‘Eclipse Trips’ shine bright for Spears Travel

Gary Spears’ habit of giving his clients the sun and the moon is making him a star in the astronomy travel trade.

Spears Travel in Bartlesville has offered Eclipse Trips since 1991, taking amateur skygazers to view total eclipses of the sun and other astronomical events all over the world. 

“A total eclipse of the sun is a phenomenon where the moon passes between the Earth and the sun and completely covers it,” he explained.  “Viewing a solar eclipse requires you to be in the ‘path of totality.’  As the moon’s shadow touches the surface of the earth, the widest path of totality is approximately 100 miles, and the longest viewing is usually seen from the center of that path.  Therefore, it’s usually necessary to travel to be in the prime spot to view and photograph this fascinating event.”

Though the Eclipse Trips focus on total eclipse events, Spears Travel has offered a few other types of astronomy trips over the years.

“Once, we went to Athens to see the Transit of Venus – where Venus travels across the path of the sun, which is an astronomical event that hasn’t happened in more than a century.  It wasn’t as spectacular as an eclipse, but it was pretty special, in that no one alive had ever seen one,” Spears said.

“I’ve done many trips with Fred Espenak, a NASA astrophysicist friend of mine who lives in Washington, D.C. – he’s well-known in the astronomy business and has co-authored three books on eclipses – you’ll see his name on my Web site,” he said.  “He handles the astronomy side and I handle the tour and travel side, and it works out very well for us.”

He calls his friend Espenak “an interesting story in himself.”  Known as “Mr. Eclipse,” Espenak is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, where he uses state-of-the-art infrared spectrometers to probe the atmospheres of the planets.  He is currently participating in a number of research projects, including the monitoring of ozone in Mars’ atmosphere, the detection of winds on Venus, Mars and Titan, and the measurement of hydrocarbons in the stratospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Espenak is clearly a busy guy – but one who is clearly passionate about eclipses.  In addition to his astrophysicist duties, he also publishes special NASA bulletins which provide detailed solar eclipse predictions and maps.  His astronomical photographs have appeared in both national and international publications, and he has lectured extensively on science, eclipses and photography. 

From all that, it’s clear why Spears considers Espenak the eclipse go-to guy.  The two are teaming up for the next eclipse on August 1 – in China, where the 2008 Summer Olympics begin on August 8.

“We want to get in and get out before the Olympics start, because China has really beefed up security measures, and that’s made it a little more difficult on my end,” Spears said.  He explained that the original itinerary called for international flights via Beijing, but since the Olympics were impacting air connections and hotel rates in that city, the group decided to make Shanghai the hub of their international flights.

“The eclipse site we’ve selected is a flat, stony desert area about four hours east of Hami,” Spears said.  “We’ll have plenty of time to make the drive on eclipse day, because the eclipse doesn’t begin until 6:09 p.m., with totality at 7:08 p.m.  The duration of totality is a few seconds shy of two minutes, and the sun will be 19 degrees high in the west.  For our comfort, the viewing site will have tents for shade, and chairs and snacks and drinks. Then, after fourth contact at 9:04 p.m., we’ll make the long drive back to our hotel in Hami.”

Though there are no more spaces available on this year’s excursion to China, the group is already planning on returning in 2009 to view another total eclipse.

“First of all, it’s rare that there’s a total eclipse the next year, because they average one every eighteen months or so, and it’s also rare that it’s in the same country two years in a row – even though China’s a big country,” Spears said.  “If you want to see a total eclipse here in the United States, you’ll have to wait until 2017.”

In addition to viewing the eclipse at the culmination of their journey to China, the group will enjoy visiting a number of other attractions, including traveling on the ancient Silk Road and seeing the country’s famed terra cotta soldiers. 

“We always enjoy visiting the interesting parts of the countries we go to, and then we finish up the trip with the eclipse,” said Spears, who has been on viewing excursions to Turkey, India, Africa and Zambia, to name a few exotic locales.

“Some years ago, we did a trip to Bolivia, where we chartered own train out of La Paz,” Spears recalled.  “We loaded up all of our equipment, all of our baggage – on these trips, people bring telescopes and cameras and extra equipment to capture the eclipse – it reminded me of the overloaded train scene from ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ 

“When we got to the eclipse destination, the Bolivian Army was waiting for us – to protect us and to help us unload our equipment,” he continued.  “It was surreal – it was the middle of the night, there was a bonfire, and these men were all carrying machine guns!”

In 2006, Spears conducted a tour to Libya, which had just been opened to tourism. 

“We ended up in the middle of the Sahara Desert to watch the eclipse, and the tour company was supposed to take us to a ‘tent camp’ complex that they had set up for us.  We really didn’t know what to expect – we thought there might be our group and maybe one or two other little groups there – but when we got to the site, there were 2,000 tents set up,” he said.  “It was like a mini-Woodstock in the desert – nothing but sand, and all these tents!”

Spears has led a long life of adventure.  Spears Travel was founded by Gary Spears’ parents in 1958, and Spears himself has worked in the family travel business for more than 30 years.  His brother also works at the agency, which has satellite branches in Tulsa and Muskogee.

This fall, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the telescope, Spears will embark on “Stargazers: A Tour to Europe” from September 18 to October 5, 2008.  Joining him will be Fred Watson, author of “Stargazer – The Life and Times of the Telescope.” 

Beginning in Great Britain – where James Gregory, Isaac Newton and William Herschel all made significant contributions to the rise of the telescope – the trip includes a visit to the island observatory of Tycho Brahe, the last great astronomer of the pre-telescopic era.  Participants will take in the cradle of the telescope in the Netherlands, and explore Galileo’s epoch-making discoveries in Renaissance Italy. 

For more information on Spears Travel or their Eclipse Trips, visit their Web site at http://www.spearstravel.com/.  Spears Travel has two offices in Bartlesville, three offices in Tulsa and one in Muskogee.  To access office locations, photos and history from some of the group’s previous trips, click on the ‘Astronomy’ link.  They also provide expert travel advice and arrangements for vacation and business travel and travelers’ resources on their Web site.

As for eclipse tours, Spears said they are growing in popularity around the world. 

“It’s a real phenomenon – you’ll see groups there from Japan, Europe, Africa, Australia, the United States – and when you go to these places to see the eclipse, like China, all these people converge,” he summarized.  “With eclipses, you have to be in a certain path – at the right place at the right time – and, hopefully, with no clouds.” 

About the Author:
Lisa Stringer is a native Tulsan who received her bachelors in journalism from the University of Tulsa.  She worked for Neighbor Newspapers throughout the metropolitan region and has been a contributing writer for Oklahoma and Vintage magazines.  With Tulsa Today for the past three years, Stringer also frequently serves as copy editor or, as she is known around the office, the "sweetness and light editor."