NASA ambassador sets sights safely on the sun

by Wendy Turrell

When the long-awaited April 8 total solar eclipse occurs, the work of NASA Solar System Ambassador Gene Zajac will help hundreds of Northeastern Ohioans observe it safely. By then, Zajac will have given dozens of free eclipse presentations and made, or provided the materials for, making simple safety viewers from cardboard and Mylar.

Now retired, Zajac, a Nordonia-area resident who recently lived in Sagamore Hills, was the Shaker Heights High School planetarium director for 24 years and taught astronomy classes. He also developed lessons for students in kindergarten through sixth grade who visited the planetarium, and led public planetarium programs.

Zajac lists previous eclipse viewings among career high points. For the annular solar eclipse of May 10, 2013, Zajac said, “We made 10,000 viewers which were distributed to all Shaker classrooms, the community and local school districts in Ohio and other states.”

During the eclipse, Zajac wore a microphone for Channel 43 TV and broadcasted commentary, video and pictures.

“My favorite eclipse event was on August 21, 2017,” he said. “Before the eclipse, I scheduled many visits to libraries in the summer of 2017. NASA made an offer to libraries that they would supply free eclipse glasses if they had a solar system ambassador as a presenter. … Many of these same libraries are asking for a return visit, since I told them we would have another total (eclipse) in 2024.”

Zajac and his family headed to Mount Juliet, Tennessee, the best place to view the 2017 eclipse. There, they met Shaker Heights’ new planetarium director and colleagues at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel patio, where they distributed eclipse viewers to all hotel staff and guests.

“It was a great teaching day and a wonderful experience to share with family and friends,” he said.

Other celestial highlights for Zajac include viewing two transients of Venus, when the planet is seen in silhouette against the sun, on June 5, 2004 and June 8, 2012. This twin occurrence, within 8 years of each other, happens once every 243 years. He hosted the first transient at Shaker Middle School for the entire Shaker community.

As a NASA Solar System Ambassador, Zajac relishes presenting astronomy concepts to groups of all ages at libraries, schools and to the public. This organization of volunteers promotes astronomy education to the public. Zajac uses NASA-supplied videos and materials, as well as knowledge he has derived from other scientists, astronomy websites and his own extensive research, to create his presentations.

Sometimes Zajac adds a note of whimsy to his appearances, such as presenting in one of the Apollo spacesuits his wife Pam made when he did programs to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing. Pam also made him an authentic-looking Sir William Herschel costume, which he dons for talks featuring the famous astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus in 1871.

Zajac’s astronomical expertise extends to making telescopes, including grinding the lenses by hand. He and his friend Kelly Jons received a grant to make two, 2/3 replicas of the Herschel telescope. They received first place for craftsmanship in the 2002 Stellafane Convention for Amateur Telescope Makers.

Zajac’s other notable honors include the 2003 Thomas Brennan Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Teaching of Astronomy in grades 9-12, and being asked to speak at the annual Great Lakes Planetarium Association’s convention.

For this April’s eclipse, he will be hosting his own watch party for friends and neighbors. Zajac said, “I saw what was effective in viewing an eclipse and will include and expand techniques we used there for the April eclipse. I will have my solar telescope, viewers for everyone, colander, pin hole cameras, telescopes with filters, Mylar for binoculars and cameras … and I will inform my guests when it is safe to view the eclipse.”

Zajac explained that the Mylar material in the viewer lenses blocks out 99.99% of the sun’s harmful rays, making it safe to view the sun at any time. The viewers are easy to assemble and popular for make-and-take projects at the library programs he gives leading up to the eclipse.

Without the Mylar viewers, it is only during the minutes when the moon completely blocks the sun’s surface (totality), that it is safe to view it with the naked eye or a viewing instrument. Sights can also include solar flares and the outer atmosphere of the sun.

“Once the sun starts to reappear,” Zajac instructed, “Mylar viewers must again be used. The safe time varies by location, but is only minutes.”

Zajac also offers a nonscientific recommendation for the eclipse: “I want people to remember to look at those people around them. There will be much excitement and memories to be made.” ∞

Sagamore resident Gene Zajac gives a
presentation in a space suit in honor of the
50th anniversary of Apollo moon landing.
Photo by Pam Zajac.

Zajac gives a presentation on the effects
of sunset at Perry’s International Peace
Monument, Put-In-Bay. Photo by Melissa

On our cover (photos): Gene Zajac gives a presentation on telescopes in a Sir William Hershel costume at Perry’s Monument Educational Days in Put-In-Bay. The telescope shown is the replica of the 1781 Newtonian telescope he built with a friend. Zajac presented at several schools including Union Mill Elementary School in Virginia when visiting area family. Photos by Pam Zajac.