On First inspection you might struggle to believe that Alan Hale and Tom Bopp were immortal. Unemployed, middle-aged, balding, they belong to that 36 per cent of the American population officially defined as obese. Yet thousands of years hence, long after Madonna, Eric Cantona, Tony Blair and other icons of modern times have faded from human memory, the names Hale and Bopp will illuminate the night sky, striking awe, wonder and sometimes madness into the inhabitants of Mother Earth.
The 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult took the arrival of the Hale- Bopp comet as the sign to exit their physical bodies and prepare, with chillingly meticulous forethought, for their rendezvous with eternity. Dr Hale and Mr Bopp found eternity the easy way. They stumbled across it quite by chance.
On the night of 22 July 1995, completely unaware of each other's existence, they took advantage of a seasonally unusual cloudless sky across the American South-west to indulge their common passion, gazing at the stars. Dr Hale, who has a doctorate in astronomy from the University of New Mexico, was peering through a fat telescope outside his home in the small rural town of Cloudcroft, New Mexico. Mr Bopp, an amateur space enthusiast then working in the parts department of a construction company, was 400 miles away in the Arizona desert with a bunch of pals who call themselves the North Phoenix Alternative Astronomical Society.
Dr Hale, 39, had spent much of his adult life searching for a new comet but, five years before his discovery, he said in an interview on Friday, he had given up. "That night, I was just looking at known comets in the sky when I happened to see a fuzzy object in the star clusters around Sagittarius." Intimately familiar with that particular starscape, he knew the fuzzy object ought not to have been there. Checking his astronomical charts, he confirmed his first impression and took another look. The object looked as if it might be moving but, almost as if refusing to believe his luck, he concluded that his eyes must have been playing tricks on him. "I thought, like, 'Yeah, right, I'm going to point my telescope to a random part of the sky and find a comet.'" So he waited an hour, suppressing his excitement for fear of disappointment, and then checked again to see if the object had indeed moved. It had.
He rushed into his home and woke his wife, Eva, and the elder of his two sons, eight-year-old Zachary. "Are you interested in looking at comet Hale?" he asked them. Mother and son turned over in their beds with a "Yeah, right" of their own.
His family might have failed to grasp the magnitude of the discovery but Dr Hale understood that this was the defining moment of his life. Fortunately, he knew exactly what to do. He rushed to his computer and e-mailed the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams, the patenting headquarters for new spacial sightings in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
By Contrast, Tom Bopp, 47, barely knew what he was doing. If Dr Hale was fortunate to find his name on the comet of the century, in Mr Bopp's case it was a miracle. To begin with, he doesn't even own a telescope. "There were eight of us out there," recalls Kevin Gill, the founder of the North Phoenix Alternative Astronomical Society. "People were observing and taking breaks. Then, at about 11pm, Tom takes a look through Jim Stevens' telescope. 'What's this other object?' I'll never forget Tom asking. Then I saw him searching the star charts. Now all of us had our telescopes trained on it. We waited an hour and established that, yes, it was moving. What we didn't know was whether it was new."
Just in case it was, Mr Gill measured the object's exact bearings and told Mr Bopp, who had no idea what to do next, that he should rush off and contact the astronomy people in Cambridge. What followed was a frantic comedy the outcome of which could easily have been that a bewildered Mr Bopp missed his date with destiny. He tried to reach the bureau by cell phone but in the desert he was out of range. So he rushed towards Phoenix, found a public phone - but then realised he did not have the right numbers. At three in the morning he made it home, scoured his drawers and, eventually, battling to control a rising tide of despair, found the name and address of Comet HQ. He phoned Western Union and sent off his telegram.
The man at the receiving end was Daniel Green, a cometary scientist at Harvard with 20 years' experience in the field. Dr Hale, whom he knew personally, had transmitted his information with professional exactitude. Mr Bopp's message was a mess. "The information he gave us was pretty poor. It didn't tell us he had discovered anything. We thought at first that Hale had called him and he was just confirming Hale's finding, not reporting an independent discovery of a comet."
Mr Bopp may be the Forrest Gump of astronomical science, Dr Hale the seasoned pro, but to each belongs the glory of Comet Hale-Bopp. One might reasonably expect Dr Hale to be resentful at having to share the spotlight with the bumbling Mr Bopp. But he was not, he insisted. "I'm not even disappointed, to tell you the truth. I stumbled across it. He stumbled across the same thing at the same time. The amazing thing is that more people didn't see it when we did."
Dr Hale phoned Mr Bopp a day after their discovery had been confirmed, introducing himself to the man with whom he shall forever be wedded in the heavens with an understatement reminiscent of Dr Stanley's words upon meeting Dr Livingstone in the African bush. "I think," Dr Hale said, "that we have something in common."
They met two months later at an astronomy conference and found they liked each other. "I think it's neat he turned out to be a nice guy," the now celebrated Mr Bopp told People magazine. "He could have been a jerk."
It is just as well the two men get along because they have been in constant demand as a performing double-act in universities, schools museums and even Caribbean cruise-liners in the four weeks since their comet first became visible in the northern hemisphere to the naked eye. Of the two, however, Mr Bopp seems to be taking to fame with more gusto. Described by his friend Mr Gill as a shy introvert before he discovered the comet, he has blossomed into a fun-loving media star.
A regular television and radio personality, he was named "Person of the Week" two weeks ago by ABC's celebrated news anchor, Peter Jennings. Last month, when he told his boss at his company's parts department that he had been invited to give a lecture in Canada, the boss said that if he took time off he would be fired. He went to Canada and lost his job, a predicament that he can ill afford because he has spent more than he has earned since becoming famous, much of it returning phone calls to fans and radio stations around America and the world. The burden of paying the bills has fallen hard on his wife, who works at a dry-cleaning shop, but that did not stop him from taking off last week on a free cruise to the Caribbean, a "Comet Cruise" where he was billed as the main ship-board attraction.
Dr Hale, who declined the offer of the Caribbean trip, seems to have taken to celebrity more grudgingly. An affable and devoted family man, by all accounts, the triumph of achieving every astronomer's dream has failed entirely to erase a sense of bitterness and frustration towards his profession nurtured by his inability to find a job.
"Finding employment for scientists today is nothing less than abysmal. It's so bad I do not encourage kids to pursue a career in science," he said. Glumly, he reckoned that his new-found fame will give him at best "a fighting chance" of doing what he had always dreamt of doing, making his one-man "South West Institute for Space Research" - a grand title for a home-bound hobby - into a going concern. But he is not dreaming big. "Ideally I can build on this, work through my institute to do research and education, and make enough money to support my family in reasonable comfort."
As for Mr Bopp, he could not be reached last week to obtain his own views because he was disporting himself in the Caribbean but his friend Mr Gill figured that once the stardust had settled he would return to his old job and resume his nocturnal excursions to the desert with his fellow "alternative" astronomers. "He'll come back and rejoin the amateur ranks," Mr Gill said. "I can't see a career change and nor can he. He knows there's only so much mileage he can get out of it. It's kind of like winning the lottery, except that the effects don't last."
That may be true if one takes the short view. Once the fuss has died down and the comet has disappeared into outer space, Mr Bopp and Dr Hale will resume their ordinary, blameless lives. But their fame is not of the 15-minute variety. They will be remembered 4,000 years from now when their names are once again emblazoned across the night skies. As they will be the time after that, and the time after that. Until the end of time.
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