NASA Goes Native! A Tribal Spin on the Solar Eclipse

Because you “have to” point and shout at the eclipse! Photo by Mary Marshall

On Monday, August 21, 2017, Mary and I joined the University of Washington-based Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium and the Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline (NWESSP), and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs on the Warm Strings Reservation in central Oregon. This impressive trio would unite to co-host a once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse event combining contemporary weather science with traditional Native American culture.

Participating student teams came from tribes located all around the Pacific Northwest to launch four high-altitude weather balloons during the solar eclipse—but with special payloads. Included were several culturally significant tribal items, student designed atmospheric experiments, transmitters to aid in tracking, and GoPro cameras to capture the flights of these balloons, which are capable of ascending over 100,000 feet.

Prepping the balloons. Photo by Mary Marshall

Centered perfectly inside the path of totality, the Warm Springs Reservation has been on the radar of those planning their 2017 eclipse experience for the last decade or so. The tribe’s ideally-situated Kahneeta Resort has been booked solid on the dates surrounding the eclipse for many years—primarily by international tour groups.

The crowd of more than 400 which gathered to watch the eclipse with this tribal student event included visitors from Croatia, Japan, Germany, Spain, and Australia. They cheered the students launching the balloons and their special cargo—including a medicine wheel, carved wooden instruments, feathers, whistles, and a small paddle.

Future scientists. Photo by Mary Marshall

So as the moon began its eclipse of the sun at a speed of almost 3000 mph (2995 mph at totality), and with the ideal combination of high student energy and low wind speeds, the teams hustled to get their balloons launched, then tracked, as they flew high across the Oregon sky, with the hope that the cameras would capture a unique perspective of the eclipse.

“This is the first time many of the students get to participate in a cutting-edge experiment of this type,” said the consortium’s director, Robert Winglee, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences. “Seeing their own payloads at the rim of space is quite exciting. This different perspective will hopefully awaken other ideas for gaining different perspectives on their own lives and their own career paths.”

Over the past couple of years, through my position at Oregon Health & Science University’s Indigenous Peoples Program, my wife Mary and I have accompanied Dr. Winglee and Dr. Carlos Chavez to many of the schools who participated in the eclipse balloon launch, as they’ve introduced students and faculty to space research and various NASA projects. The ultimate goal is to bring STEM-related topics to the students in culturally relevant ways, and the tribes have embraced the effort with great enthusiasm. It was evident on Monday that the community is equally excited about this generous opportunity provided by NASA and UW, and we’re all grateful to all the wonderful volunteers and UW staff who worked so hard to make this day a community success.

We look forward to helping advance this lofty effort, and sparking scientific curiosity in Native students. I hope that eventually all these students might envision themselves in high tech careers, in the field of high-level science, and seated at the helm—whether in the Control Center or in the vessels that will travel to outer space. I believe that NASA is just as hopeful for this as I am.

As always, thanks for reading!



P.S.—The balloons and payloads are still being retrieved. You may see the results at once all data has been gathered and uploaded.


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river." Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.