Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery

Philipp Salzgeber // CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

Did NASA Ever Consider Women for the Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo Programs?

Russell L. Schweickart, Keystone/Getty Images
Russell L. Schweickart, Keystone/Getty Images

C Stuart Hardwick:

Unambiguously, no.

This was not sexism. NASA decided early on, and quite correctly, that early astronauts must all be experienced high-performance jet test pilots. To anyone who understands what the early space program involved, there can be little question that choosing all men was the right call. That's because there were zero women in the country with high-performance test flight experience—which was due to sexism.

You may have heard of the so-called “Mercury 13” or the Women in Space Program, both of which are misleading monikers invented by the press and/or American aviator Jerrie Cobb.

Here’s what happened:

Randy Lovelace’s laboratory tested astronaut candidates to help NASA select the initial seven Mercury astronauts. He later ran Jerrie Cobb through the same Phase I (biomedical) tests (though not through the other tests, as he didn’t have access to equipment owned by the military). Contrary to some reports, Cobb did not test superior to the men overall, but she did test as well overall. And while that should not have been a surprise to anyone, it was in fact a surprise to many.

Lovelace published a paper on the work in which he suggested that women might actually be preferable candidates for space travel since they weigh less on average and consume less oxygen, water, and other consumables, a fact which I exploited in my book, For All Mankind, and I can tell you that on a long duration mission (of several months) the difference really does add up.

This had no effect on Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo, all of which were short little jaunts in which the mass of the astronauts wasn’t terribly critical, and all of which were always going to be flown by high-performance test pilots anyway.

However, it attracted the attention of famed aviation pioneer Jackie Cochran, who agreed to fund further research on the suitability of women for space.

Pioneer American aviator Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran in the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane
Jackie Cochran in the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Cochran and Cobb recruited several more women, mostly from the ranks of the Ninety-Nines, a women aviator’s professional organization founded by Amelia Earhart. These women also went through the initial biomedical testing, and 13 passed at the same standard as met by the Mercury astronauts.

So far so good. Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City for an isolation tank test and psychological evaluations, and Lovelace secured verbal agreement through his contacts to send another group to the Naval School of Aviation Medicine for advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft.

However, no one had authorized the use of the military facilities for this purpose—or the costs that it would entail. Since there was no NASA request behind this effort, once Lovelace tried to move forward, the military refused his access.

Meanwhile, Cobb had been enjoying the attention she was receiving and, according to some, had gotten it into her head that all of this was going to lead to some of the women actually flying in space. In fact, I’ve found no evidence that Lovelace ever implied that. This was a small program of scientific study, nothing more. Nevertheless, Cobb flew to Washington, D.C. along with Jane Hart and was given a meeting with then-vice president Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson was congenial—Cobb has always claimed he pledged his support—but immediately afterward, he sent word to have all support for the experiments withdrawn.

Far be it from me to defend the motives of LBJ, but consider this: The president had publicly committed the nation to returning a crew from the moon by the end of the decade—and this was at right about the same time when enough work had been done for Johnson to have a handle on just how hard that was going to be. He may or may not have supported the idea of women astronauts in general—we have no idea—but Jerrie Cobb standing before the press, pushing for “women in space” was definitely, irrefutably a distraction he didn’t need. And any resources devoted to it were being pulled directly away from the moon shot—which, to Johnson, was the goal.

Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule
Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule
NASA, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Cobb has always maintained the women were misled and betrayed. I’ve found no evidence of that. Testimony of many of the other participants suggests that Cobb simply got carried away—not that anyone could blame her. Let’s remember that at that time, she couldn’t have known what was really involved in space flight or what the program would look like over the next decade. No one did.

Of course, American women did start flying in space with the Space Shuttle. Do not for a moment think this means they didn’t face the same prejudices at NASA that they did everywhere else. The first class of women astronauts was, according to my sources, invited to help design an in-flight cosmetics kit—an offer they immediately and forcefully shot down. Thirty years later, women remain a distinct minority in the U.S. astronaut corps ...

The bigger question is not whether Cobb was betrayed, but why, in 1961, not a single U.S. woman had been hired to work in high-performance flight test—considering that so many (like Cobb, for example) had performed test flight and ferry duties during the war.

Why weren’t women welcome in the post-war aerospace economy, and why—even today—are so few women granted degrees in engineering of any sort? I don’t know the answer, though sexism is unquestionably in the mix, but it’s a question we need to address as a nation.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

True or False: Was This Object Left on the Moon?

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