NC Research Institute Has Front Seat For Total Eclipse

Jul 9, 2017

Hikers trekking deep in the Pisgah National Forest are usually on the lookout for copperheads and black bears. But sometimes they are startled by a Big Bang of sorts, stumbling out of the woods and into a science fiction-like world of giant telescopes. But it's no illusion.

The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute is a nonprofit science education and research center hidden in the lush and leafy forest of Transylvania County, about 30 miles southwest of Asheville.

The storied significance of the NASA-built site has been known to scientists around the world for decades but has flown relatively under the radar in Western North Carolina.

Locals, not to mention the whole of Earth, will be learning more about PARI in the coming weeks as the institute plays a front-and-center role in the total solar eclipse Aug. 21.

Don Cline, a philanthropist and astronomically obsessed retired engineer from Greensboro, founded PARI with his wife, Jo, in 1998. Don Cline expects the cosmic event to have a quantum effect of science love.

Twenty years ago Cline saw a dire need to make hands-on science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) and scientific research available to the masses.

"I started my pursuit after I retired," said Cline, 79. "I needed something to do. I thought it would be nice to give back, to bring more people into the sciences, since the government is not doing a particularly good job at it, especially with women and children."

Those living near the institute have for years been taking advantage of PARI's many offerings, from the expertise of instructors, to the science experiments to the AdventureDome Portable Planetarium that inflates to 22 feet and allows students to "see" the moon, the planets and the constellations of the night sky, and real nighttime star gazes.

"Most kids knew PARI was there but didn't know what types of things it offered," said Amanda Lewis, a seventh-grade teacher at Rosman Middle School, who has taken her students there on field trips.

"They like the planetarium with all the lights turned off so you could see stars and planets. They like the display of rocks and minerals, looking through the telescopes and Smiley the satellite. They let the kids put information into the computer and they could see how the satellite moves."

Lewis said the children become absorbed in the surround sound of science and thinks that PARI is already stirring up interest about science and the solar eclipse.

"I'm pretty excited about it. It's really good for our community," she said. "I think a lot of people don't realize what we have here."

First of all, Cline says, as he leads a recent tour of the secluded scientific hideaway, PARI, as the institute is known, is pronounced the Southern way - 'Perry.'"

Even after 20 years, Cline is still proud of his PARI, and eagerly glides through the buildings and across the sprawling campus pointing out space-related artifacts - a tire from the Space Shuttle Discovery, an Asheville Citizen-Times clipping from July 20, 1969 with the front page headline, "Astronauts in Moon Orbit; Descent to Moon is scheduled Today," and the ATS-6 satellite, which provided the first complete view of the Earth and used to pioneer direct-to-home TV, on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, and many other historical goodies.

Cline also has a museum on meteorites and two walls of gemstones from around the world, and the first meteorite seen to fall, which landed Nov. 7, 1492 in Ensisheim, France.

Then there are the sky-spotting instruments on the campus, including a 12-meter (40-foot) radio telescope, a 4.6-meter (15-foot) radio telescope nicknamed "Smiley" and operated remotely by students and teachers, and two 26-meter (85-foot) radio telescopes.

PARI's scenic Optical Ridge has 12 optical telescopes and is open to the public for scheduled star-watching programs.

NASA originally built the more than 200-acre sprawling site in 1962 as its East Coast hub for tracking satellites and monitoring manned space flights, called the Rosman Tracking Station. The site that sits in a natural bowl was chosen for its remote location (for its radio quiet properties), and the lack of light pollution, allowing for clear sky viewing, Cline said.

In his search for land to build his scientific research and learning center, Cline came across the Rosman station, which was taken over by the Department of Defense in 1980 when the country's space program ended. He said he tried to get the president of the University of North Carolina system to acquire the site, but was told funding was not a solid option.

Individuals can't buy land from the government, but they can trade land for land, he said. Cline found three parcels of private land the Forest Service was leasing, including one with 7,000 feet of frontage on the French Broad River, where a developer was planning to build condos. Cline bought the pricey land and worked with Congress to trade it to the Forest Service, forever protecting the land along the river, and in turn setting up PARI.

The center has 16 full-time staff, 30-40 volunteers, and is continuously involved with research and education programs with universities in several surrounding states. It is home to the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive, a collection of 400,000 glass plates and films of astronomical photographic data from more than 50 observatories, which are being digitized to a searchable Internet database.

"I said I would set it up as a nonprofit, but all the money had to stay in North Carolina," Cline said. "The goal was to present an opportunity for young people, which I define as 'K to gray,' (in other words, any age) and get them interested and excited about science."

He is proud of how far PARI has come, hosting several thousand students, more than 100,000 people in the AdventureDome and 30,000 people a year at sky-watching programs. Student visits vary from a day to a weekend to spending an intensive couple of weeks working on research projects. The ratio of boys to girls is 50-50, Cline said.

He points to a group of science-enthusiast teenagers buzzing around computer screens in a classroom.

They have come from across the country under the Duke Talent Identification Program, spending two weeks at PARI, which hosts groups twice a year.

"At least four girls who have been here have gotten Ph.D.s in astrophysics," Cline said.

Surya Vangala, 15, from Princeton, New Jersey, was attending her first "PARI camp" last week.

"I had not heard of this place before. They're giving me an opportunity to come and do my own research. Normally I'm sitting in a class and listening to the teacher," she said.

Nicole McClelland, 14, of Atlanta, came to PARI because of her fascination with space. Her project was developing an astrobiology talk on oceans in space.

"We find a topic and explore it and see how something on a planet comes to life and evolves," she said. "I'm looking at the possible development or creation of life in water. I'm having a lot of fun here. They keep you busy."

Hayden Piwonka, 17, of Dallas, was part of a team last week working on simulating an environment of Europa, a moon orbiting Jupiter.

"I have a very strong obsession with astrophysics. It's what I want to do with my career," he said.

Chris Price, PARI's director of marketing, said the eclipse timing is perfect as a kickoff for the institute's new master plan.

"Going forward we want to make PARI a vibrant research destination. We're going to continue the heritage and continue the evolution of this historic NASA site," Price said. "We're not moving away from the education aspects."

He said there are several expansion plans in the works, including a restaurant that should be open by eclipse time, capital projects and innovative science education and research.

"It will be a strong economic engine for the region. By the time PARI has transformed it will offer so much we'll have people wanting to come here and stay overnight. It will be a more well-rounded center. We're calling it a 'PARI-topia,' a very highly sought after and desirable destination."

What makes Cline almost giddier than witnessing science blossom in young minds, is the stellar event that puts PARI in the front row for the big show.

On Aug. 21 the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in nearly 100 years will sweep a 67-mile wide sheet of midday darkness from Oregon southwest to Charleston.

While partial solar eclipses occur frequently, a total solar eclipse is a rare event in which the Earth, moon and sun line up so perfectly that the moon completely obscures the sun, revealing the sun's atmosphere, or corona. It blackens its path, causing the temperature to suddenly drop, the wind to stop, and birds to stop singing.

The total solar eclipse will only be seen in the United States, and in only 14 states, including North Carolina, specifically WNC.

This will be the nation's first total solar eclipse in 26 years and the first seen in the contiguous U.S. in 38 years. It also is the first total eclipse seen exclusively in the U.S. since before the nation's founding in 1776.

The eclipse is even more exclusive this time around. For the first time, it will pass over an astronomical research facility with gigantic telescopes — PARI - which sits in the "zone of totality," the area within 10 miles of the eclipse's center line. The eclipse will last for 1 minute, 47 seconds over PARI, starting at 2:36:44 p.m.

PARI is holding a massive viewing party of 1,000 people, including NASA scientists, astronomers and researchers from around the world, lucky residents who snagged a ticket, and national media. The party is sold out.

Scientists will launch a balloon 90,000 feet into the atmosphere to take video and live stream the eclipse and perform experiments never before possible, Cline said.

Many millions of people across the country will be able to witness the zone of totality, while many millions more will see a partial eclipse.

Asheville is not in the zone of totality.

The blackening band moving at 1,500 mph will cross mostly rural counties west and south of Asheville - parts of Clay, Graham, Swain, Macon, Jackson and Transylvania - entering at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and exiting at Transylvania County, then passing directly across Greenville, S.C.

Jamie Laughter, Transylvania County manager, said having a world-class research center in the middle of a rural county is unique.

"This is an opportunity to educate folks about the assets we have in PARI," Laughter said. "A lot of people who grew up here knew it was there. Some people worked there, but there was a lot of secrecy. Now they're at that critical point of being able to create a new awareness."

And, new mobs of people. Although people at ticketed events such as those at PARI, Brevard College and the Brevard Music Center can be counted, 50 percent of the county's land area of forests, rivers and waterfalls is publicly owned federal and state forest and state park land, so there is no way to know how many people will be swarming the small towns including Rosman and Brevard, Laughter said.

Most lodging, including campgrounds, are sold out or near capacity for eclipse weekend.

County managers, the Tourism Development Authority, emergency management and state and federal representatives are meeting regularly to plan for health and safety of eclipse watchers - making sure everyone knows to wear special eclipse glasses - and anticipated traffic backups.

But traffic is no reason not to be a part of the action.

"It will be 1,950 years before it comes back here again," Cline said.

Having witnessed the 2008 total solar eclipse in Aruba, he urges everyone within walking and driving distance to get within 10 miles of the center line.

"You must be in the zone of totality - 98 percent is not good enough. When you're in the center of darkness, Mercury is the brightest you will ever see it, the stars will pop out. The wind will calm down and animals will do strange things. That night the sunset will be spectacular."

A man who never takes a step without a camera in his pocket, offers his expert advice for eclipse watchers, even though, he says, no one will take it.

"Each person should get solar eclipse glasses to protect their eyes (PARI sells them), take a chaise lounge, and just lie there and watch it," Cline said.

"Don't take a camera, no emails, no Tweets. Just watch this happening. You will have two minutes you will remember for the rest of your life. It will be astounding."