“I was a total atheist before my first eclipse,” said the San Antonio filmmaker, who was living in the U.K. at the time. “I see this eclipse and I go, ‘Wow, this is embarrassing. Now I totally believe in God.’”
Bender and another San Antonio-based filmmaker, Elizabeth “Betty” Buckley, hope to share that sense of awe with people across the country.
The two founded the nonprofit Eclipse Across America, produced a public service announcement about the eclipse on YouTube and developed a four-part video seriesfor online broadcaster CuriosityStream
On Aug. 21, millions of people across the U.S. can witness what Bender did 18 years ago. On that day, the shadow of a total solar eclipse will trace a path across the U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina. Not since 1979 has a total solar eclipse passed inside the bounds of the continental U.S.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon lines up precisely between the sun and a certain viewing point on Earth. Those in the heart of the eclipse path, which astronomers call the totality, will see an aura of white light around the sun, called the corona.
According to NASA, the moon’s ability to snugly fit over the sun from an earthly vantage point is pure coincidence. For Bender, the corona is a sign of the divine.
“There’s no other light like it on Earth,” Bender said. “It’s sort of this pale white kind of color that emanates out in these streamers that are flowing out from the sun. It’s like little waves of this very pale white stuff.”
People in San Antonio on Aug. 21 won’t get as much of a show. Daylight will dim slightly as the moon slides over about 60 percent of the sun.
The partial eclipse is unsafe to view directly, so those wanting to look should use specially made solar filter glasses. Many are available online for $20 or less.
With hotels along the totality route booking up and traffic jams likely in some areas, many would-be observers could end up staying home. San Antonio Astronomical Association secretary Danielle Rappaport said she’s still deciding whether to make the trip.
“The fact of the matter is that even between here and there, we’re going to have more than half of an eclipse anyway,” she said.
If she stays, Rappaport said, she’ll probably be volunteering at San Antonio College’s Scobee Education Center, which will hold a series of events between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. that day.
Bender says seeing a partial eclipse is better than nothing, but he compares the experience to watching a play with the curtain closed.
“Yeah, you can admire the curtain, but it’s just not the show,” he said.
Seeing the full corona 18 years ago sent Bender on an eclipse-chasing journey around the world. He eventually befriended Buckley, best known for producing the children’s TV series “Wishbone” in the 1990s.
In 2010, he and Buckley went to Easter Island to catch that solar eclipse and produced a show for the National Geographic Channel.
This time, the movie Bender is most excited about isn’t his own but an effort by Google and the University of California, Berkeley, known as the Eclipse Megamovie Project. Organizers hope to get at least 1,000 photographers across the eclipse path to submit photos taken with digital single-lens reflex, or DSLR, and phone cameras.
“We’ll then stitch these media assets together to create an expanded and continuous view of the total eclipse as it crosses the United States,” the project’s website states.
Bender said this will let the world effectively watch the corona for more than a few minutes, which has never been done before.
“It’s so brief, and then it’s gone,” he said. “Every time, it’s like you can’t look at it long enough.”