The Clark Planetarium Shines during the Solar Eclipse
Salt Lake City – Printed signs were posted on the doors of Clark Planetarium on Monday morning proclaiming in bold red lettering: ECLIPSE GLASSES SOLD OUT. The doors themselves were locked. Still, customers pounded on the door until a security guard opened it.
“They’re sold out,” verified the guard to anxious patrons, who zoomed as fast as they could to the next location where eclipse glasses might—might—be found.
A sliver of time between the hours of roughly 10:15 and 12:45 on Monday, August 21 represented almost a year of planning, teaching, educating, outreach—and, of course, sales—for Clark Planetarium. In that time span, the Great American Eclipse passed through the city, with the moon obscuring about 93 percent of the sun.
Salt Lake City was just out of the pathway of totality, where the moon completely blocks the sun, which meant that the planning Clark Planetarium had to do for the event wasn’t as intensive as, say, the preparations Casper, Wyoming needed to do. The town of 60,000 was expected to double—at least—in population in the days leading to the eclipse, and those preparations were akin to those for “a hurricane or an earthquake” said Clark Planetarium operations manager, Rob Morris.
“It’s been 40 years since an eclipse has gone across mainland America, like this one is doing,” he said. “For this eclipse, there’s 200 million people who are a relatively short travel distance of being within the path of totality. There’s very few places elsewhere in the world where you can say that. It’s a huge thing for the U.S.”
Initially, Clark Planetarium focused primarily on education and outreach. It was a matter of safety, said Morris. For those who didn’t know better, the temptation was to simply try to look at the sun using their sunglasses or without any protection at all, which could be catastrophic for anyone’s vision.
“Staring at the sun is a bad idea. You’re going to burn out your eyes, regardless,” said Morris. “An event like this means people want to watch the sun for a longer period of time. That’s where the safety becomes an issue. It’s a fantastic astronomical opportunity to see, but it’s not worth going blind over.”
Eclipse glasses, which completely block out the sun’s rays and allow you to look directly at the sun without harming your eyes, are much more than just sunglasses. Sunglasses are created to filter out polarized light that would damage your eyes from what bounces off sidewalks and pools of water, said Morris, whereas looking at the sun directly exposes your eyes to ultraviolet and infrared light that sunglasses are simply not equipped for.
Looking through eclipse glasses, on the other hand, feels like wearing an eye-mask. The lenses seem completely opaque—until you look at the sun, and see a delicate golden disc without the usual harsh glare. As the moon travels over the sun, those using the glasses could see that disc slowly become a crescent.
Clark Planetarium sold at least 121,000 glasses (and probably even more, said Austin Allred, customer service supervisor for the planetarium) within the past few months, with most of the pairs going within the last five days. Lines stretched outside the planetarium as people tried to make sure they were getting authentic eclipse glasses. Morris said in recent weeks, hard-to-spot fake eclipse glasses—those without the power to block infrared light—were being sold.
To complicate matters further, a week ago, Amazon.com admitted it could not verify the safety or certification of some of the eclipse glasses being sold on the tech giant’s site. Amazon offered returns and refunds. Since then, Morris said, pandemonium ensued. Clark Planetarium sold 85-90,000 glasses in that time span.
“We’ve had a lot of people who came down who had glasses from Amazon or other sources that we had to verify if they were safe,” said Allred. Everyone with any doubt about their glasses needed to buy new ones. Clark Planetarium tried rationing out their last few thousand, saving about 3,000 for Monday morning—which were all completely gone by 9:30. A last pack of 250 went to the viewing party at The Gateway’s fountains and were gone by 10 a.m. Two other packs of 250 went to the other viewing parties with Clark Planetarium employees—at the Salt Lake library and at Wheeler Farm—and were also sold out in about half an hour, said Allred.
“We’ve disappointed a lot of people,” he lamented. Still, the planetarium made sure to have plenty of other viewing options for those who could not purchase glasses: projection boxes, welder’s glass and solar filters on two different telescopes. The planetarium itself was closed until noon on Monday, with every available body—plus a host of volunteers from partner Goldman Sachs—on hand to educate, inform and protect the viewing crowds.
“We’re trying to make sure there’s as many different possibilities for showing this eclipse as we possibly can,” said Morris. “We were ready to go by the start of this year. Especially this week, it’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort to just get people glasses who want them. Members of our production and admin department have been up there every day. Every single person in that planetarium was doing everything they could to make this experience as smooth as possible.”