by Alan Hale (April 2004)
(updated November 2006) (updated June 2010)
Astronomy, by its very nature, is an international activity. It is, essentially, the same sky that all of us on planet Earth see each night, and the observations that we make of an event from one part of the planet will reflect the same science that someone on another part of the planet will also make. Also, there are several events (for example, total solar eclipses) that, when they occur, may only be visible from a relatively small portion of Earth's surface, and those of us who wish to view them will often end up traveling to those particular regions of the planet. In doing so, we are then able to interact with our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth as we view and appreciate the spectacle that nature presents to us.

When I formed the Earthrise Institute's precursor organization, the Southwest Institute for Space Research, in 1993 my goal was to create an organization that would be capable of performing important astronomical and space-theme research, and also to create a "learning-by-doing" educational environment that would give students an opportunity to participate directly in this research. During the Institute's early years we focused primarily on regional educational activities, and in more recent years we've been able to develop a program that performs important follow-up observations of comets and near-Earth asteroids. We've also been active in promoting space activities, both within the regional area and on a wider national and international basis.

A watershed event in the Institute's history took place on July 23, 1995, when I independently co-discovered Comet Hale-Bopp from the driveway of my house. A year and a half later that object became one of the brightest comets of the 20th Century, and has provided us with many important scientific results. It also became the most widely-viewed comet in history, and indeed was observed by sky-watchers all over the planet. As a result of my discovery I was able to travel to a variety of locations around the nation and around the world, and I have received correspondence from people from almost every region of this world of ours.
The worldwide recognition that Comet Hale-Bopp gave me also provided a unique opportunity to accomplish some worthwhile endeavors that I never would have been able to do otherwise. By far the most dramatic example of this was the privilege I had in August 1999 of leading a delegation of American scientists and students on a "science diplomacy" visit to Iran to view a total solar eclipse that crossed that nation. Our group spent two weeks in Iran, during which we had many opportunities to interact with the citizens of that nation and to share in our common humanity. The members of our group established many friendships with our counterparts in Iran, which have remained to this day.
I had the privilege of leading a second delegation to Iran in July 2000 to participate in an international astronomical conference, and in May 2001 we hosted our Iranian counterparts on a reciprocal visit they made to the U.S. Meanwhile, in June 2001 I traveled to Zimbabwe to view another total solar eclipse, and once again had the opportunity to interact with my fellow human beings as we witnessed one of the grandest spectacles that nature has to offer.
As a result of these experiences, as well as the many other travels I've made and the friendships I've established over the years, the idea that the international nature of astronomy could be utilized as a tool for breaking down international and intercultural barriers began to be strongly reinforced in my mind. Recent world events over the past few years have underscored the urgent need that we as a species have to break down these barriers, which I believe is an absolute necessity if we are to advance beyond our present stage and realize our fullest potential.
As a long-time space enthusiast who vividly remembers watching the Apollo moon missions during his younger days, I've always been struck by the images of Earth that were taken by the Apollo astronauts during their journeys to and from the moon, which show the Earth as a small jewel in space, with no political boundaries. As I was thinking of my recent travel experiences and recent world events, it occurred to me that these Earthrise images captured perfectly the vision I had of a global educational effort to utilize the international nature of astronomy to break down the barriers that divide us. Accordingly, in early 2002 I conceived of the Earthrise Project, and began working on making it a reality.
Because of my own personal connection to Earthrise, and also because of the worldwide mystique that Comet Hale-Bopp had (and continues to have), I concluded that the ideal location to base Earthrise would be at a site that is literally across the road from where I live or, in other words, "immediately adjacent to the site from which Comet Hale-Bopp was discovered." After negotiations with the owners of the property in question, I was able to win their support for Earthrise and make them an offer for the property, and in early 2003 I began a fundraising campaign to raise the money necessary to purchase this property. As a result of this campaign, which included the raffle of a small telescope that had been autographed by the various cast members of Star Trek, we were able to raise enough funds to take out a loan for the property, and the Institute successfully acquired it in March 2004.

With this milestone now accomplished, we are ready to embark upon making this first phase of Earthrise into an operational reality. Much work remains to be done, certainly, and indeed, we are only just starting. But it is my hope that, from these rather humble beginnings, that over the coming months and years Earthrise can grow into an endeavor that is worthy of the experiences and the visions that have inspired it.

(November 2006 update): After extensive consultations and discussions with various individuals and entities, we have decided to change our name from the Southwest Institute for Space Research to the Earthrise Institute, in order to better reflect our mission and goals. While we will continue to maintain a strong focus on our originally planned astronomical and space-oriented activities, including development of the dark-sky site and other such facilities, we are also expanding our overall vision to include the entire concept embodied within the Earthrise images, that of utilizing astronomy as a tool for bringing our planet together. In addition to the network of Earthrise astronomical sites that we originally envisioned, we are also looking to establish a network of "Earthrise Centers" at various tourist destinations around the planet, so that we can share the Earthrise vision with a larger audience. We also are planning some mass-market endeavors to increase that audience still further. While some of these endeavors are at best several years away, we are presently looking at one, Earthrise Radio, which we hope to have operational (at least, initially, on a small local scale) within the not-too-distant future.
During the fall of 2006 we obtained our first major donor towards Earthrise, private space explorer Anousheh Ansari (pictured at right with me and with X-Prize Foundation Chairman Peter Diamandis). Ms. Ansari, who spent a week aboard the International Space Station in September 2006 (and who also co-underwrote the Ansari X-Prize), is donating $100,000 to Earthrise, contingent upon our raising an equivalent amount of matching funds. Our campaign to raise these matching funds is currently underway. With the funds we raise from this campaign, together with Ms. Ansari's generous contribution to the effort, we will be able to get our first telescope operational at the Earthrise dark-sky site, and thus take our first steps towards fulfilling our vision.
Photograph used by permission, copyright 2006 by Samuel Coniglio.
(June 2010 update): Due to financial and other considerations, earlier this year I purchased the Earthrise dark-sky site from the Institute. It remains an excellent site for astronomical observations, and over the coming months the Earthrise Board and team members will continue with planning and development of it as we work to fulfill our overall mission. We already have several organizations and institutions that have expressed interest in collaborating with us in utilizing the site for educational and research purposes, and we will be working with these as well. Stay tuned!
Back to Earthrise mission page.