler. And the light around you, the sky, like the illumination, is just very weird. It's otherworldly. It's not like a sunset or sunrise. It's different. And then when you see the moon completely block the disk of the sun, it was just a rush. And I understood why people travel all around the globe to see these more and more because you're like, “this is amazing. I want to see this again and again and again” and it's so quick at that moment. And then it goes away. For me, also, it's spectacular to think about that we're seeing worlds in space line up ... like we're seeing astronomy in action, and that's very cool.

Todd Christopher: That's a great way to put it. I mean, I did have a sense similar to that... that, like you can't help but recognize that you're on a planet at the moment that's happening... and this all is even possible because an extraordinary series of things line up. I mean literally, but also figuratively. Am I right that one of the things is just that our sun and moon have a very similar apparent size to us as we look at them? Like, could you maybe put some science on that for me?

Molly Wasser: Exactly, yes. So, the moon is about 1/4 of the size of the Earth. The moon is very small, but the moon is also very close to us, and the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon. But the moon is 400 times closer, so it's kind of this remarkable coincidence that they appear to be the same size in our sky.

But not always so. In October, there was an annular eclipse... so, a total solar eclipse can only occur when the moon is a little bit closer to Earth on average. We've heard the terms a lot recently -- Super Moon -- the Moon's orbit is not circular, it's slightly elliptical, so sometimes it's further. Sometimes it's closer to the earth, and so we can only have a total solar eclipse when the moon is closer than average to the Earth.

Actually, the moon is slowly moving away from the Earth very slowly, about as fast as our fingernails grow. So, eventually we won't have total solar eclipses. The moon's apparent size won't be large enough to completely block the disk of the sun.

Todd Christopher: Gosh, even more reason to see it now. Wow.

Molly Wasser: Yes, more reason to see it now, exactly.

Todd Christopher: Is there anything else at play that gets at the rarity of these? Like, in other words, why don't we have them all the time? Is the tilt of our axis in play here?

Molly Wasser: That's a great question. So it's not the tilt of the axis. So in order to have a total solar eclipse, one: the Moon has to be a little bit closer to Earth than on average and two: the moon has to be in the right place. So the moon's orbit is actually tilted a little bit relative to the Earth's orbit around the sun, so it's tilted about five degrees. So what that means in practice is sometimes the moon is too high and its shadow misses the earth up top, and sometimes the moon is too low and its shadow misses the earth on the bottom and then only sometimes is it just right to completely block the sun and have its shadow fall on the Earth.

Todd Christopher: I see. So how often does an eclipse happen somewhere on the earth, and it may not be a place where you can get to it or see it, right? There's a lot that has to go right.

Molly Wasser: Yes, so eclipses, both lunar and solar are not actually that rare. They happen about once every 18 months. But what is rare is to have totality and also to have totality over an area where people live, so a lot of the the moon's shadow is not very big on the Earth. We've seen Eclipse maps. It's a little thin line where the the umbra is that path of totality. So most of the time it falls over the ocean. You know, 70% of our globe is water. So a lot of times it or over Antarctica or the Arctic, where there just aren't populated areas, and then sometimes it's a partial eclipse and sometimes it's an annular eclipse... so they're not rare per se, but the opportunity to see them is rare.

Todd Christopher: Right. And then even with that, then you're still at the mercy of the weather on a given day in a given place.

Molly Wasser: Yes, exactly.

Todd Christopher: So, we're hoping for the best... I have to say the forecast was a lot more pessimistic than what I'm seeing.

Molly Wasser: So today gives me hope because it was supposed to be completely cloudy today. I see a ton of blue sky. I've seen the sun and so today gives me hope. I'm feeling hopeful for tomorrow.

Todd Christopher: We just need a little bit of blue at the right time!

Molly Wasser: Yes!

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Todd Christopher: Monday. Eclipse day. My alarm sounds at 4 a.m. and after a hot shower and a cold breakfast, I’m on my way, driving from San Antonio to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Site. If there are signs for how the day will turn out, they’re conflicting ones: Sure, I’ve got the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” on the radio... but on the other hand, I need the windshield wipers to cut through a light drizzle.

I arrive at the LBJ site in darkness at 5:39 a.m. and take my place in the line of cars already forming at the gate, right by the welcome sign. I’m the third one here. The third visitor, anyway ― a smattering of park police and rangers are already on site, anticipating an eager crowd. It will be more than two hours before park staff unlock the gate and allow the first of the day’s 500 vehicles onto the site.

At least it’s dry. I crack the windows, recline the driver’s seat and sleep, more or less, until I wake again to the sounds of birdsong.

At 8 a.m. sharp, park staff throw open the gate and the procession begins: past LBJ’s reconstructed birthplace home, along a picturesque road lined by live oaks, and out onto the expanse of the ranch itself. Strategically placed volunteers direct traffic to the far end of the airstrip, and it’s hard not to imagine arriving on Air Force One-Half as I taxi my rental car down that mile-long stretch, back toward the ranch house and the hopeful little village of tents at the end of the runway.

I park and walk toward the gathering and stake out a spot on the grassy area adjacent to the runway, after checking the ground for signs of fire ants. The early clouds are lifting, and there’s anticipation in the air. I open an app that tracks the sun’s daily path and position my little camp chair to be facing forward at 1:33 p.m., the moment totality begins. From here, I’ve got a commanding view of the proceedings, not to mention ready access to a tidy row of the cleanest porta-potties I’ve ever seen.

Behind me, vehicles fill the airstrip – passenger cars, church vans, school buses. Visitors file in, lay down blankets and chairs, and congregate among the activity tents. Rangers and NASA staff fill the hours of waiting with a series of talks and presentations, and in one of them, from NASA’s Bill Dunford, I hear a simple but profound thought that sticks with me and reminds me why I’m here today.

Bill Dunford: Space and nature are not separate. They're the same thing. Space is part of nature. The Earth is a planet. We are all in space right now. And today for the eclipse is a great time to remember that, if we get a chance to see it. Because you see the moon moving in front of it, you realize in the Earth and the moon and the sun are all in space and all moving. I love that connection between Earth and Nature.

Todd Christopher: There’s another connection here, and it’s palpable: the connection between people joined by a common sense of wonder. I know that whatever happens at 1:33pm and for the nearly four-and-a-half minutes of totality that follow, everyone here will stop in their tracks and stare up into the darkness together, passengers on the same spaceship, and lose themselves in one of the most awe-inspiring things a human being on this planet can experience.

Just after 12:15, the moon begins to eclipse the sun, very slowly, in partly clear skies. Through solar glasses, I can plainly see a little nibble taken out of the right-hand side of the sun—as if someone has removed the number 3 from a clock face. Clouds come and go and the nibble grows, and by 1 p.m. that nibble turns into a very large, very neat bite removing half the disc of the sun and leaving behind a perfect orange crescent.

The view doesn’t last, as gray clouds soon overtake the remaining patches of blue sky. I exchange nervous glances with my new friends on the grass: the couple from New York to my right, experienced eclipse chasers who arrived with an impressive array of optics and photographic gear... and the multigenerational family from the Bay Area to my left, who traveled nearly 1,500 miles for their first eclipse.

By 1:15, the skies are thick with clouds. It cools, and a breeze picks up, and I can’t shake the sinking feeling that we’ve missed our chance by just half an hour. The saving grace is that the banks of cloud above us are not completely unbroken, and they’re sailing by quickly. The hope now is that we’ll have even a brief shining moment of clarity to see the main event.

After all the planning, all the travel, all the anticipation, 1:33 p.m. arrives and the darkness envelops us.

For the next couple of minutes, we play peek-a-boo with the sun and moon, as the passing clouds tease us with only a faint glance here and a pale flash of silver there. Seemingly out of nowhere, classical music plays on a P.A. system, like the soundtrack for a hero’s triumphant return. But still we hope, and wait. And hope, and wait, until....

Like a veil lifting, the clouds thin just enough to offer us a window of near clarity, and we are rewarded by a glimpse of that rarest and most soul-stirring of sights: the sun’s silvery corona fringing the darkened disc of the moon.

Then all at once, the moon’s shadow is swept away and that strange, otherworldly light returns, and it all feels a little like waking from a dream.

The next time a U.S. national park will see a total solar eclipse is 2044, when Glacier will experience one minute or so of totality. And who knows? Maybe I’ll see you there. Just look for an old guy proudly wearing his hard-earned Junior Ranger badge from the LBJ Ranch.

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Todd Christopher: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 30, “A Brief Shining Moment,” was produced by Todd Christopher and our small-but-mighty team includes Jennifer Errick and Bev Stanton. Listen to all of our stories at

You can read about the 2017 total solar eclipse in the Winter 2018 issue of National Parks magazine. Visit for more

Original theme music by Chad Fischer

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