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      Eclipse ’99 Special Guest
Stephanie Lester is a 16-year old budding astronomer from New Jersey. She was one of twelve American citizens who traveled to Iran last month to view the last solar eclipse of the millennium from the ancient city of Isfahan. Stephanie was selected as a delegation member because of her great interest in astronomy and friendship with Dr. Alan Hale.

Dr. Hale is co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp comet, director of the Southwest Institute for Space Research, and delegation leader. The trip delegation also included Russell (“Rusty”) Schweickart, lunar module pilot for the Apollo 9 mission, solar scientists Rock Bush (Stanford University), and Douglas Biesecker (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center).

The American scientists gave presentations at two universities and viewed the eclipse with their Iranian counterparts while using science as a medium of understanding and goodwill. The delegation spent approximately two weeks in Iran, visiting a number of cities including Isfahan, Tehran, Zanjan, Kermanshah, and Shiraz.

Search for Common Ground, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Washington D.C., organized the trip. Search for Common Ground has been actively working to improve relations between the United States and Iran for over a year.

We invited Stephanie to answer questions and write about her first-person experience viewing the eclipse. Here’s her story.

In Stephanie’s Words: My Eclipse Experience
The co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp Comet, an Apollo 9 astronaut, a former ambassador to the Ukraine, two solar physicists, a medley of other professionals, and me, a 16 year-old high school student. I still can’t believe I was part of such a distinguished delegation to Iran. While we had all come together with hopes of seeing the last solar eclipse of the millennium, we ended up becoming something more than just a group of Americans to the people we met along the way - we actually became emissaries for our country. For me this was just an incredible experience.

When the day of the eclipse came, we traveled to a resort area not so far from the old city of Esfahan to get the best possible view. Many other scientific groups were there also to observe the eclipse. Some French astronomers had set up their equipment a few villas away from ours and some Iranian scientists were nearby as well. Around our villa, CNN and some Iranian news cameras were filming us as we prepared for the event. At first, the moon creeping over the sun didn’t seem to affect the light around us at all. After the partial eclipse had become 60% or so though, things had become much cooler and the light was beginning to dim. At around 80% it became noticeably more so, and by 90% people got quiet as they sat down and stared up through their eclipse glasses. As it became closer and closer to totality I remember suddenly feeling as if something incredible was about to take place. Loud shouts erupted from the crowd on a nearby cliff as totality was reached. What I remember most though, was not seeing the image of totality I had been expecting. Instead of a simple white corona, I saw brilliant beads of light around the edge of the moon turn drastically into the shape of a beautiful diamond ring! It stared directly at me and was so picturesque and so clear and sparkling; there are really no words to describe it. By the time the “ordinary” corona I had been expecting came into view, I was so overwhelmed I just sat back and marveled at it. The whole event may technically have lasted over a minute and a half, but in reality it didn’t seem to last any more than a few seconds.

Everything we did in Iran was just completely new and different and I’ll never forget it. I am so thankful I was asked to come along and if I had the chance I’d love to go back someday. Aside from the eclipse, the best part of all for me was really getting to meet all the people we did, because just by talking with them I felt like we were making a difference.

 
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