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Eclipse Excitement Evident at Arrows to Aerospace Event

On Saturday, August 19, NASA scientists took a break from reaching into the depths of  space and instead reached out to the citizens of suburban Nebraska to promote eclipse knowledge and safety at the Arrows to Aerospace Parade.

This year’s annual parade in Bellevue, Nebraska, just south of Omaha, was organized by the Bellevue-Offutt Kiwanis to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. However, when Bellevue Public Schools teacher Santha Walters learned the parade would coincide with the week of the August 21 “Great American Eclipse,” she enlisted NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center scientist Dr. Jack Ireland and Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory scientist Dr. Henry “Trae” Winter to participate in the event.

“I realized the eclipse would be in the middle of the afternoon on a school day,” Ms. Walters said. “I thought, if we’re going to have all these kids, we’re going to use this as a learning opportunity.”

Ms. Walters pitched the idea to her superintendent as a weeklong string of activities to include the entire community. “Every child with resources is going to travel to totality on Monday,” she said. “Not everybody can take the day off work to experience the eclipse with their child. So I wanted to create something for those kids, to bring the eclipse to them and make them feel as if they are part of this community. This is something people are going to remember for the rest of their lives.”

Dr. Ireland and Dr. Winter spent the week in Bellevue, speaking to the general public on eclipse mechanics and safety and to seventh and eighth grade students about the importance of a STEAM education. “You could just see in their faces they thought ‘this is really cool, we have a real-life scientist here,’” Ms. Walters said.

Saturday’s parade was the final event of “Eclipse Event Bellevue 2017” before the grand finale of the eclipse, and thousands of Nebraskans and visitors poured out onto Lincoln Road to watch. While organizations of all stripes participated in the march, an underlying space and aeronautics theme had clearly established itself, from Star Wars costumes to eclipse t-shirts.

“We’re all so excited to have the eclipse right in our own backyard,” said Bellevue Mayor Rita Sanders, who plans to watch the eclipse from a leadership center in Aurora, Nebraska.

The parade culminated in Washington Park, where Dr. Ireland and Dr. Winter disembarked from their NASA-themed silver convertible to join their team at an eclipse information booth. The team came equipped with informational flyers, NASA stickers, demonstrations of the popular Eclipse Soundscapes app, and of course, free eclipse glasses.

The NASA approved eclipse glasses were a hot commodity. Popular vendors such as Amazon had run out of reputable viewing glasses in the weeks before the eclipse, and many booth visitors reported being unable to find them for a reasonable price. Luckily, the group from NASA and the Smithsonian had come prepared with over 5,000 pair, which they gave away to an eager line of parade-goers stretching back nearly a block.

Though the booth’s guests were excited to score free glasses, many were equally thrilled to meet two real-life astrophysicists. “I was amazed at how many people were at the parade and how many waited in line to talk to Jack and me about the eclipse,” Dr. Winter said. “We got really well thought out and specific questions and I loved talking to everyone who came by our booth.”

“It’s cool because they are obviously really smart and know a lot,” said one Bellevue High School student, who walked alongside the Dr. Ireland and Dr. Winter in the parade. “But they are also regular people, and easy to talk to.”

Another enthusiastic visitor was a nine year old girl from Bellevue, who hopes to become an astronaut on Mars one day. She is excited to experience her first total solar eclipse.

“I’ve only only seen one before, and it was amazing,” Dr. Ireland told her. “It’s the most spectacular thing I’ve seen in the skies by far.”

Armed with her eclipse glasses and a beaming smile, she titled her head towards the sky and prepared to be amazed.