Planetary Radio • Apr 24, 2024


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On This Episode

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Bill Nye

Chief Executive Officer for The Planetary Society

20190130 bethany ehlmann

Bethany Ehlmann

President, The Planetary Society; Professor of Planetary Science, California Institute of Technology; Director, Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech


Bijal (Bee) Hayes-Thakore

Member of Nominating Committee, Board of Directors at The Planetary Society, VP of Marketing at Kigen, an Arm company.

Tim dodd portrait

Tim Dodd

Everyday Astronaut

Bob pflugfelder portrait

Bob Pflugfelder

Science Bob

Bruce betts portrait hq library

Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Sarah al ahmed headshot

Sarah Al-Ahmed

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

Also in this episode:

  • Geovanni Somoza
  • Issaq Al-Ahmed
  • Joe Armstrong
  • Anne Hulzing
  • Robert Hulzing
  • Angela Maciel
  • Adam Romero
  • Avry Anderson
  • Kat Lane
  • Mike Wall

On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse passed over Mexico, the United States, and Canada. This week on Planetary Radio, we take a trip to The Planetary Society’s Eclipse-O-Rama festival in Fredericksburg, Texas, where hundreds gathered to witness totality. We share the reactions of festival attendees along with snippets from the talks given by special guests at the event, including Bill Nye, the CEO of The Planetary Society, Bethany Ehlmann, president of The Planetary Society and principal investigator for the NASA Lunar Trailblazer mission, and Bee Hayes-Thakore, Vice President of Marketing at Kigen and member of The Planetary Society's board of directors. Tim Dodd, better known as the Everyday Astronaut, and Bob Pflugfelder, popularly known as Science Bob, share their experiences. Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, tells us about the solar features people may have seen during the eclipse in What's Up. Then we get an update on the Mars Sample Return mission with Casey Dreier, The Planetary Society's chief of space policy, and Jack Kiraly, our director of government relations.

The view from Eclipse-O-Rama 2024
The view from Eclipse-O-Rama 2024 Attendees at Eclipse-O-Rama gaze up at the Sun just minutes before totality near Fredericksburg, Texas.Image: Merc Boyan for The Planetary Society
Space talks at Eclipse-O-Rama 2024
Space talks at Eclipse-O-Rama 2024 Heidi Hammel, astronomer and vice president of The Planetary Society, gives a talk to attendees as Eclipse-O-Rama near Fredericksburg, Texas.Image: Merc Boyan for The Planetary Society
Bill Nye signing at Eclipse-O-Rama 2024
Bill Nye signing at Eclipse-O-Rama 2024 Bill Nye sits with an Eclipse-O-Rama attendee and autographs their space artwork. Image taken near Fredericksburg, Texas.Image: Merc Boyan for The Planetary Society


Sarah Al-Ahmed: Welcome to Eclipse-O-Rama. This week on Planetary Radio, I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed, of The Planetary Society, with more of the human adventure across our Solar System, and beyond. On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse passed over Mexico, the United States and Canada. This week, we'll take you to The Planetary Society's Eclipse-O-Rama Festival in Fredericksburg, Texas, where hundreds of people gathered to celebrate and witness the moment of totality. You'll get a glimpse into the reactions and experience of the festival goers. We'll also share some snippets from the talks given by our special guests at the event, including Bill Nye, the CEO of The Planetary Society, Bethany Ehlmann, president of The Planetary Society's Board of Directors, and principal investigator for NASA's Lunar Trailblazer Mission, and Bee Hayes-Thakore, vice president of marketing at Kigen, and member of The Planetary Society's Board of Directors, Tim Dodd, who's better known as the Everyday Astronaut, and Bob Pflugfelder, popularly known as Science Bob, also make an appearance. Then we'll check in with Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, for What's Up. He'll tell us more about some of the solar features people may have seen during the eclipse. Before closing out our show, we'll have a late-breaking update on the Mars Sample Return mission. Casey Dreier, The Planetary Society's chief of space policy, and Jack Kiraly, our director of government relations, will share the details and what it means for The Planetary Society's upcoming Day of Action in Washington, D.C. If you love Planetary Radio, and want to stay informed about the latest space discoveries, make sure you hit that Subscribe button on your favorite podcasting platform. By subscribing, you'll never miss an episode filled with new and awe-inspiring ways to know the cosmos and our place within it. Also, you can listen to our show on YouTube now. You can find us on The Planetary Society's YouTube channel, or look for us on YouTube music in the podcasting section. I had the best time at Eclipse-O-Rama. For two days, we gathered at a beautiful venue in Fredericksburg, Texas. There were butterflies floating through the air. Blue bonnets and Indian paintbrush flowers surrounded the campgrounds. But the highlight for me was definitely meeting so many wonderful space fans. Matt Kaplan, the creator and previous host of Planetary Radio, emceed the event, speaking with scientists, creators, and members of The Planetary Society's staff and board of directors. We take you now to the Main Stage, where Danielle Gunn, our chief communications officer, helped kick off the festivities.

Danielle Gunn: We are gathered here today with Planetary Society members who are the biggest space enthusiasts in the whole wide world to see this eclipse. Super exciting. We've got a lot of fun activities planned for you. I'll just list some of the big things. The Activity Tent is right behind y'all, and it is full of crafts and games, and outdoor games, some science experiments. We've also got some amazing science talks prepped for you, right here in the Chapel. We're going to learn about what's going on in planetary exploration, what's going on with the search for life, and planetary defense, so very, very exciting. Come join us there. At 7:30 in the food tent is a Cosmos marathon, the original Cosmos, with Carl Sagan. The episodes Matt and I got approved from Ann Druyan herself. She sends her regards, so we'll be doing that with popcorn in the food tent at 7:30. And then, at 9:00 to 12, to midnight, Star Parties. We've got our volunteers here. It's going to be right by the Activity Tent. If you have your own telescopes you brought, you're welcome to bring those over and join the group, and we'll be doing that, hopefully, with clear skies till midnight. So thank you for being here, and enjoy your time at Eclipse-O-Rama.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Eclipse-O-Rama had some excellent activities and programming to enjoy, but we were also there for Science. Bee Hayes-Thakore, who's a member of our Board of Directors, and vice president of marketing at Kigan, shared an opportunity for citizen science with the crowd.

Bee Hayes-Thakore: I have the privilege to tell you how you can be part of moving the science of our understanding around eclipse, and its effects on life on earth. So we are in the Activity Tent. Have some observation forms. We are collaborating with the NASA Citizen Science program for a project called Eclipse Soundscapes, and this is recording and moving the observations done nearly about a hundred years ago, by William L. Wheeler, to record 500 observations of what the effect of a total solar eclipse was on wildlife. So, insects, birds, animals. It's also a multisensory observation record. So we are looking forward to understanding how you not only see any differences before, during, and after the eclipse, but also hear, feel. We are also recording and welcoming your observations on the PBAJ, which is the passion, beauty and joy that you feel around the eclipse. We have some forms over there, and a few details that you will need. Come and find me, or come and see us in the Activity Tent. What we need from you is these observations. They can be digitalized, or they can be on a paper form. We have them in multilingual formats, and if you get them over to us, we will make sure that you also can receive a Citizen Science Appreciation Certificate from NASA. Here's your chance on really helping us move the science of our understanding of Eclipse Forward, and what better place to do that than here.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We were also joined by the team behind the Eclipse company. The Planetary Society teamed up with co-founders, Jesse Tomlinson and Stephen Watkins, to help create an interactive map that would allow people to find the best places to witness the total solar eclipse. You may remember Jesse and Stephen from their previous appearance on Planetary Radio. The app also came with a location specific countdown for the eclipse, which we all watched with bated breath for two straight days. Over the weekend, we watched as our app collaboration soared to number one download in the free section of the mobile app stores. As we nervously eyed the countdown on Day One, I went off to the Activities Tent, to meet with some of the festival attendees. I asked them what they were most looking forward to in the coming days.

Joe Armstrong: My name is Joe Armstrong. I am currently living in Glendale, California. I was born in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Redstone Arsenal is, and the Marshall Space Flight Center. They tested the Saturn V F-I first stage rocket motors there, and I was in utero, at the time when they used to test those motors. My mother said the entire town would rumble. And to this day, I think I'm fascinated by rockets and space things, because of that. When we would go on vacation to visit the relatives on my dad's side of the family, we would stop in at the Space Flight Center, so I was always fascinated by all of that. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was younger, but I got seduced by music instead. I was working at a radio station in Southern California in 2017, when the last one happened, and we had a partial eclipse then. Actually, there was an eclipse way back in college, when I was in central Illinois. I had remembered an eclipse from when I was a child, and they teach you how to make the box, to watch the eclipse with the pinhole projector. And I had a box, that I had some beads, and random stuff in college, and I had remembered when the eclipse happened, I was between classes. So I ran back to my apartment, and fashioned one in five minutes' time, and then ran outside, and saw it. At the end of the eclipse, I put my stuff back in the box. I've had the box, and actually took it to that job in Pasadena in 2017, and looked at it there. But I was vexed that I didn't get to see it in its totality. I swore, right then and there, that I would, by hook or by crook, no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was going to come and see this one. So it has come together, and here I am in beautiful Fredericksburg, Texas. The weather is very, very nice. We have partially overcast skies. Hopefully, that will literally clear up for tomorrow. It's nice to be around other space nerds, and I say that affectionately. I don't say that as a pejorative or derogatory term. So it's nice to be around other space nerds, and when you find your people, when you find your tribe, no matter what it is, you keep those people close. So I'm happy to be here. I mean, having read things like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, I've been a Pink Floyd fan my whole life, I've been a fan of the space program, a fan of astronomy. I'm just looking forward to experiencing it firsthand, being here, being in an environment, where I know it will be in the totality. I drove an awful long way. We drove an awful long way to be here. I mean, I've heard all the stories about the little eclipses on the ground. We brought our colander from our kitchen before we left. Just want to be here, want to be part of it, want to see it, want to witness it, especially here. If this had happened in Los Angeles, where I live, it would be a very populous environment, and maybe people wouldn't even be paying attention. Everyone here at this event, they know why they're here. They've come often. Some people, I'm sure have come from, my friends said 48 states and 12 or 15 countries. Anyone who's made the time and effort to come here to this particular event is here by design, for a specific reason, to be in the umbra, right? That's the main totality part, as opposed to the penumbra. And yeah, look, I love telling stories. I work in a storytelling medium in my life, and I want to be able to tell these stories for the rest of my life, and hopefully, live long enough to see the next one. I really believe life is about experiences, rather than things. Some people like thin I mean, I like guitars and things too, but I like to have experiences. So I made this a priority. How many years ago would that have been? Seven years or so, eight years, however long that has been? So I made it a priority then, and my life has changed a lot since then, but I figured out a way to make it happen, and that's what life's all about. If there's something you want to do, you should do it. I mean, I'm sure there will be a sense of awe, in the literal sense of the word. I don't know what the scene is supposed to be like here, but I actually hope it's kind of quiet. I would really like it if it was quiet for awhile, for reflection, and something that's extremely rare, that can happen in someone's lives, I mean, I imagine a lot of people will go through their whole lives, and never experience anything like this. Honestly, I don't know. I don't have an expectation. I don't want to have preconceived notions about how I'm going to react. I mean, maybe I will be emotional. I don't know. It'd be pretty cool.

Anne Hulzing: My name is Anne Hulzing, and I'm from Austin, Texas. I was inspired to come to Eclipse-O-Rama, because having a solar eclipse so close by to where we live, it's such a rare opportunity. Fredericksburg also happens to be our second home, and we visit here often, although Bill Nye does not visit here often. So this is a extraordinarily rare opportunity to have such a famous scientist here in the Hill Country of Texas visiting us, and we just could not pass up such a wonderful opportunity.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think it's going to be a really special moment. He's going to be descending by helicopter in here tonight.

Anne Hulzing: We are extremely excited about the dramatic entrance that we are going to get to partake in this evening, and very excited to hear him address his excitement for the eclipse, simply because we have seen him speak before. He has visited the Long Center in Austin, and done talks with us previously, and his sheer childlike joy for these types of scenarios is just palpable, and it just is pervasive amongst his audience. It is a rare sight to see someone so passionate and share their passion in such a vivid way. We prepared for the annular eclipse, back in October, by getting some really durable eclipse glasses, simply because we wanted them to last through both events. What we found during the first experience was that you can actually use your eclipse glasses to take photos, and my husband has a really nice phone camera, so we actually use the glasses to take some photos through it. That came out really amazing, so we're actually really excited to try that tomorrow, as well. My husband is here with us at the Eclipse-O-Rama. I can't imagine sharing this experience with anybody else. Both of us are big science nerds, big fans of all of the popular scientists of pop culture. We will take in their talks, any opportunity that we have, and really, I can't imagine coming here with anyone else but my husband.

Robert Hulzing: My name is Robert Hulzing, and I'm from Austin, Texas. I think, if anything, it's going to be something I would imagine like the overview effect, but lights, because I've seen videos of it. Even seeing videos of a total eclipse, it's unbelievable. It's unbelievable to think that the sky just goes from day to night. So I'm looking forward to that in and of itself, even if it is cloud cover. Just to see that phenomenon happen is something I'm really looking forward to. I feel like there's a lot of people here that are really into it, and I'm really into it, and it's nice to be around people who are passionate about something like this, and passionate about science in general. And yeah, it's really nice to be able to listen to people, give presentations on things that they really love. I'm like, yeah, we saw earlier, somebody talking about dinosaurs and paleontology, and just how passionate he is about it, and just how into it he is. He's even getting the audience into it, as well. It's like, "Yeah, that's really interesting, and that's really cool." So yeah, it's really cool, to see people just really into it. Just right behind us, we have a giant telescope being set up right here, which is amazing. I mean, I can't wait for the Star Party that's going to happen tonight. So it's like, oh, I'm thrilled to be here.

Angela Maciel: Hi, I'm Angie. I came out here from San Diego, California. Always just been really interested in catching a total eclipse live. I've seen a few partials, and my partner and I are out here. Actually, our anniversary is next week, so we thought it'd be a fun little space adventure. I think one of the coolest things about space is just, it is a reminder of how small and insignificant we are, but also, what are the probabilities that we're here, that the Moon is the right size, and the Earth is the right distance away from the Sun to get that perfect corona, that perfect ring of fire. Yeah, we're just here to witness it at that time. So I think that's just the coolest thing. We've been looking up some stuff, seeing some of the signs. I'm pretty interested to see these shadow snakes people have been talking about. Yeah, the shadow vans brought this white sheet. We'll lay that out, and just see what happens. Of course, hearing how nature reacts, I've heard that's one of a really neat thing to experience, so definitely looking forward to that. One of the last big anniversary adventure trips we did was in Iceland, and when we went there again, it was just a weird, warm winter, so the Northern Lights were not as amazing as we were hoping to see, but even just seeing the glimmer of it, it was just awe-inspiring, just a reminder that you're just part of this system, you're just bearing witness to this incredible place, full of science and magic. And where that line is all based on how much we know at the time, and we're always learning more things.

Adam Romero: My name is Adam Romero, and I'm from Folsom, California. This is something that I was interested in, oh gosh, probably as a small kid when I was watching the Cosmos series from Carl Sagan. The eclipse part of it would have been the 2017 one, that we didn't get to necessarily go to. So we wanted to make sure that as we got a little up there in age, that we were able to come and be a part of this one. We already had some basic gear, as far as cameras and other things like that, but as soon as we noticed that The Planetary Society was doing something like this, and getting all of the people together in one particular area, especially in the path, that we had to jump on it as soon as we possibly could. And then, everything else was just a matter of getting a nice solar filter to put onto the lens of the camera, and go from there, and just catch our flights, and here we are. I have to say that I think we're pretty clever, as far as human beings. And this is one of those moments where, to put our understanding of the universe, at least so far, and to be able to recognize that these things are predictable, and that using the scientific method has really broadened our perspective, as far as where we are, in our place in time and in space, that being a part of this, and seeing what we can see, and observing, is really going to put it together for me, and let me know that there's some things that we can understand, and then, there's a lot of stuff that's out there waiting to be discovered. We've been having a great time, listening to all the science talk and being around with like-minded people, and just really making those connections not only is super special for us, to be able to be a part of this, but also, just to be a part of something much, much bigger, and it's just incredible. We're loving it.

Avry Anderson: My name is Avery Anderson, and I'm from Boise, Idaho. I saw the Great American Eclipse, as they were calling it. When I was in Boise, we drove to Cascade, a place called Blue Lake Trail, and I'd never seen an eclipse, so I decided to take my partner here with me, as well. And yeah, it was just such a unique experience, and I knew the first time I saw it. I was like, "I have to see as many as I can." Well, I know that we got the cloud cover, that's a possibility, but one of the most outstanding features of the eclipse to me, the last time I saw it, was the sunset that you see, the 360 degree sunset. So I think, regardless of the cloud cover, I'm really looking forward to seeing that, and also, the effects on the wildlife. Being out here, I think, is a great environment for us. It's very calm out here. I mean, there's butterflies flying around. We're in this grassy field. It's away from town. I'm really excited, especially being here with all these other space enthusiasts. I've seen at least five people now with the same shirt I'm wearing currently, from The Planetary Society, and it's not something I see very often in Boise, Idaho. We're just so excited to actually be around like-minded people, and so many of them. And the participation is, it's kind of intense, honestly, in a good way. Just seeing all these faces that I've only ever heard over Planetary Radio, seeing Bruce Betts giving a talk in there, it's very exciting to be around like-minded people.

Kat Lane: Yes, hi, my name is Kat Lane. I'm originally from Olympia, Washington, but right now, my home is in beautiful Southern sunny California, in Santa Barbara. I have to say, I have some pretty incredible friends, and one of them, she has, since 2017, been absolutely dying to come and see an eclipse. I think she had a really great experience at the last one, so she is the reason that here, dragged us all along. So thank you so much, Mackenzie, much love to you, but she's been the inspiring force of bringing me out here, and getting extremely excited about all of the different space talks that everyone is doing, and that sort of thing. So it's just been great, that energy. Last time, I was in San Francisco when the eclipse happened, and it was San Franciscoan, so it was very, very cloudy. Hopefully, that will not be this trip, as well. But yeah, just out here with friends and family, and hopefully going to see something life-changing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Have you been going to the Chapel, to listen to some of the lectures?

Kat Lane: We've gotten to listen in on some. One of them was talking about life on other planets, and where the state of the art is with that, and I think that that's very cool. My background isn't necessarily in anything like super outer space, but a lot of my environmental studies classes that I got to take were very much rooted in, sort of looking at, why is the Earth important, how do we value that? And sort of looking at that through a Fermi paradox lens of, "Well, why haven't we seen life?" And basically, the conclusion of that being, no matter what way you draw it, Earth is special, and we should protect it, and that it's a really cool, rad little planet to be on. So I think that, yeah, it's been really, really interesting, getting to hear some of the talks and everything, as well, and just also getting to enjoy the beautiful Texas weather out here, butterflies, wildflowers, I mean, it's just an absolutely gorgeous venue. I've been in certain areas not in the path of totality, or gotten to see partial little glimpses and stuff, but I've never gotten to actually be in the 100% zone. So very much fingers crossed, that tomorrow we will get a good view, the clouds will part. We'll have a little nice time with that, so very helpful for that. I've heard that it's very life-changing. Looking up and seeing something in the sky happening will be incredibly cool, but the fact that you will be able to feel it on Earth, as well, it's going to get a little bit dimmer, maybe the animals will start acting like it's evening time. And I think that just the fact that we get to have this consciousness, and be able to view and understand that, and put meaning into it, and that, yeah, we're just at such a special time, where we're not only on this planet, but we have a Sun, we have a Moon, that its trajectory is going to cross in front of it, just how universally improbable that we get to experience something like that, and to actually be able to comprehend and witness it. So I think that that, in and of itself, just this very special feeling of, really humans connecting with something that's just a fun little quirk of our Solar System, and of our planet. I just really love that everyone here is so excited about that, and all the little humans all excited to see the Moon go in front of the Sun. It really warms my heart. So I'm looking forward to just everyone taking it in all at once.

Mike Wall: I'm Mike Wall, and I'm from Kirkland, Washington, right across the lake from Seattle. So I've been a member of The Planetary Society for a long time now. And when I heard about this opportunity, really, just to be with a bunch of people that are interested in this whole thing going on, and all their different perspectives on it, I'm like, "That's the thing." Plus, my wife and I have never been to, we've never been in a full eclipse of the sun, totality. So it's like, "Let's give it a go, let's go for it." And so far, shameless plug here, but The Planetary Society's really doing a great job with the material, the presentations that have been going on so far. It's scientists that are actually doing the work. And hearing it directly from them, I mean, it's a million times better than watching a YouTube video, right? So I'm just like, "This is really cool." And then, just getting to meet people that are behind the scenes, and making all this happen, has just been a blast. So I just don't know what to expect. I expect to be completely wowed, in awe, no matter what happens. As everyone knows right now, the weather forecast is questionable and dodgy, and I'm just staying curious, as my wife ...

Mike Wall: [inaudible 00:25:01], and I'm just staying curious, as my wife likes to say sometimes, in terms of what the experience is going to be like. Because it's still going to be crazy and bizarre even if it's cloudy. I just want to experience what the people around me... Just the vibe. Originally, I was getting my camera together with my zoom lens and my solar filter, last minute. I got it up and running but I'm thinking, oh my god, I'm going to be focused on this equipment that I'm not really super familiar with. And that's really not what I should be doing. So I retreat back to what I do, which is audio recording. I do nature sound recording. So I just brought two of my rigs and a couple of decent microphones. And I'm like, "Hang those on a boom." And just... So I can just ignore that while I'm looking at what's happening and just run the audio before and after for a while. And I might even be able to participate in this soundscape eclipse project. So that might be something that they're interested in as well. It's really cool that that opportunity is there and that you guys brought that to this. I'm thinking about especially with young people and just being able to do some observation. Like we were just talking about, critically thinking about what is going on around them, thinking about it just from a scientific mind point of view. But yeah, so I'm just looking forward to the surprise of what it's going to be like. I fully expect it to be... It'd be a very emotional experience. But hopefully, not so much that I can't see what's going on. Just very fortunate to be here and then be here with everybody and this particular group of people, it's going to be awesome. It already is awesome.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That evening after the activity tent closed, many Eclipse-O-Rama attendees gathered for a gala. We had good company, excellent food, and great talks from The Planetary Society staff and board of directors. Sometime before dessert arrived, we heard the whir of helicopter blades as Bill Nye, our CEO, arrived.

Speaker 1: Welcome, sir.

Bill Nye: Good to see you, guys.

Speaker 1: Good to see you.

Speaker: Welcome Bill Nye.

Bill Nye: It's good to be here.

Geovanni Somoza: Thanks for coming.

Bill Nye: Good to see you.

Speaker 2: Welcome, Bill.

Bill Nye: Thanks for joining us. Great to see you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Watching Bill Nye descend from the sky in a helicopter and hop out in a tuxedo to a cheering crowd was definitely a highlight of the evening. Finally, people took their seats and we welcomed Bethany Ehlmann, the president of the Planetary Society's board of directors to the gala stage.

Bethany Ehlmann: So I was privileged enough to tell some of you today that I think now is absolutely the most exciting time since Apollo to be a planetary scientist. I am privileged every day at Caltech to be able to work with students, to be able to work with NASA scientists, their engineers, to really help us explore, to follow our curiosity out into the cosmos. Whether it's roving the surface of Mars, preparing to send Europa Clipper out into the icy moons of the outer Solar System. Snatching a sample from an asteroid, returning it back or peering out with the James Webb Space Telescope with those beautiful images of Uranus, Neptune and even the galaxies beyond, right? It is an incredibly exciting time as we discover over 5,600 exoplanets, as we continue to discover dwarf planets in our own Solar System. I think our count is now up to about 11 or so on that front. And so there is so much more to find and so much more to explore. Now, The Planetary Society was founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan. [inaudible 00:29:31], we would not be here. I never had the privilege of meeting Carl, but I can say that his books were an inspiration to me growing up as was Cosmos, the television series. And that played a large role in why I'm a planetary scientist here today. But Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Lou Friedman got together and decided that you know what, that we as humanity had so much curiosity pent-up. But the NASA budget kept declining, right? But people were so enthusiastic to learn about our place in the universe, so enthusiastic with the momentum from Apollo. With seeing those beautiful images from the Voyager mission. They knew that by coming together, that we could do more and that we could do better than just they could from their platforms as professor at Cornell and as engineers or directors of the Jet Propulsion Lab. They knew that by convening an organization to bring people together to share that passion, beauty and joy of space exploration, that that was where the true power lay for people who believed in a better future to influence that future, to create that future together. So I would like to give a round applause to everyone in this room who is a member of The Planetary Society, who believes in a future where we use our curiosity to reach out in the cosmos and explore.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Of course, the gala wouldn't be complete without an address from our CEO, Bill Nye, our planetary guy.

Bill Nye: We have just a unique role and coming together to watch this eclipse tomorrow is of course moving and wonderful and it reminds us of our special place in the cosmos. But what we do that no other organization, including space administration, space agencies do not do is we keep, I think, our eyes on the big prizes. There are two questions and Bruce Murray is one of the founders used to say this all the time. There are two questions that all of us have asked, and as I say, if you meet somebody who says he's never asked this question, he's lying to you, where did we come from? Where did we come from? And are we alone in the cosmos? And it is very reasonable to me that for example, in your lifetime, young person lifetime, you'll be around when life is found on other worlds. And when life is found on other worlds, either on some run-of-the-mill place, like the surface of Mars, anybody can go there or in Selma or Europa or Titan or a very, very, very distant planet going around another star. Very reasonable that someone will find that while you're still alive. And I claim that will change the world. And the reason that happened is because of you all, because of your support. And I know Bethany, this will be your first or total solar eclipse. This will be my third. And they are spectacular. And I can tell you from experience in 2002 there was a total eclipse in South Africa, east coast of South Africa, and it was cloudy. It's still amazing and spectacular and out of your everyday experience. But my understanding is Jen has sent a couple memos to the cloud people. We're going to move that out of the way for those few minutes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: After the gala, the sky turned dark and we made our way out to the telescopes. I could hear the echo of the food tent where people were gathered to share their space love stories, talking about how they fell in love with the universe. I made my way over to the star party where people were gathered around the telescopes, watching Jupiter and the Orion Nebula. So I'm here with Geovanni Somoza. You are one of our main telescope operators, one of our highest volunteers. But you've worked for years at observatories. You've been here all day showing people the solar scopes and now out here at night. What has the experience been like showing people things of the telescope?

Geovanni Somoza: It's been amazing. And what I found really interesting is the gala was going on and we had desserts and everybody skipped desserts to come to the telescopes. And I guess the astronomy is our dessert this evening. We're dining on Jupiter a few minutes ago. It just went below the horizon and we're going to find more things to look at throughout the night and it's really amazing. I work at so many places that people are just afraid to maybe ask the question because they don't want to seem like they don't know, and it's okay not to know. That's why we want to ask questions. And here people were just, "What is it? What are you looking at? What is that dot next to it? What is that other dot over there? What are those stripes?" And so I found it refreshing to have people here that are interested in what they're seeing, not just looking and moving out of the way, but genuinely wanting to know what is the distance to this object. And the speed of light, how many minutes does that take? And those sort of things that we were talking about. And while we were talking about this, we're like, oh hey, by the way, that's the big dipper over there. Oh hey, that's the Orion Nebula over there. And it just became this amazing environment that even though there was a long line, people didn't mind waiting because they were seeing and hearing cool things all around them.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Part of what you've been doing all day is you've been showing the sun through a hydrogen alpha filter. Is that correct?

Geovanni Somoza: Hydrogen alpha and then regular lights. We've been battling clouds a little bit here and there, so we've just been having fun.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, we're nearing solar maximum right now. We're hoping tomorrow we're going to be able to see this eclipse. What were the sunspots and prominences looking like on the sun today?

Geovanni Somoza: There was two that were right next to each other. One was at least the size of two-and-a-half Jupiters and right next to it, was another one. And I'm just thinking, wow, this is what's going to show us some amazing prominences tomorrow. And there was a couple of them near the edge and there's some that are behind the sun and so it's just amazing. We should be in for an amazing treat tomorrow.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Here's hoping. Thanks so much, Geo.

Geovanni Somoza: All right.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Part of what's so special about moments like this is that we get to share space with other people. I've seen so many people here with their family and their friends, and I brought you my brother, Issaq, here to Eclipse-O-Rama. What has the experience been like so far?

Issaq Al-Ahmed: Honestly, it's been more electric than I think you could have predicted. You think, oh well, a bunch of people look at stars, love some talks, but really it's the passion, the energy now a single moment here has been boring. This has been exceptionally a great experience. I'm happy to be here.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm hoping we actually get to see the eclipse tomorrow. Fingers crossed the weather allows for all of that. What are you most looking forward to tomorrow?

Issaq Al-Ahmed: I think obviously, we'd like to see the full maxima of the eclipse and get to enjoy that crazy moment. I think really the best part is going to be in this tiny community to be with everyone in that moment as it happens. Regardless, even with the cloud cover, it's still going to get darker, still going to have all the same effects and still get to have all that immediate commentary, that energy and emotion in the moment. I think it's going to be very powerful.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thanks for joining me here at Eclipse-O-Rama, bro. I really appreciate it.

Issaq Al-Ahmed: I appreciate you. Thanks for having me.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As the first day of Eclipse-O-Rama drew to a close, the sounds of new friendships could be heard throughout the camp. Music and laughter sprang from the tents in the RVs. A marathon of some of the episodes from Carl Sagan's Cosmos continued to entertain people in the food tent. But it was a long day for me, so I slunk off to my glamping tent and prepared for the day to come. We'll be right back with the rest of the Planetary Society's Eclipse-O-Rama Festival after this short break.

Bill Nye: Greetings, Bill Nye here, CEO of The Planetary Society. When you support The Planetary Society, you support space exploration. That means you are directly involved in making phenomenal moments in space exploration a reality. And that's why I'm seeking your participation in our Beyond the Horizon Every Member campaign. We're in the final phase of our five-year plan and we are more than 85% of the way to our goal of raising vital funds that will expand our core mission and strengthen the society. This campaign is critical to our future as the world's leading citizen space advocacy organization. And with your help, we are supporting new science and technology. You will grow the society to make our collective voice on behalf of space advocacy even stronger across the globe. And we are connecting more people of all ages with the passion, beauty and joy of space exploration. Your gift of any amount today is an investment in the future and will help us usher in the next great era of space exploration. Let's go beyond the horizon. Let's make new discoveries. Let's keep going. Let's change the world.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The next morning, the anticipation was about as thick as the clouds that hung overhead. All right, it is the day of the eclipse. I'm here with Science Bob, thanks for being here with us.

Bob Pflugfelder: Oh, I'm so excited. Never been to Fredericksburg. It's beautiful city and we are getting peaks of sun at the moment.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: There definitely is hope. As a science educator, how have you been using this moment to try to communicate the beauty of space and science to people?

Bob Pflugfelder: Yeah, so as a teacher, space is a hard thing. You can't quite do a field trip off to Mars. And so this is a way of bringing the cosmos right down to us and just reminding students they are in the shadow of the moon. They've spent their lives in the shadow of trees and umbrellas and probably not in the shadow of the moon. So that is a very real feeling.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Have you seen a total solar eclipse before?

Bob Pflugfelder: This'll be my first. I've seen a partial solar eclipse. So everyone's talking about how this could change your life. So I'm looking forward to that and seeing what it looks like.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Which of the wacky things that go down during an eclipse are you most looking forward to?

Bob Pflugfelder: Yeah, it's kind of interesting, I guess people say at some point, take your eyes off the sun and just look around and see what the earth looks like, what your surroundings look like, because it's the only time they ever look like that. So I'm just curious to look at the hills. We have nice vistas here. To just look at the hills, look at the trees, and take in the whole scene.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thank you so much for being here to share this moment with everyone. And for our audience who isn't familiar with your work, how can they find you online?

Bob Pflugfelder: Well, you can always use the Google machine and search for Science Bob. You can go to and you can search for Science Bob and Jimmy Kimmel if you want to see me do crazy experiments on TV.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That sounds super fun. Thanks so much, Bob. A.

Bob Pflugfelder: Ll right, thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So we're very near to the eclipse beginning. We've got people who are gathered out here in the field, all their cameras and telescopes, and I'm sitting here with Merc Boyan, who's our visual storyteller. What has it been like documenting people's reactions to this Eclipse-O-Rama event so far?

Merc Boyan: Lots of mixed reviews about the weather, at least mixed predictions. People are crossing their fingers every time the sun makes a break through the clouds. And I think in the end, it'll end up just being very dramatic. We're going to have a cloudy eclipse, but there'll be enough of a break to see it happen. And also the drama will unfold as we've all been hoping and wishing and dreaming of this moment and planning for it. So, so far, I don't know, I'm feeling pretty optimistic about it actually. And for the people, I mean, everyone here already was in love with space and they came here to share that love of space with each other, with an actual celestial event that's really happening. I mean, rocket launches are cool. Spacecraft events are cool, but this is a natural space event, so everyone's feeling that right now. And the vibe here is positive and energized.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Part of the festivities yesterday that I found very moving was this event that you were conducting, the space love stories where people were sharing how they fell in love with space. And it's really beautiful seeing that full arc from what inspired people to love space to what brought them here. What was that like leading that event yesterday?

Merc Boyan: I was honored to be able to do that. That's my favorite part about working here. I introduced myself as saying I'm [inaudible 00:41:19] Boyan and I got a D minus in astronomy. And so we have a lot of people here who on the stage right now, Heidi Hamill, works on JWST. There are real professional astronomers and astrophysicists and planetary scientists that work here. And then there's me and I did get a D minus in astronomy, but I love it. And I love sharing the story of space and how it interacts with all of us and how we wonder about it and what it inspires us to do. And this gave all of our members a chance to... I tell them this story every time I work because we make videos and we share it out to them. And this was their chance to tell me back. And the best thing that happened actually was this morning instead of last night, a gentleman came up to me and said, "I was too shy to talk into the mic last night, but I want to tell you my story." And he had a very personal story to tell me about it too. So it showed me that it worked. It opened people's hearts up in a way that everyone is feeling good about it right now. And that was a magical thing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm hoping that there's at least one child or one family member brought along to this event where maybe 20 years in the future, this is going to the beginning. This is going to be the beginning for them. This is the beginning of their space love story.

Merc Boyan: No doubt in my mind that that's going to happen. And I could walk around and point to the 10 that I think it's going to be like that. I've been talking to a lot of the kids here and they're doing the junior Ranger badges and they're doing the Planetary Academy stuff. And I can see that spark igniting in them and especially the ones that came with a sibling. So the older sibling was already into it, and then this younger one, it's like, yeah, I guess I kind of like space. And now they're like, whoa, this is real. This is happening. And the eclipse hasn't even happened yet. Once that happens, everything is going to be altered in their life forever.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The countdown continued. We are at T minus five minutes until partiality begins. The sun is beginning to come out, the clouds are beginning to part, and we can see blue sky if this actually goes down, if the clouds stay like this all the way through the eclipse that we can actually see it, this might be one of the most dramatic, most tension building moments of my life. With anticipation building and hope in my heart, I had to check in with Bruce Betts, our chief scientist, to get his take. I found him hanging out with the staff, setting up his camera for the big moment. We are really, really close to totality. I know that you are one of the most skeptical people I know particularly about these weather conditions, but look at the sky right now. How are you feeling?

Bruce Betts: Ah, don't tell me to look at the sky. It's the sun. All right, all right. I'm feeling less optimistic than you, but more optimistic than I was at any other time this trip.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's about as good as we're going to get. Thanks, Bruce.

Bruce Betts: You're welcome.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As we prepare for totality, a very special guest took to the stage, Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut. I don't know about you, but I'm a huge fan of his channel. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world were tuned in to share the eclipse with us through his live stream.

Mat Kaplan: Ladies and gentlemen who've just joined us from Everyday Astronaut, thank you so much for becoming part of Eclipse-O-Rama right here in the Texas Hill Country. We are joined by hundreds and hundreds of Planetary Society members and we are so thrilled to be able to welcome the guy you love, Mr. Everyday astronaut himself, Tim Dodd to the stage. Let's hear it for Tim.

Tim Dodd: Thank you so much. It's so awesome to be here. Oh, how are you guys doing? I know probably a little bit bummed right now with a little cloud coverage, right? Yeah, I know. Me too, but I don't know. I'm hopeful. I've been into one of these before and you just never know.

Mat Kaplan: You never know is right. I've only had one before. I talked about it earlier, 2017, I was in Carbondale, one cloud in the entire sky and guess where it was? Yeah, that's unfortunate. But we're still hoping we still with the glasses. Are you folks still able to make out the disc? All right. As Tim is on my watch, it's about 17 minutes?

Tim Dodd: 17 minutes. And I need to always remind everyone that even if we don't get to see a straight line, perfect, beautiful, clear sky shot of the sun during a full eclipse, it will still be a really fun magical experience together as it just all of a sudden snaps into night. Really, it's a really quick difference between when it's like, oh, and then all of a sudden, it's like, okay, it's night. We feel it now already. Look at this.

Mat Kaplan: Absolutely. And be watching, folks. I don't know if the clouds are going to get in the way of this, but as we were talking about to our audience in person here today, we might be able to see the shadow coming toward us.

Tim Dodd: And it'll be coming from the south southwest.

Mat Kaplan: That sounds right. Yeah. This is kind of different for you, right? Usually, you see things on the ground and follow them as they go up into the sky. And here, we're starting up there.

Tim Dodd: Yeah. This is a bit backwards for me. For those of you that don't know anything about me, again, my name is Tim. I run a YouTube channel and social media platform called Everyday Astronaut. We mostly talk about rocket science, so I'm really big into spaceflight, spaceflight history, rockets, all of that kind of stuff. That's what gets me going. And so we make videos about things like how do rocket engines work? Why don't they melt? How do you power them? Why don't you launch rockets from on top of mountains where they're closer to space? Some of those fun topics that are maybe questions that you've had for a long time, maybe didn't have answers to. We try to provide answers, but one of the things that we like to do a lot is we live stream some of the bigger, more exciting launches. So that's normally what I am doing, what I'm mostly thinking about and worried about. But today and what we have to deal with a lot of times in my world are scrubs.

Mat Kaplan: This won't scrub.

Tim Dodd: This will not scrub, this will happen no matter what. So you guys are in luck. I'm normally at launch pads where there's crowds of people like this, maybe hundreds of thousands of people waiting for a rocket to launch and it gets down to T minus 10, 9, 8, oh, nevermind. We had a problem.

Mat Kaplan: We had this experience with you, Sarah and I, and a bunch of other, our colleagues tried to watch the SLS launch, the Space launch System-

Tim Dodd: Artemis 1.

Mat Kaplan: ... Artemis 1, and we got to visit with you and your people a little bit. We did not get to see the rocket launch.

Tim Dodd: No, it is hard and it can be really hard, especially new programs, new rockets, such as the first launch of SLS, first time it had ever been on the pad trying to launch. So a lot of new things at play. A lot of new things going that are trying for the first time on that particular system. And you just never know. You're sitting there going, oh, please launch. And it's so sad to have to disappoint... Have so many people going, "Well, we're only out here for three days," and then they get scrubs for two weeks. But for me, big smile on my face and our production schedule when we're talking about this, it's like, well, we know this is going to happen. We have no doubt in our mind that this, we couldn't do...

Tim Dodd: We have no doubt in our mind that we couldn't do anything to change it even if we wanted to.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As Tim said, there was no halting it. We sat together in that field as the shadow of the moon rushed towards us. Attendees and their eclipse glasses with their eclipse apps out on their phones watched the moments tick past, taking peaks at partiality. The clouds were thick, but right as totality approached, gaps formed through the ice crystals overhead.

Crowd: Nine, eight,-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And then,-

Crowd: ... seven, six-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... it happened.

Crowd: ... five, four, three, two, one. Awesome. Mind the clouds. Oh, my gosh. We got a hole. Come on, come on. Yeah. Oh, my gosh.

Mat Kaplan: Ladies and gentlemen, you have just experienced totality. Right, glasses back on.

Crowd: Put your glasses back on.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I was lucky enough to see the total solar eclipse in the United States in 2017 from Douglas, Wyoming. That day we had open clear skies. The experience was unlike anything I had experienced in my entire life. I thought that perhaps that meant that I'd be prepared for the emotions that I was going to feel during this totality. Maybe it was the people I was with. Maybe it was the fact that The Planetary Society staff had spent more than a year working toward this moment. Or maybe it was the weather. But I was not prepared. The way totality shown through the gaps in the clouds overhead made the experience so different from my previous eclipse adventures. I could feel my heart pounding anytime the clouds parted. The Sun's corona blazed overhead and the beautiful arcs of a few solar prominences could be seen. Materials soaring off the surface of the Sun and curving along the invisible lines of our stars magnetic field. For a moment, we were some of the luckiest creatures in the universe. Living beings gathered together on a habitable world with just the right conditions to see one of the rarest and most beautiful celestial phenomena in the entire cosmos. We shared a singular, spectacular experience, four minutes and 23 seconds of totality. And then as fast as it came on, the darkness vanished and light returned to our small patch of planet Earth. Overwhelmed and grateful for the experience, people went off to prep for the evening's events. I managed to catch the thoughts of a few more festival-goers before Eclipse-O-Rama drew to a close

Valery Sinha: Valerie Sinha from Houston, Texas. It has all come together. The clouds parted just long enough for us to experience totality. This has been absolutely a blessing. This is such a huge blessing. So the feeling of awe, the feeling you get when you get to the edge of the Grand Canyon and you look at how absolutely wild it is, the first time you see it with your own eyes where you're just like, I know water formed that, but I don't understand how this formed. It's the same kind of thing. I see why people thought the world was ending when you didn't have science, because the Sun just disappeared and it got so dark and it was honestly really fast that it got that dark and then it stays dark and it's just crazy. I mean, I went from awe to excitement to joy, to just every time the Sun peaked, the adrenaline spiking that you could see it. It was such a rush. But seeing the prominence come off the Sun and the different color was really, really cool. Just seeing the ring and being like, "I'm looking at the Sun with my eyeballs and it doesn't hurt. I'm not getting any sunspots. It's dark, it's cold, it's windy." It was a lot. I mean, it reminds me that some of our problems that feel so big are really so small, and if we can shape them into perspective, it kind of helps you deal with them better. As preparation and coming into this activity, we were watching some of Bill's old interviews and just trying to get up to date and learning about The Planetary Society. And they were like, "Well, what do you tell people who are saying that things are really hard right now and that can't be solved?" And he said, "You have to be optimistic. You have to believe a problem can be solved before you can even remotely come up with a solution." So my plan going forward is to keep that mentality, keep that optimism, and try to stay away from doom cycling and doom scrolling and being like, "No, there's a solution here," and we have to believe there's a solution if we're going to make that change happen. I now understand why people are eclipse chasers, and I'm like, man, money allowing, I might be an eclipse chaser.

Ashok Sinha: Ashok Sinha from Houston, Texas. This has been a blast. Just seeing all the people here, everybody has this common love of space and everything else, and so it's been quite an experience. It was intimidating kind of, and ominous and just inspiring. I could definitely see why this is something that people will research and everything else. But also hundreds of years ago, people probably thought the world was ending-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: They did.

Ashok Sinha: ... because it comes real fast and if you didn't know it was happening, it'd be very surprising. You know what's going to happen, you know what's going on but it's still, I don't know, this primal feeling, I guess, you have. You just don't know how to process, I guess, what's happening. You get to see other people's reactions and how they handled what was happening because everyone's different, everyone processes everything a little different than everybody else. So it was really interesting to see. There were people happy, there were tears, there were shouting and cheering so it was very, very cool. I was actually texting my mom and I was just trying to put to words how I felt, and it's very hard. I just basically told her, I was like, "You had to be there to feel it." But it's a very interesting feeling watching the shadow come across and then cover you and everything kind of goes dark. It's just very, I keep saying ominous. It's a little ominous and amazing, I guess, also. I mean, I've always been interested in space, but this kick starts. I want to go watch more things, learn more things. Yeah, we're very appreciative and very grateful to have been here, so thank you for having us.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks so much. Right before I packed up a few children who are inspired by some of the things that other kids had said during our live stream with Everyday Astronaut, rushed on over to me. Some of them asked if they could be on the show. One Young Planetary Society member in particular, Sophia, had this to say.

Sophia: Sophia, and well, where I came from is Florida. The part that I really liked is when the circle came and also when the Sun started to get half and crescent a lot. I like the eclipse, and now I think I like space even more.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well said, Sophia. And thank you to her and all of the people that I spoke with at Eclipse-O-Rama. This episode is just a small sampling of the wonderful conversations that I had while I was there, and it was such a joy to meet everyone. Honestly, those two days were one of the highlights of my entire life. I know that many of our listeners weren't able to make it to this event or lived way too far to travel, but that's okay. The wonderful thing about total solar eclipses is that they happen about every year and a half here on Earth. You have to travel to go see them, but that's a great way to plan your future vacations. We have three more of these coming up by the end of the decade. There's one in 2026 that'll go through Greenland, Iceland, and Spain. Then another one's coming up in 2027. That's a big one. It'll pass through Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia. I already have this mental image of myself and my family members from Saudi Arabia out in the desert dunes watching the eclipse together. Your last opportunity of the 2020s will be in 2028. It's going to go through Australia and New Zealand. Experiences like these don't come by every day. It's something that you truly won't understand until you've experienced it yourself. And I hope, hope, hope that each and every one of you gets a moment to be in totality at some point in your lifetimes. It is absolutely worth it, and you'll never forget it for the rest of your life. I know I won't. Now, let's check in with Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society for Whatsapp. Hey, Bruce.

Bruce Betts: Hey, Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So I know it's been a couple of weeks since Eclipse-O-Rama, but I feel like my brain is still in eclipse space. I keep tripping out over totality.

Bruce Betts: Well, if you're going to trip out over something, that would be the thing to do it. Yeah, that was pretty wild and quite dramatic and quite exciting and super nifty, groovy.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It was pretty cool that after all of that drama, all of that buildup that we actually got to see it. I know we didn't get to see the totality of totality. We didn't get to see all four and a half minutes of it, but we did get to see it peeking through the clouds, and that was, I don't know, it added to the drama of the thing.

Bruce Betts: It definitely added to the drama when you weren't sure whether you were going to see it and what you were going to see next and when it would go away. Yeah, it made it very dramatic, way to arrange that.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Totally me and my weather wizard skills. But I wasn't standing next to you during totality, so feel free to lie and say you didn't cry like a baby. But how did it impact you?

Bruce Betts: Wow, that's quite an assumption you just made.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, I mean, if I'm comparing your experience to the people around me, it was like, I had the tears in my eyes, everyone around me had the tears in their eyes. It was [inaudible 01:01:21].

Bruce Betts: No, not me.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Not you?

Bruce Betts: No, I was too busy fighting with my camera and trying to get pictures. The Sun kept disappearing and I was losing where the Sun was because of the clouds. Anyway, so no, I only cry at certain classified things, and that's not one of them. It doesn't mean I don't find it profound and enjoyable. I just was raised not to cry at cosmic events. It's a family thing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's just a thing. I think what's weird about it is that I did have that emotional reaction in the moment, but it was actually the days after. And maybe it wasn't just totality, maybe it was the experience of being there with everyone Eclipse-O-Rama. It's the first time we've had that many people from The Planetary Society together since the Covid era. So for me, this was our first big major gathering in person and I just kept bursting into tears randomly over the next few days. It might've been the exhaustion or the elation of the thing, but it hit me, man, that was a thing.

Bruce Betts: No, that's cool. You have I think what they call feeling.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I do.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, no, people respond well to that.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Were there any cool moments for you at Eclipse-O-Rama?

Bruce Betts: Nothing that I felt. No, the brisket was pretty awesome. No.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It actually was. The food was actually really good. I was pretty impressed.

Bruce Betts: The food was good. I had all sorts of special moments meeting different members and the two or three people who were interested in meeting me and seeing you and everyone else crying around me and laughing maniacally at all of you. I didn't actually do that. I didn't. No, there were all sorts of great moments and hanging with the staff and people. They're good and they're also people, so it's weird to be around them.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I feel that harder than I feel like I should. It was weird being around that many people, but I feel like I needed this, man. It's one of those things where you and I and everyone that works at The Planetary Society, we work in our own little microcosm. We're working all day on all these amazing space things and we're sharing what we love with people, but no amount of metrics or analytics or data is going to tell you how deeply what you do impacts other people. And for a few days there it was like we could really see what The Planetary Society and what Planetary Radio means to people, and that just meant the world to me.

Bruce Betts: No, that's awesome. I can't even make fun of that. You did a beautiful job summarizing that. There was just a lot of great stuff. So I enjoyed my talk. Of course I enjoyed it because it was brilliant. And then the other people who spoke were great. You were great. The staff was great, everyone was great. Great. That really wasn't a very eloquent way to say it was an awesome event with great stuff and I enjoyed it very much. I also enjoyed getting the crowd to do a cheer to spell out eclipse. That was just a fun moment.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I heard that on the audio coming across the field. I was like, "Who is that, making everyone do that amazing but dorky chant?"

Bruce Betts: Yeah, that was I.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That was you. I actually had one of our members, Laura Monaghan, from Folsom, California brought me these amazing earrings. I want to show these to you because this is crazy. It's a little Perseverance and a little Ingenuity helicopter.

Bruce Betts: Oh, neat. Those are so cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's so cool. I'm going to have to find a good special occasion to wear them with my Perseverance parachute skirt. So thank you, Laura, that was amazing. Also, in our member community after the fact, Laura mentioned that in a previous episode we did an episode with National Geographic about their new documentary called The Space Race. And in that one of the original African American space pioneers, Ed Dwight, talked about this beautiful monument that he created in a tribute to the African American story from slave to astronaut. And Laura said in the community that after Eclipse-O-Rama, she actually got in her car and went up and saw that because of the episode and that it was just as moving in person as it was in the documentary-

Bruce Betts: Oh, neat.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... and I thought that was so cool.

Bruce Betts: That is, it's very cool. You're just full of cool today and always, Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, I'm just flying high on the good spirits of everyone I met. Yeah, ever since then, I'm just rocketing around like the particles out of a coronal mass ejection. Which segue, brings me to my-

Bruce Betts: Wow.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... next point. So-

Bruce Betts: Wow, you are the smooth disc jockey. I don't know, go ahead.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So after the event, I've been doing what I normally do because I'm a compulsive playlist maker. I've been going through and I've been watching people's videos online of their experience during the eclipse. And anyone who got a chance to witness it in its totality probably noticed that there was a very bright solar prominence coming off of the Sun. I've seen a lot of people in the videos get very confused about the difference between a solar prominence and a solar flare or even a coronal mass ejection, and I wanted to know if you could kind of explain the differences between those and what causes them.

Bruce Betts: Sure. It's very confusing. It's easy to lose track of it unless you're a heliophysicist. First of all, here's my secret I used to tell when I teach classes, which is, the Sun, the answer to any question of what causes it will pretty much always be magnetic fields. And that is true of these things because you've got the Sun made of plasma, which are charged particles. You've got all the Sun spinning and spinning at different rates so there's all sorts of magnetic fields being created and taken away and changing. So that's why you get this very amazingly vibrant Sun, particularly when you look at it at the right wavelengths like extreme ultraviolet X-ray and you can see this craziness going on. Or if you have an eclipse and you can see the prominence. So a prominence is basically, to put it in scientific terms, when the plasma belches up higher off the photosphere, the surface of the Sun and out towards the corona, the wispy area. You've got this hot glowing plasma that's following roughly following magnetic field lines. There are also some neutral particles. So crudely, you can think of it as a big old flame thing that's several times the size of Earth, but less crudely, it's hot glowing hydrogen helium plasma. They form very quickly sometimes, but they actually dissipate over very long periods, meaning months. They form in a day. And so yeah, what you can see is they extend beyond where the moon blocks. So in 2017 I saw there were a couple, and there were a couple this time that you could see extending outwards from the Sun. You would think that would be something called the solar flare. You would be wrong. Although just to confuse matters, almost all of these things are related to each other or can be. So a solar flare is a brightening. It is when you have a sudden release of energy that sends out light and so there's this flash of light that is often associated with other stuff going on, including potentially prominences forming. So if you get one of your prominences or other, we'll call them explosions coming out of the Sun, if they explode fast enough, it can eject not just the usual solar wind charged particles that are coming out, hitting the Earth's atmosphere, going through the Solar System. You can get a big, big burst of them and that is a coronal mass ejection. So it ejects mass from the Sun more than usual, and that's what can disrupt spacecraft and earth power grids. If you're still using the telegraph like they were in the mid-1800s, it can make those catch fire maybe. So only the most extreme ones. And these things go on and on. There coronal loops, which look kind of like prominences, but they're more orderly and thin and fine looking and follow these magnetic field lines which come out of the Sun and back into the Sun. Oh, you could just go on forever, but did I sort of kind of in 20 or 30 minutes just now, explain the difference?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Nailed it, Bruce. This is one of those things where you know that a lot of bodies, the Earth, Jupiter, these places have these global magnetic fields, but being actually able to look at the Sun in totality and see these things that are caused by the magnetic field with your own eyes, it's a different thing from seeing those bar magnet diagrams with the field lines and stuff like that. It makes it so much more real.

Bruce Betts: No, it's spectacular. I mean that's great about the eclipses is it gives you a window into worlds that we otherwise are in diagrams or theoretical. You can see the corona, the upper atmosphere of the Sun, which you can never see otherwise. You can see prominences with your own eyes, not just relying on solar telescopes. You can see the three-dimensional nature of the universe and everything moving. You can see these three objects moving relative to each other, which makes you feel like, oh, those things actually are like balls that are moving around in a three-dimensional world, not just disks that we kind of don't think about most of the time. Unless you study those disks, which are not disks, they're spheres. Well, they're technically more like ellipsoids. But anyway,-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Plates, spheroids.

Bruce Betts: ... back to you. Yeah, that's true. That's true. It depends. Yeah. Okay, good. All right, so-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, all right.

Bruce Betts: ... are we good? Are you ready for something? Ready for a spacebar?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Bruce, coming up from the depths. What you got?

Bruce Betts: The Sun, have you heard of it? So a little look at scale again. And so as I've probably mentioned way back when on this show and people mentioned you can fit about 100 Earths, a little more, but we will talk in round numbers, 100 Earths across the diameter of the Sun. Which yields the outrageous million Earths will fit inside the Sun. It's actually somewhat bigger than that. But Sun really, really big. So you can fit 100 Earths across the diameter of the Sun. You can fit 100 Suns, actually slightly more, but roughly 100 Suns between the Sun, the actual Sun and the Earth. Our orbit is about 100 Suns away from the Sun. Does that make sense?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's a real trip when you consider that's 93 million miles. The Sun is huge.

Bruce Betts: It is. And so, of course, you can take your 100 Suns with 100 Earths across it and come up with 10,000 Earth's diameters to the Sun also. Big. Again, round numbers. Not exact. There you go. Something to think about. It looks like I've wrinkled your brain, so that's good.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's just weird, anytime you really think of the scale of it all. Numbers on a page. I keep coming back to it, but all the understanding of it hypothetically in numbers and graphs and diagrams, just really doesn't impress upon you just how beautiful and vast this universe is.

Bruce Betts: Vast.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Vast.

Bruce Betts: Yes, this is true. Let us all go look up at the night sky and think about how vast the universe is and ice cream. Thank you, and good night.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We would usually end our episode here, but before we let you go, we have an important new update from the Mars sample-return mission that we had to share. Here's Casey Dreier, our chief of space policy, and Jack Kiraly, our director of government relations to explain. Hey, Jack and Casey.

Casey Dreier: Hey, Sarah.

Jack Kiraly: Hi, Sarah. How are you doing?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Doing all right, although I wish I had you here on better circumstances. But on Monday, April 15th, NASA held this teleconference to update everybody about the state of the Mars sample-return mission and candidly, we're in a bit of a tough situation. Can you tell us what's going on right now, Casey?

Casey Dreier: Well, I think we've talked about the troubles that Mars sample-return has been experiencing both technological, programmatic, and budgetary. The US Congress provided a lot less funding for Mars sample-return last year than was originally requested. The OMB, the Office of Management and Budget and NASA together, decided to really restrict funding to the program while it was being reformulated after an independent review came out last year saying that the current plan was basically impossible to achieve on the budget and timeline that had been proposed. So, NASA went off for the last seven months from when that report was released and did something called the MIRT, which is just a glorious double, double acronym. The Mars sample-return. MSR, Mars Sample-Return Independent Review Board, I, Review, Response Team, the MIRT. So went and did their work for seven months and came back with a proposal.

Casey Dreier: ... worked for seven months and came back with a proposal that would reduce annual costs of Mars Sample Return project in the trade-off of extending the schedule very far, basically, not returning samples now until 2040. They did a bunch of other things too. They imposed or would impose a number of programmatic improvements, management improvements. They would add things like radioisotope thermoelectric generators to make the lander last longer. You would have the Perseverance Rover come and basically just go into hibernation for seven years waiting for the lander to come. And after all this work, NASA leadership said, "No, this isn't good enough." And as a consequence, NASA spent seven months thinking about ways to... They said they analyzed over 20 different variations of the existing Mars Sample Return architecture, none seemed to be possible within what they were willing to spend and the timeline they were willing to endure. So on Monday, Senator Administrator Bill Nelson announced that NASA was going to go out to industry and other NASA partners with a much more expansive set of open constraints to say, "Hey, what do we do? Basically, do you have any ideas? Can you do Mars Sample Return for less money faster and more simply than what we have been considering?" And that was the big announcement going forward. And in the meantime, they will cut Mars Sample Return's budget by another $110 million in 2025. This was the original TBD now replaced with the 200 million, which will put, again, enormous pressure on the workforce at JPL and other NASA centers and contractors involved in this. So it's continued uncertainty, continued workforce stress, continued funding. But rosy aspect of this, 100 million mile perspective on this, you had the NASA administrator and the head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate emphasizing that Mars Sample Return will happen one way or another. They're still committed to doing it. They're still committed to making it happen. They're trying to figure out how to do it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I was also very heartened by the fact that they were being very clear that the reason that they were making these decisions was because they wanted to make sure that they weren't making cuts to the other very important things that were laid out by the decadal survey. There's so many of these missions that we don't want to see cannibalized in favor of Mars Sample Return. But I'm wondering, Jack, why is it that they're so reticent to push this timeline forward and perhaps actually return the samples later than necessary in order to make more space in the budget for it?

Jack Kiraly: Well, I think one of the big concerns that you illustrated is squeezing of the budget. Now, NASA is operating under the current fiscal year, fiscal year 2024, which is funded through September 30th, fiscal year 2025, which starts on October 1st of this year. NASA and the full discretionary spending of the US government is under the Fiscal Responsibility Act caps that were placed in June of last year. Basically saying that across the federal government, it capped federal spending. Congress did that as part of the deal to extend the debt limit for the United States so that it could continue to borrow money to pay for the things that discretionary spending pays for. And NASA, under those constraints, could not see under a flat budget. In FY25, the President's Budget Request is a flat budget, increases by about 2%, getting it back up to where we were in fiscal year 2023. So not a lot of growth there, not keeping up with inflation in the past two fiscal years. And they could not work a 2040 landing or retrieval and return of samples under that budget profile, even in just these two fiscal years. Now, Administrator Nelson on Wednesday, as a recording yesterday, testified to Congress as part of his annual budget request testimony, testified that these two fiscal year caps need to be limited to these two fiscal years, otherwise, if this continues to get pushed out, they're not going to have the funding to pursue this ambitious planetary science planetary. So very rosy language talking about, "Well, in fiscal year 26, we can get back to adequate funding for the full Science Mission Directorate." But that's fiscal year 2026 and doesn't start for another year and a few months. And it's a very ambitious program, hinges a lot on what the next Congress and the next administration looks like because these fiscal caps were a compromise between the House and Senate and White House. So another compromise that extends these fiscal caps into future fiscal years can continue to delay programs like Mars Sample Return.

Casey Dreier: Just to add onto this, I think there's a really important aspect of this, which is with inflation keeping a flat budget, you are getting a cut. So you just have less money to work with. And if you run the numbers from the recent peak we had of science funding at NASA in 2020 compared to what they predict it will be in 2025 under these caps, you are missing a billion dollars of buying power, right? So you've lost over 10% of your budget merely by keeping it flat plus the small cuts that Congress has given to SMD. So really, looking at Mars Sample Return then trying to spin up an $11 billion 20-year program to return samples in 2040 was not a feasible situation. So really, it's interesting, it depends on your perspective. If you are a Mars scientist, you're really invested in Mars Sample Return, this is the worst possible time to try to spin up a Hubble or James Webb's level mega flagship mission during this budget crisis. If you are any other NASA science person, this is a great time for MSR to run into trouble because it became, basically, the sacrificial project that will and is preserving every other NASA science mission right now. The delays we were seeing in other NASA areas are not a function of Mars Sample Return. They are a function of other projects going over within their various areas. Mars Sample Return, instead of eating everyone's lunch as people feared for the last few years, is, in fact, being eaten for lunch by the rest of the NASA science project portfolio. So it's just as Jack said, it's a very difficult time for a big project like that to hit these types of troubles. And I think it's fair to say too that the proposal from the MIRT team was not that good. Originally, if we stepped back to Mars Sample Return as it was pitched in 2017 when they said they were going to start to do this, they called it a rapid sample return project. They originally had wanted to do this by 2026. They had a first independent review that said, "No, push it to '28 and we'll get samples back by 2031 or 2032." Now the proposal was to push it back by a decade. That is unsatisfying. For a project that has no scientific return until the samples come back, you are investing $700 million a year to get nothing back for 15 years. That is really not a great... I understand at some level why they're going out there because it's like, "Look, if you can't give me a better plan, this is really not a really satisfying way to go through this. This is not a good situation."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Something that they did suggest was that perhaps they could change the goal of the mission to retrieve less samples, but I'm not very clear on how that would reduce the budget for this mission.

Casey Dreier: So what seems to have been driving the cost, and I think this is really important to keep in mind about what has been the cost driver here, what caused something that was thought to be maybe a $5 billion mission now be an 8 to $11 billion mission, it is this interplay between the rocket, the MAV, the Mars Ascent Vehicle that you have to launch from the surface of Mars. The size of that is determined by how much mass it has to carry into Mars' orbit. How much mass you put into Mars' orbit is a function of how many sample containers you put into the MAV. The original plan was to bring 30 containers back, and the decadal survey was very clear about maintaining the scientific level of return to make this level of investment justified. But the bigger your rocket is, the bigger the system you need to land it on the surface of Mars becomes. And the bigger that becomes, the harder it is to land it. So you have this multiple feedback loops of the bigger your rocket is, the more samples you return, the bigger your lander is, then you need to launch more, and so forth and so on. The complexity, the cost, all is a function of mass, basically, in space. Notably, remember, the Europeans are paying for the sample return vehicle. So all that is free to the US taxpayer. So those $11 billion is for the lander, the Mars Ascent Vehicle, and the sample containment device that lives within the belly of the European return spacecraft. So it really seems to be driven by, and I think if you kind of read between the lines of the teleconference and the report that came out, and then also the open request, the MAV itself is really, I think, driving the overall cost if you really drill down to it. So NASA said, "What if we just return fewer samples? What does that look like?" Now, again, where my questions come in, why didn't they consider this in the last eight months? Did they? Within the scheme of the 20 variants of the architecture they had, this never came up once? Why was it not considered? There's a number of questions about why now they're opening this up and why not seven months ago, but this is where we are. And it will be interesting to see if that really is the core to maintaining cost. And if it is, that presents an interesting conundrum for the scientific community that has declared that you really need to bring back a minimum of something like 30 samples from Mars. And remember, these samples are being collected in various ways to answer very specific high-priority questions, not just whether life existed, which is a pretty big one for me, but in terms of various precise age dating, the atmospheric development of Mars, the terrestrial and history of the planet, the development of the Solar System, they are all pulled out of certain types of rocks that formed under certain conditions that are known to provide you answers to various aspects of these questions, including things like having a sample tube of the air, having a sample as a control that was never opened so you can make sure that the ceiling worked correctly. So if you talk about one, just one of the air, one of a control tube, that's two out of 10 samples, that is a fifth of your sample cache. So what do you do for the eight remaining samples? It becomes a much harder question. And then it's like, "Is it worth $5 billion to bring back 10 sample tubes?" I don't know. This is going to be the trade space. So we will find out, but again, there are reasons why these requirements were established in the first place, and by relaxing them, it will be putting it to the scientific community about what is the actual value of what you have collected.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It also seems to me that because we have this mission so intricately connected with our partnership with the European Space Agency, we're putting our international partnerships in a very difficult position doing this because they're in these interesting contracts with private companies to help them build this, and I imagine it would be difficult to back out of that.

Jack Kiraly: Well, 100%, it would be very difficult to back out of that. And in the case of the European Space Agency, they authorize their budgets in generally three-year increments. It can vary depending on different circumstances that come up, but generally, in every three years, they pass a budget and they just passed one in 2022. So we are currently in the middle of their budget process and they've allocated funding for these programs, right? If the European Return Orbiter, which seems to be at this point still a surety as a part of whatever future architecture NASA goes forward with as a part of soliciting input from other NASA centers and commercial partners that they will be able to utilize. But if the timeline slips, that's nominally going to be launching in 2030 to make it available in Mars' orbit for that rendezvous with the Orbiting Sample Container, the OS. What that looks like, we don't know yet, and we won't know for many months. The timeline going forward for this is pretty well laid out in the contracting call that NASA put out on Tuesday following their announcement on Monday. Basically, there's going to be 30 days of proposals right now up through May 17th where companies and NASA centers can propose a study that will then be funded by NASA starting after May 17th to be completed in October. And once all those reports are in hand at NASA headquarters in October, I got to imagine NASA headquarters will formalize some standing committee to review them and then move forward with the best possible option.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: This is a tricky situation to be in as a space advocate because we all want this Mars Sample Return mission to happen. We've been advocating for something like this for literally decades. This is something that we've been building up to, but there are so many other things that we are so excited are finally going forward, we have NEO Surveyor and Europa Clipper and VERITAS and Dragonfly just got the go-ahead. How does this moment in time change the way that we think about our space policy goals going forward?

Casey Dreier: Well, it's one of those things where we really have to take this holistic approach. And from the beginning, The Planetary Society has said, "This is not an MSR at all costs. We're not going to steamroll everything." And that's not just us saying that, that's the scientific community itself is that MSR is worth doing, but it's not worth destroying everything else for. So that sometimes mean you have to take a hit. And honestly, we can't barrel ahead on something that will not succeed. And this project, for a variety of reasons, is facing a troubling path and has no clear solution. So you have to be wise to that. We can't just will that into being, as much as we would like. And given the constraints that we are working now under this budget, I understand why MSR is the thing being singled out. Politically, that makes the most sense given the issues I've already talked about, the big cost overrun, the duration of it, and the lack of science return until the very end. There's a reason why no one has tried to do this before, including NASA, and it's when you start to do something hard, you actually discover how hard it is, even if you think you know what you're doing going into it. And we will see if we have the capability and the will to do it. You can brute force your way through this with funding, but right now, funding is not a luxury we have at NASA for things like this. So you have to look at this, is MSR worth as all of these other projects? Probably not. And we have to then take it that way. What we do want to see is that there is a good faith ongoing commitment to making this work. And opening this up, we will see if there are new ideas that have not yet been considered. We will see if there's new ways of approaching this. Part of me wonders if this is just maybe the cost of doing something like this for the first time. It will be hard and expensive. And then it becomes a political question is this, which I think at the end of the day, what needs to happen, is that after going through this process, NASA will basically leave no stone unturned and the space agency will just have to say, "Here's what it will cost to do this, given everything we know." Whatever that is, whether it's the original plan, whether it's a variation of it, or whether it's something completely novel coming from industry, "Here's what it'll cost to do this in the way that it's most likely to succeed." Then it is not NASA's job to presuppose what its budgets will be. I think they should say, "This is what it will cost. Here's what we need." And then we let the political system whose job it indeed is to prioritize and balance out these various needs of federal spending for them to work that through. But we need a plan that people have confidence in and we need a plan that is likely to work. And until then, it's almost like even if you gave MSR a billion dollars today, would they be able to move forward? Not really because we don't have a clear path for a plan that will succeed. And that's what we're going to figure out in the next few months.

Jack Kiraly: That's not just us saying this, the Independent Review Board report that came out at the end of last year, that all of this is based around, the I in MIRT, no I in team, but I in MIRT. And it very specifically called out NASA leadership as having not prioritized this program enough and communicated the importance of this program enough to Congress and the public. So I think one of the good things, it's important in scenarios like this to look for the good things, and the thing that I noticed is that this is a seemingly all-of-agency priority now. Administrator Nelson's talking about it, Deputy Administrator Melroy's talking about it Associate Administrator Nicky Fox is talking about it. One of the biggest takeaways I think from the IRB report was that they felt that this was, for being a potentially $11 billion flagship mission that might answer the question of if life existed on Mars, nobody was talking about it, at least not to Congress, not to the public, and it was not being communicated in a meaningful and valuable way. Now that we've had two town halls congressional budget hearing, and in the next couple of weeks, I'm sure multiple more opportunities to engage with NASA stakeholders and the public, it's a really significant change of pace from the previous seven months.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: This is going to be a really interesting time for us because we are literally right on the cusp of our day of action. So, we're about to go to Congress, all three of us are going to be there. And I'm sure they'll have some questions that, hopefully, we can answer and help inspire them to understand what this could do for the scientific community in our understanding of our place and space. But either way, this is going to be an interesting trip and I'm looking forward to seeing you all in Washington, DC.

Jack Kiraly: Absolutely, Sarah. Good time to be an advocate.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thanks so much, Jack and Casey.

Jack Kiraly: Thank you, Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week with an update on Europa Clipper and the beautiful vault plate that will carry our longing for water worlds out to the moons of Jupiter. If you love the show, you can get Planetary Radio T-shirts at, along with lots of other cool spacey merchandise. Help others discover the passion, beauty, and joy of space science and exploration by leaving a review and a rating on platforms like Apple Podcasts and Spotify. And don't forget, you can also find us on YouTube now. Your feedback not only brightens our day, but helps other curious minds find their place and space through Planetary Radio. You can also send us your space thoughts, questions, and poetry at our email at [email protected]. Or if you're a Planetary Society member, leave a comment in the Planetary Radio space in our member community app. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by our dedicated members who are a total blast to hang out with, whether it's in a field under the umbra or anywhere space fans gather. You can join us as we celebrate what it means to be alive in this beautiful and vast universe at Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor, Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. And until next week, ad astra.