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SON OF AN ECLIPSE

If how you’re born sets the tone for how you live, it makes sense that astronomy photographer, Jon Carmichael, son of Las Vegas casino dealer and a board game inventor, would live a life of chance and dice rolls. It makes sense, having been born during a new moon, a precise alignment of sun and moon in the moon-ruled astrology sign of Cancer, he would chase and capture the most monumental image of 2017’s Great American solar eclipse. His goal was to give the viewer an opportunity to see the eclipse as if they were inside a space station. He achieved that without leaving planet Earth. 

We met at Hayden Planetarium, during a presentation called “To the Moon” led by Carter Emmart, Director of Astrovisualization at the American Museum of Natural History. In Carter’s office afterwards, Jon showed everyone his first proof print and told a short version of the long story behind how it came to be. 

When I asked him to tell me the full version, he invited me over to his crisp Upper West Side apartment. His shelves displayed books like Neil De Grasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for Busy People and the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in an Atom. The NASA sticker on his laptop matched the NASA logo on his t-shirt. We got together to talk on July 27, 2018, the day of the longest lunar eclipse of the century.

Jon said, “This eclipse moment was probably the most uniting moment in US history, at least, in my lifetime. NASA says the eclipse broke all viewing records on their website’s live feed by seven times. For one day, the news on every media channel was positive. It moved everyone. It’s very simple why. For a brief moment, everyone in America became an astronomer.”

Though many are afraid of feeling small and insignificant, on “our pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan calls Earth, that moment gave everyone a visual for the clockwork and the vastness of the solar system.

By astronomy standards, an eclipse is a common enough small moment, but that eclipse was all three of his main passions combined: astronomy, flying, and photography. As a pilot and a space fanatic, he wanted to get high enough to see the moon’s shadow moving across the earth at two thousand miles per hour. 

Half a year before the eclipse, one of the random players at his mom’s casino game told her that Alaska Airlines was having a contest. The winner would join a plane filled with astronauts, astronomers, and other luminaries, and view the eclipse from thirty-five thousand feet, flying over the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles west of Oregon – making themselves the first humans inside the moon’s shadow. Jon spent fifty hours on his thirty-second video submission explaining why he should be the one on that flight. He expected to win, and didn’t have a backup plan. 
When he didn’t win, he was devastated. Jon lived in Manhattan, nowhere near totality. He looked at all the flight paths around the country and compared every flight to the moon shadow. The odds of finding one that intersected were astronomical, but he found one flight on Southwest Airlines flying from Portland, Oregon, to St. Louis, Missouri, with one seat left on it. He was nervous. Southwest Airlines has no assigned seating. His gut told him to do it. 
 
When he checked in online, the night before. he saw he was Group C, seat 18. He withdrew six hundred dollars cash out of the ATM to bribe the gate agent, or whoever had the best seat. When he arrived at the gate, he saw that his flight was twenty-five minutes delayed. The plane was leaving only an hour before the eclipse started. “This is it, this is over,” he thought. The Alaska flight from the contest he lost was departing from the gate next to his. They were having a huge eclipse party, with a red carpet and news cameras, and the person that should’ve been him. 

A flight attendant announced: “There’s actually a reason why we delayed your flight today. As many of you know, there’s a very historic moment happening in America. For the first time in ninety-nine years, there’s a total solar eclipse sweeping coast to coast. These three gentlemen standing next to me are representatives from Southwest that flew here from our headquarters in Texas, and we delayed it just right so that we can be inside totality.”

Jon couldn’t believe it. They gave everyone eclipse glasses. The drinks on the flight were all free and eclipse-themed. Screwdrivers were called Solar Flares.  

Jon approached the Southwest executives, told them he flew across the country to be on that flight, and showed his camera equipment and his thirty-second video that didn’t win him the ticket on Alaska Airlines. “Those are your photographs? We’re so lucky to have you. We gotta get you a good seat. Come with us,” they said.
 
Jon was the first one on the plane. They introduced him to the captain, the first officer, and the whole flight crew. He inspected every window, returned to the front, and said, “Guys, I can’t shoot out of any of these windows. They’re all filthy dirty.” 

The captain, Jeff Jackson, said, “Sit on the left side, in the front row. I think I can get your window clean.” 

The captain himself, exited out of the plane, and using the moving walkway, reached over, and washed the window from the outside. Jon could see the Alaska flight outside his window and recalled a quote from the Dalai Lama: “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want can be a wonderful stroke of luck.” 

Jon told the captain he wanted to make it look like they were in space, and he needed a one hundred eighty degree view to get a panoramic. He needed the captain to angle his shots. “Can you turn the plane around when we’re in totality?” he asked.

When the plane climbed to thirty-five thousand feet, the captain announced that they were in 93% totality and he was going to bank the plane to the right and left, doing S-turn maneuvers. Jon’s practice shots were not turning out well. The eclipse appeared warped and distorted. 

The flight attendants, facing him on the jump seat, got a call from the captain, who wanted to know how it was going. He told them that it wasn’t working. They were not steep enough. The captain made another announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to head up another four thousand feet, so we can do sharper turns.” 

And then, the sky went from broad daylight to night, like it had switched from 11AM to midnight. Everyone on the plane went silent. Jon was rapid fire shooting bracketed photos, using every piece of knowledge he ever learned about photography during those two minutes, or maybe three, because they were flying five hundred miles per hour with the moon shadow.
 
The eclipse was going to end at any second, and he saw it with his naked eye. He felt like he was on a spaceship, an Apollo mission looking at an alien object. The sun’s corona and the magnetic field of the sun were visible. Its prominences and solar flares were shooting out and were colorful - it seemed like it was alive. He got his one good shot of it, and right after, the plane leveled off. The eclipse flew out of view. It was daylight again.  Everyone on the plane applauded. Shaking and sweating, Jon skimmed through his photos, zooming in and out, putting it all together in his head. And then he flagged a flight attendant, “I’ll have a solar flare, please.”               
    
He saw that in his photo, there was a big river, the historic Snake River, which forms the border of Oregon and Idaho. Evel Knievel tried to shoot across it on a rocket and crushed almost every bone in his body. A dark mountainous area far back in the frame was Washington State. He realized that he had captured three states in his photo. 

If he had won the Alaska Airlines competition, they flew over the Pacific Ocean and were covered in clouds. The person who won the contest was seated over the wing. He would’ve gotten nothing. 

Jon considers himself insecure by nature, a self-taught nerd, who gravitated toward photography, to deal with his depression, and his desperate need to find beauty in the world around him. The eclipse photo has changed him, forcing him out of his comfort zone, into the public. It made him think about who he was as an artist: Why did he work for two years on that image?         

People at NASA asked him how he achieved it. Carter Emmart said his photo was a ladder to space, better than an image taken from space, because it was low enough to capture the detail of the ground and earth’s surface, which makes one see how close space is to us. That, in fact, we are, in space.