A PERSONAL STATEMENT FROM
EARTHRISE INSTITUTE PRESIDENT ALAN HALE
JULY 6, 2017
Anyone who has examined this web site at any time within the relatively recent past will have noticed that it has not been updated for a long, long time. The last real update was made at the end of 2013, and the only thing that has been added since then was a link via which readers could order an electronic copy of my autobiography, which came out in July 2015 -- and that was almost two years ago. Since that time -- nothing.
There have been reasons for this, and reasons for why I am restarting things (albeit at a significantly lower level than previously) at this time. I would ask readers to bear with me . . .
When I started what was then called the Southwest Institute for Space Research in 1993, I did so with high hopes of becoming a viable entity in astronomical and space education and research. My discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1995 provided a pretty significant shot in the arm for this effort, especially when the comet appeared brightly in the sky two years later, and for a while, at least, I was able to carry out and fulfill various activities, both locally and, to some extent, on a wider geographical scale.
I developed the concept I call "Earthrise" in 2002 partially as an emotional response to the events of September 11, 2001, and which built upon the "science diplomacy" expeditions I led to Iran in 1999 and 2000. My primary vision was that of a globally-interconnected network of astronomical telescopes and centers that would specifically encourage international collaboration between students all over the world, thus utilizing what is essentially the global "language" of astronomy as a tool for building bridges between different nations and cultures, in particular for the up and coming generations. I devoted most of my efforts in succeeding years towards bringing this idea into a reality, and changed the name of the organization to "The Earthrise Institute" in 2006.
To bring an idea like this into reality takes money -- a lot of it. Unfortunately, raising money is not something at which I am especially adept. I was able to pick up some donations and the occasional grant here and there, but never at much more than a basic level that would allow Earthrise to continue paying its bills; I could never quite seem to bring in enough funds to push forward with the vision in any significant way. And while I met quite a few people who were excited by the overall concept and who wanted to be a part of it -- and I am indeed grateful to them for their enthusiasm and the help they did bring -- I could never quite seem to find the right persons who could bring in the funding at the levels that were necessary for the project to succeed.
And, certainly, there is also a personal life with which one must contend. As readers and participants in the "Countdown to 500 Comets" program that I conducted from 2007 to 2012 may recall, my life went through a significant amount of upheaval during that time, not the least of which was my two-year-long divorce which was final in April 2010. I found it necessary to put most of Earthrise on the "back burner," so to speak, during that time, with my intention being to pursue the vision again once some sense of normality had returned to my life.
And, indeed, for a while that looked like that is precisely what would happen. I was in a new relationship -- and was never happier in my life -- and I was starting to put some distance between myself and all the earlier upheavals, and was once again starting to develop and pursue Earthrise-related activities. But then, during the latter part of 2012, that relationship exploded in my face and came crashing down around me. My former partner and I did make some attempts to get back together over the next couple of years, but these were never successful, and the result was that I kept sliding deeper and deeper into an emotional pit. There were other contributing events as well, certainly not the least of which was my mother's death in late 2013.
The upshot of all this is that I have spent the past few years in a deep and dark place, emotionally. I continued my visual comet observing through all this -- that, perhaps more than anything else, has sustained me emotionally -- and I taught on-line university classes (an endeavor I began in 2009, as I recount in "Countdown" at the appropriate time) to pay the bills, although in truth I found this professionally unfulfilling (with the occasional exception of a high-performing student who would ask me to write recommendation letters, which is an emotional reward in and of itself) and, with the bare-minimum wage compensation that is normal for adjunct faculty in our society, financially unfulfillng as well.
There is the adage that "time heals all wounds," and as time has passed I did eventually start to heal. Within the past one to two years I have started to emerge, at least somewhat, from that dark place, and have started to re-engage, at least on a limited basis, with the wider world around me. Within the fairly recent past I have attended, and even spoken at, a couple of astronomy/space conferences, and although for the time being I remain rather frightened of beginning any new relationships, I am at least starting to date again, and have learned that there are still some good and nice women out there.
But I am also not the same person that I was before I slid into that dark place. As much as I may not want to admit this, I am getting older, and at age 59 I am now at an age where an uncomfortable number of my contemporaries are starting to pass away due to "natural causes." Overall I remain in good physical health, although I can no longer run up and down the roads here in the mountains like I could just a few years ago, due to knees that are growing rather weak. I have always had trouble with my weight, much of this being due to genetic issues that date back to my earliest childhood, and this certainly has played a role in what is happening to my knees. I continue to work out -- mainly walking and weightlifting -- on a regular basis, and while I may not be in as good a physical condition as I was when I as younger, I am still doing reasonably OK in that department. Nevertheless, I do feel the weight of advancing years, and I know there will come a time, probably not too many years hence, when I will not be able to continue on as I am now. As I contemplate that, I find that I am not afraid of death -- but I am afraid of becoming a burden to family, to friends, to society. If and when that time ever gets here, it will be time for me to make my exit, and I have no qualms about that. Until then, I take each day as it comes.
I have also had to come to terms with where I am in my life and what I have accomplished, and what I have not accomplished. One might think that I have indeed accomplished a lot -- after all, thanks to a certain comet I have achieved a form of immortality that very, very few people in history ever achieve -- and there are other things (that I actually consider more important) such as my work with the radio science experiment during the Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus; my Ph.D. thesis on exoplanets that, perhaps a little surprisingly, has become one of the seminal papers in the field, and which is cited all the time now; and my "science diplomacy" efforts that have won me official recognition from the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor Society. On a personal level, I have raised two very fine sons who have "left the nest" and who are finding their own way through the world, and who -- most important to me -- are happy. Still, when I look back and contemplate the younger version of myself who had so much potential, and I think of the mistakes I made -- including some very big ones -- and all that I perhaps could have accomplished had I not made those, I have to fight off becoming depressed. At the very least, though, I am finally able to understand why I made those mistakes, and am able to forgive myself, and that has helped in my coming to terms with them and in the overall healing process.
There are, however, things that run much deeper than one's personal life that have affected me, to the point where I would almost say I suffered a "crisis of conscience." I remember as a rather young child watching the Gemini and Apollo missions, and believing that I was looking at my future, and I wanted to make my own contributions towards humanity's efforts to achieve the stars. We all know, of course, that there haven't been any human missions beyond low Earth orbit for almost half a century now, and, frankly, despite talk I hear of "going to Mars," I am finding it rather doubtful that I'll see anything like that in my lifetime. The unmanned planetary missions and space telescopes have, certainly, made up for this, at least partially; as I have recalled earlier, I once played a role in this effort, and I am excited when I see results of missions like Cassini, and New Horizons, and Kepler, among many others. And I do find it inspiring -- at the very least, it helps lift me out of any feelings of depression -- when I see another "first" brought about by firms such as SpaceX. There are times when I can feel that maybe humanity may actually gain the stars someday after all.
But should we? Do we deserve to gain the stars? All around me, I see hatred, I see bigotry, I see ignorance and superstition . . . and I see wars, and more wars, and more wars. I see us as a species devoting more and more of our resources to developing new and innovative ways of killing each other and blowing each other up -- there always seems to be more than enough money available for that. (And are we seriously developing "rules" to conduct warfare in space, so we can defile that as well?) It is with much chagrin, anger, and sadness that, as a native-born American, I see this country sliding more and more down that slope . . . and I see it many places elsewhere as well. We are busy destroying our environment, and too many of us are not only not doing anything about it, we are actually refusing to acknowledge that the problems even exist. As the old adage goes, there are none so blind, as those who will not see. And it seems to me that humanity is growing more and more blind . . .
At the conclusion of my book "Everybody's Comet" I encouraged all of my fellow humans on this Earth to work with me in developing a peaceful, positive world that is overcoming its many challenges and that is moving forward. In my essay "A Challenge For Humanity" that I wrote and posted on the one-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, I discussed some of those challenges, but I also pointed out all the wonderful things that we, as a species, have accomplished in the past, and are capable of accomplishing in the future, if only we put our minds to it. Unfortunately, as I see what has gone on around me in this world during the years that have elapsed since I wrote that essay, I am beginning to think that, perhaps, I no longer believe what I wrote then.
But, somewhere deep inside me . . . I still want to believe that we are capable of overcoming the ugliness that seems to pervade this world, and of overcoming the many challenges that face us, and that perhaps we might yet do so someday. I see stories in the news -- such as this recent one -- that give me some sort of hope that there are still good people in this world, perhaps more of them than are obvious, and that suggest that some kind of positive future may yet be within our grasp. With these kinds of thoughts in mind, my view nowadays -- at least, on my more optimistic days -- has changed from "humanity should grasp the stars" to "humanity should earn the right to grasp the stars."
It is while I have been pondering all of this, as I continue forward in my own healing process, that I have decided to re-engage Earthrise. But it is not the same Earthrise that I had envisioned before; among other things, I am no longer pursuing the vision of the globally-interconnected network of telescopes, and other than a mention that it once existed as an idea, I am removing it from this web site. Indeed, I am essentially suspending just about all activities that were ongoing previously -- not that any have been pursued at all during the past few years -- until further notice, as I contemplate where I want Earthrise to proceed. In this spirit, I have modified the Earthrise mission statement and, for the time being anyway, have made it relatively generic.
One effort that is continuing is my own visual comet observing; as I indicated above, this is the one activity that has sustained me emotionally throughout the dark period from which I am emerging, and I plan to continue with it for at least the near-term foreseeable future. Since I should probably give this effort a name, I am calling it "Continuing With Comets," but I emphasize that this is not any kind of "program;" I am merely sharing with the world information about the comets I observe (and tidbits of my personal life from time to time), and readers can make of that information whatever they wish.
As for additional activities, I am open to suggestions -- as long as they are in line with the overall meaning of the Earthrise concept. Any discussion of an effort that requires funding to be accomplished needs to be accompanied by plans as to how that funding might be obtained.
If the funds available to Earthrise were unlimited, my dream now would be to identify projects and efforts, such as the globally-interconnected telescope network that I originally envisioned for Earthrise, that embody and further the overall Earthrise vision, and provide them with the necessary funding that would allow them to get underway. That is a lot of money -- any individual such effort would probably require somewhere in the vicinity of US$1 million just to get started -- and since I was unable to come up with that kind of money for my own project, I don't see where I would get that money for someone else's. But, again, if I did have access to that kind of money, that is what I would want to do with it. I would focus on those projects and efforts that would be developed and carried out by members of the Millennial generation (of which my sons are members); it's their world now, and perhaps those of us who are older could best serve them by providing them the necessary tools so that they can accomplish building that better world -- and then getting out of their way.
There is one effort going on right now that I want to plug. Some years ago my friend Mike Simmons in California founded "Astronomers Without Borders," which has the same basic goal as Earthrise has always had, i.e., using astronomy as a tool for building bridges between various nations and peoples. AWB has carried out a number of activities, primarily educational in nature, that collectively are going quite a ways in fulfilling that mission. Meanwhile, during my travels I have encountered people from a variety of nations and cultures who are pursuing activities along these same lines; one such person I have very recently met is Pranvera Hyseni, who founded and runs "Astronomy Outreach of Kosovo." Pranvera is a member of the Millennial generation, and if humanity is ever going to have a peaceful future where all its various peoples work together to overcome the many challenges facing us, it is people like her who are going to be leading the way.
What I want to do now is provide Pranvera, and her contemporaries, the tools and the resources they need to do that. If anyone reading this feels likewise, I invite them to join with me, and to help Pranvera and her contemporaries succeed. Maybe then we really can earn the right to grasp the stars someday.
|Cloudcroft, New Mexico July 6, 2017|
|PS. Next month one of the most spectacular astronomical events in all of nature takes place across the central U.S.: the total solar eclipse on August 21. Until then, I am including a link here as well as on the main page to NASA's special guide to the eclipse.
I encourage all readers, especially those here in the U.S., to make every effort to be within the path of totality that day and to view the total eclipse. Witnessing this incredible event of nature will affect you on almost a primal level (those of you who have already seen a total solar eclipse will know what I am talking about).
May all who witness the beauty of this eclipse, and, indeed, the beauty provided to us all the time by the nighttime sky and all its associated events and phenomena, be inspired to look past ourselves and to see our role in the larger universe, and to work towards building a better future for all of us -- just as I have been inspired since my earliest days, and continue to be inspired today.