For two nights, the skies above a remote and nearly treeless campground in north-central Nebraska produced only disappointment for the 350 eager stargazers gathered there for the ninth annual Nebraska Star Party.
Sunday evening was socked in by clouds. And on Monday, a hopeful appearance
by the planet Venus was soon smothered by clouds that rolled in from the south
and boiled up a thunderstorm.
On the third day, however, the sun rose and restored our hope. It beamed
relentlessly all day onto the parched hills southwest of Valentine, where we
had assembled. Then the Earth turned, the sun set and the prairie sky faded to
a pale, clear blue.
Soon Venus gleamed in the west, and by 9:25, stars began to pop into view
-- first Vega, then Altair and Deneb, the bright stars of the "Summer
Surely this night will bring the reward for our patience -- long, dark,
balmy hours of first-class stargazing in one of the darkest places in the
continental United States.
This meeting of amateur astronomers each summer has grown apace with
worldwide interest in astronomy tourism -- a segment of ecotourism that
promoters now refer to as astrotourism.
Remote communities like Valentine and pricey, specialized tour companies
alike are profiting from the growing number of people willing to spend time
and money traveling to witness rare celestial events, or simply to observe the
heavens under truly dark skies.
"There's no question that it's grown a lot," says Rick Fienberg, editor in
chief of Sky & Telescope magazine. "It used to be that a very small number of
people -- die-hard enthusiasts -- would make a special arrangement to go on
an eclipse tour," he says.
But travel is easier, and more comfortable, these days. After the first big
commercial eclipse cruise in 1972, "suddenly the notion of combining luxury
vacations with seeing an eclipse began to catch on," Fienberg says. Now, it is
a multimillion-dollar industry, with a dozen or more tour operators in the
United States, plenty of options beyond eclipse tours and a growing interest
"Baby boomers are coming of age, and weeklong resort vacations are not
necessarily what people in their 40s, 50s and 60s today are looking for,"
Fienberg says. Many astrotourists are well-educated professionals with money
to spend, he adds, "and they're building their vacations around these types of
When a total eclipse of the sun sent the moon's shadow racing across the
Caribbean Sea in February 1998, as many as 20,000 tourists, according to one
estimate, watched it from a flotilla of cruise ships strung out along the line
of totality -- the predicted path of the moon's shadow. Perhaps 100,000 more
watched from land.
A total solar eclipse Dec. 4 this year will be visible across southern
Africa and Australia. One tour operator, TravelQuest, will have 50 people on a
cruise ship in the Mozambique Channel off East Africa, 40 more on safari on
the mainland, and 75 touring the Australian outback.
Jamie Bearse, of Arlington, Va., will be at Akeru Lodge in Timbavati, South
Africa, with his wife, Caroline Powers. They're combining a business trip with
a weeklong safari / eclipse tour that's setting them back about $2,000 each.
Bearse is no astronomer. But he's always been drawn to science stories in
the media. When he realized his business trip to Cape Town was timed to
coincide with the solar eclipse, he began digging and found game lodges
offering eclipse / safari packages.
"We've never been to Africa, never been on safari, and we have that added
element of being able to see an eclipse," he says. "This opportunity is going
to be absolutely amazing."
Lew Whitaker, 68, a retired airline pilot from Tampa, Fla., and Joan
Poultney, 59, a psychotherapist from Wilton, Conn., will intercept the moon's
shadow in the Australian outback. They'll get barely 30 seconds of totality on
their $4,500 per person TravelQuest expedition. Eclipse veterans, they have
stood beneath the moon's shadow on tours to the Caribbean, eastern Turkey and
"A total eclipse of the sun is an absolutely awesome experience," Poultney
says. "The animals quiet down because it seems to them that night is coming.
The temperature drops, so there is a stillness to the air as well. The light
quality changes, rather like twilight but kind of slightly eerie. Awesome is
just the best word."
The prices can be awesome, too. TravelQuest's selection starts at $1,200
for a week of dark-sky observing in Arizona, and soars to $41,000 for a
November 2003 eclipse expedition to Antarctica. (That trip will land up to 30
people on the ice to watch a solar eclipse visible from nowhere else on the
planet. Ticket holders will spend about $20,000 for each minute of totality