On this date in 1958, Alan Hale, the co-discoverer in 1995 of Comet Hale-Bopp, was born Tachikawa, Japan, where his father was in the U.S. Air Force. He grew up in Alamogordo, N.M., and graduated with a B.S. in physics in 1980 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He left the Navy in 1983 and began working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., as an engineering contractor for the Deep Space Network. While at JPL he worked on spacecraft projects, including the Voyager 2 encounter with the planet Uranus in 1986. He then returned to New Mexico and earned advanced astronomy degrees, including a doctorate, at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. In 1993 he founded the Southwest Institute for Space Research (now called the Earthrise Institute, where he is president).
Besides his research activities, Hale is an outspoken advocate for improved scientific literacy in our society and for better career opportunities for current and future scientists. He's written for such publications as Astronomy, the International Comet Quarterly, the Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry and the McGraw-Hill Yearbook of Science and Technology. He's the author of Everybody's Comet: A Layman's Guide to Comet Hale-Bopp (High-Lonesome Books, 1996) and is a frequent public speaker on astronomy, space and other scientific issues. Hale was a featured speaker at the FFRF's 20th annual convention in Tampa, Fla., in 1997. The speech came in the aftermath that March of the suicides of 39 men and women who were part of the Heaven's Gate UFO cult in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. After claiming that a spaceship was trailing the Comet Hale-Bopp, cult leader Marshall Applewhite convinced his followers to kill themselves so their souls could board the spacecraft. The members killed themselves in an orderly and disciplined fashion, over several days, in three teams, by taking a strong barbiturate with vodka, followed by a plastic bag over the head. All wore black clothes and brand-new Nike running shoes. All had packed a suitcase and had ID cards, a $5 bill and three quarters. Hale called the death pact and other religion-fostered violence "another victory for ignorance and superstition."