Jennifer Higley Spath sat cross-legged on the grass at the Orlando Science Center, gazing toward the afternoon sky Monday, wearing cardboard glasses specially created to allow her to look at the sun.
She and thousands of fellow casual astronomers across Central Florida — and the nation — were hoping for a glimpse of a rare celestial event that has not happened here since 1918.
They were not disappointed.
The moon began a two-hour, 55-minute trek that would send it in front of the sun at just the right distance and angle to begin a near-total solar eclipse at 1:19 p.m. in Central Florida.
At 2:51 p.m., the eclipse hit its peak, with between 85 percent and 88 percent of the sun being blocked out in Orlando, creating a slight dip in temperature.
Spath and others brought snacks, homemade pinhole viewers and patience, waiting hours to take in an event that passed quickly.
“It makes you feel like a kid again,” she said. “It’s something we all have in common. So many things divide us, and it’s cool we can all have this in common.”
Volunteers handed out solar glasses at the Orlando Science Center and Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, with supplies running out in about 30 minutes. At the University of Central Florida’s Reflecting Pond, students lined up early on the first day of fall classes to snag one of 700 pairs of free glasses.
“It’s a bonding moment,” said Giovane Fernandez, who was at Orlando Science Center and brought along his 10-year-old son, also named Giovane. “It’s something you don’t see every day.”
The younger Fernandez said it was “cool to see the sun change shape.”
With 200 million Americans a day’s drive or less from the path of totality, towns and parks from Oregon to South Carolina saw big crowds. Skies were clear along most of the route, to the relief of those who feared cloud cover would spoil this once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“It can be religious. It makes you feel insignificant, like you’re just a speck in the whole scheme of things,” said veteran eclipse-watcher Mike O’Leary, of San Diego, who set up his camera along with among hundreds of other amateur astronomers gathered in Casper, Wyo.
More than one parent was amazed to see teenagers look up from their cellphones.
Astronomers were giddy with excitement. A solar eclipse is considered one of the grandest of cosmic spectacles.
NASA solar physicist Alex Young said the last time humans had a connection like this to the heavens was during man’s first flight to the moon: Apollo 8 in 1968. The first, famous Earthrise photo came from that mission and, like this eclipse, showed us “we are part of something bigger.”
NASA reported 4.4 million people were watching its TV coverage midway through the eclipse, the biggest livestream event in the space agency’s history.
Eclipse watchers were urged not to look directly at the sun, but local ophthalmologists expect to see a few patients who might not have heeded that advice, injuring their eyes. Called solar retinopathy, the injury occurs when the sun rays damage the retina, a layer of light-sensitive cells in the back of the eye.
Patients may lose their central vision and only be able to see via their side vision. They may develop blurred vision and headache or lose the ability to see colors. These symptoms may develop immediately or in the hours after staring at the sun.
“Solar retinopathy is not very common,” said Dr. Jaime Membreno, an ophthalmologist at Retina Macula Specialists in Winter Park, in an email.
In the hours leading up to the eclipse, Orlando Science Center was packed. Staff members had to coordinate walking traffic and strategically allow people into elevators. A light rain meant the outdoor terrace was blocked off midday.
But just before the moon started its path in front of the sun, the rain ended, setting off a roar in the crowd, which had grown frustrated and worried the weather would impede any viewing.
At University of Central Florida, clouds obstructed the view of the sun there during the maximum coverage period about 2:50 p.m. Hoping for a free pair of glasses, Shaquille Marcano, 19, said he arrived at the Reflecting Pond at 9 a.m. Earlier, he’d seen the glasses selling for $40 at a convenience store.
Luther Davis, an astronomy teacher at Lake Mary High School, traveled to South Carolina to view the eclipse. The sight was something he wasn’t expecting, even though he has seen many pictures of solar eclipses online and elsewhere.
“I was surprised at how vivid it was in the sky,” he said. “We saw a black dot with a gushing corona. It brought home the wonders that the universe has to behold.”
Annie Martin, Naseem Miller, Michael Williams and Gabrielle Russon contributed.
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