Halley’s Comet: The “Twice in a Lifetime” Event

If you’re old enough to remember Halley’s Comet, you know it was a big deal to everyone in 1986—especially younger kids. But Halley’s Comet is significant not just because it was an amazing thing for everyone to witness, but it revealed just how much progress and technological advancement we now had in 1986.

Halley’s Comet allowed us to step back and observe how much incredible change we had been through compared to when it last passed by Earth in 1910. And for kids in the 80s; there was a chance we could see it for a second time. Halley’s Comet was also significant, as it was sandwiched right between two of the biggest disasters of the 1980s. 

I don’t know the age difference between you and I, but if we’re close, you remember all the hype about Halley’s Comet. If your school was anything like mine, it seemed like everything came to a halt, as over the weeks, our focus in the classroom was on this remarkable event. I remember my teachers using the comet in their lessons for all subjects. We would use writing periods to discuss our thoughts on it, math periods would be devoted to calculating its speed and distance from earth. Science classes would be 100 percent devoted to this astrological event. Even our physed classes had us running around like comets in a new version of freeze tag.

I’m now realizing I probably went to a pretty weird school.

The point is that this comet was capturing everyone’s imagination–especially little kids like me. Halley’s Comet helped create an even bigger interest in space and astrological events. In 1986, everyone wanted to look skyward to see an event that many people would only get to see once. But unlike many space phenomena that come and go, there was a chance–depending on your age–you would get to see Halley’s Comet again.

For those of us who were young in the 80s; this could be a legitimate twice-in-a-lifetime event. Halley’s Comet will return again in 2061. We got to picture what the world would be like the next time it came around. I remember writing about this in school assuming that we would no doubt have moon colonies, flying cars, and some sort of teleportation. But they have lied to us too many times about the flying cars, so I’m not holding my breath on that.

What made Halley’s Comet significant is it made us take stock of where we were and where we were going. In 1986, the world looked drastically different from how it was the last time Halley’s Comet passed by, and who’s to say what the world will be like the next time it returns in 2061? These moments are important as they force us to look at ourselves and the progress–or setbacks–we’ve made as a species and a society. So let’s look back on this comet that covers millennia of human existence, and how it all culminated in its major return in 1986.

The Early Days of Halley’s Comet

Technically called 1P/Halley, Halley’s Comet passes by the earth every 76 years. But technically, it’s every 75-79 years. It is 11km in diameter and is an estimated 4.5 billion years old. It is named after an English astronomer, Edmund Halley. Halley had first become aware of the comet after he looked back on records of a comet that passed by earth in 1531, 1607, and 1682. Was there a chance this was the same comet? At this point in history, comets were thought to be a one-and-done phenomenon, and the records stated that these were three different comets. But Halley calculated that some comets can indeed orbit the sun. And if his calculations were correct, when this baby hits 88/mph, you’re going to see some serious… Sorry, I mean if his calculation were correct, it would again pass by earth in 1758. Spoiler alert: it would.

Unfortunately, Hillary wasn’t alive to see that his calculations were correct. But he would be happy to know they would name the comet after him. Our awareness of Halley’s Comet goes back MUCH further. On March 30th, 239 BC, Chinese astronomers recorded the first observation of Halley’s Comet. This was the first recorded observation, but the calculations of Hillary revealed that comet observations in 466 BC by the Ancient Greeks was probably Halley’s. 

By 164 and 87 BC, the ancient Babylonians would have recorded its appearance. Next, came possibly its most significant appearance: 1066. This was just before the invasion of England by William the Conqueror. He believed this startling thing in the sky was something powerful and helped in his invasion success. In 1222, Genghis Khan thought the same thing. But he believed it was a star that had come just for him and was telling him to invade Europe.

Halley’s Comet may also be represented in art form. After it appeared in 1301, Italian painter Gotti painted “The Adoration of the Mag.” Depicted in that painting is a rendering of the Star of Bethlehem, and it’s thought that Halley’s Comet influenced its appearance. 

Even Shakespeare has mentioned comets that may be related to Halley’s. And during Shakespeare’s time, astronomy started to change by leaps and bounds. Through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, our understanding of the cosmos was seemingly growing by the day. We now knew that everything didn’t revolve around the earth–though some people seem to still think that–and we were understanding how objects moved around the solar system. 

According to space.com, Halley’s Comet would then make appearances in 1531, 1607, 1682, 1758, and 1835–right when Mark Twain was born. Twain would actually die on April 21st, 1910, one day after the comet emerged from the far side of the sun. It was in 1910 when Halley’s Comet made one of its closest fly-bys yet. It came within 14 million miles of the Earth. This was also when the very first image of it was captured. 

In 1910, our understanding of space and comets was now light years ahead of previous centuries. What would the world be like when the comet would make its next appearance in the futuristic-sounding year of 1986? 

The Brave New World of 1986

Where do we even begin to explain how much the world had changed in 1986? 

It’s astounding to think about the advancements of civilization from when Halley’s Comet last appeared to when we all got to see it. In 1910, we hadn’t yet experienced a major world war; by 1986, war had completely transformed our world. And we were experiencing a new type of conflict: a Cold War. In 1910, we had only really been driving for 20-30 years. Even if you could afford a car, you still had to share the roads with horse–and buggies. Most homes didn’t have indoor refrigeration. The telephone was still a modern advancement and was definitely not in every home yet. Electricity had barely entered homes as in 1910, less than 2% of the US was electrified. And in 1910, Wilbur and Orville Wright had only just made the first ever flight 7 years prior. 

Going into 1986, the world was something from the future. We had technological advancements that people in 1910 couldn’t even imagine. In 1910, the first flight had recently happened; In 1986, we could fly to any country in the world while watching a movie–movies also a relatively new thing in 1910. In 1986, we even had the Concorde, which could get us from New York to London in less than 3 hours. Back in 1910, this trip would take you four and a half days.

And in 1986, not only had we walked on the moon multiple times, but we had conquered space flight. We now had satellites and Space Shuttles. In 1910, just the concept of flight was almost impossible to wrap your head around. In 1986, we had a plane that could fly in space and then return to earth. Even today, in 2022, the concept of the Space Shuttle is still pretty mind-bending. This is how much everything was progressing in the 1980s. 

In 1910, we could barely capture an image of Halley’s Comet. In 1986, not only did we now have space telescopes, but we could also send probes out into space to closely study it. I’m not sure what your memories of this are, but we actually sent several spacecraft to get close to the comet. One mission was dubbed the “Halley Armada,” and was made up of Soviet and French probes. They were able–for the first time ever–to take pictures of the nucleus or heart of the comet. 

But, wait, there was more. The European Space Agency sent a spacecraft that could get even closer to Halley’s Comet and sent back even more remarkable images. That ESA spacecraft, called the Giotto, got within an astonishing 600km of the comet. The Japanese even sent out two probes of their own. All of these different countries were united in the quest for data and info on Halley’s Comet. The comet received so much attention, and it really was a remarkable amount of collaboration. Despite Cold War issues, an astrological event like Halley’s Comet was able to bring these countries together. 

Back in 1910, the idea of sending probes into space to study a comet wasn’t even conceivable. In 1986, it was now common. We obviously look back on a lot of the technology of the 80s as being quaint, but back then: The future was now. Sending out probes into space was some Star Wars sh*t. The science fiction of Jules Verne that they would have read in the early 20th century was now our reality. And just to keep this futuristic theme going, just a few weeks after Halley’s Comet made its peak appearance, the Soviets would launch the MIR Space Station. 

Technological progress had grown by leaps and bounds, and in the 1980s, it was hard to take it all in. Things were changing so fast that it was easy to take some of these things for granted. 

But of course, not all our technological advancements in 1986 were great. If you know your history, you know that early 1986 would be the worst year ever for NASA and the Space Program. On January 28th, The Space Shuttle Challenger would explode just 73 seconds after liftoff. This decimated the country, and for children of the 1980s, would become one of the first “where were you when” moments we experienced.

This tragedy obviously caused shock waves and on a very minor scale, some of the plans NASA had to study the comet would need to be scrapped. It’s often forgotten that Halley’s Comet was one of the primary reasons that the Challenger launched when it did. Part of the Challenger mission included launching one of the satellites to observe the comet. 

NASA had originally scheduled two different Space Shuttle missions to study Halley’s Comet, as the plan was to observe the comet from a low-earth orbit. One mission was to carry the Spartan-203 satellite that was dubbed Halley’s Comet Experiment Deployable or HCED. The Halley’s Comet Experiment Deployable would have also made a great band name. The second mission was to carry the ASTRO-1 Platform on the Space Shuttle Columbia. Scheduled to go up in March, ASTRO-1 was a system of telescopes with multiple ultraviolet lenses and an X-ray telescope. These were to give us some of the most detailed analyses of a comet ever. Understandably, after the Challenger disaster, the two missions were canceled. 

And at this point in the 80s, our other advancements could also be incredibly destructive. In 1910, we relied on coal and steam for our energy. In 1986, we had harnessed nuclear power. But what was the risk of all this? Just a few months after Halley’s Comet passed by earth, the worst nuclear disaster in history took place. On April 26, 1986, reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant would explode. We had already “dodged a bullet” at Three-Mile Island, but at Chornobyl–we weren’t so lucky. I’ve done a show all about the Three-Mile Island accident and how it was much worse than we realized if you want to go back and check that episode out. 

The interesting thing about Halley’s Comet is how it came back right at the precise moment of two of the most significant disasters of the 20th century. And both ‌disasters were related to the technological progress we had made. We had all this amazing technology to study a comet out in space, but we also seemed to be paying the price for some of those advancements back on Earth. Regardless, Halley’s Comet was about to come into view. 

Halley Makes Its Return

Scientists were actually able to detect Halley’s Comet out in space as far back as 1982. Interestingly, scientists observed it with the Hale Telescope in California. This telescope was named after Gregory Ellery Hale, whose name would be attached to another famous comet: Hale-Bopp. The Hale-Bopp Comet appeared in 1997 and you probably remember some of the absurdity surrounding it. But that story will have to be saved for the History of the 90s Podcast… If you love the 90s, please check out History of the 90s wherever you find your podcasts. You won’t regret it. 

However, In late January, almost exactly at the time of the Challenger explosion, the first real appearance of Halley’s Comet came into view. For the average person, the first real chance to see it would be around February 9th, 1986. This is when the comet reached its “perihelion.” That’s the moment it got closest to the sun after entering our inner solar system. 

It would still be bright and visible going into early April, culminating on April 10th when it got the closest it would to the earth at 39 million miles or 62 million km. 

We’ve covered the Challenger, and we know what’s about to happen in Chernobyl, but here’s a quick trip down memory lane on some other things happening on Earth right around the time Halley’s Comet made its return. 

  • The number 1 song was “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston
  • The Dalai Lama met with Pope John Paul II in India
  • Backed by Steve Jobs, Pixar Animation Studios breaks away from its previous owner: Lucasfilm
  • Hands Across America was just a few months away
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had just inducted its very first members. Those first inductees were: Elvis, James Brown, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis
  • The number 1 show on TV was The Cosby Show, followed very closely by Family Ties
  • Number 1 at the box office was “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” with “Pretty in Pink” about to come out in a few weeks 
  • “Out of Africa” had just won best picture at the Academy Awards
  • And in one of the best collaborations ever, Boy George appeared on an episode of the A-Team
  • The average monthly rent was $385, a gallon of gas was.89 cents, and a brand new Ford Mustang would set you back $7,400

But despite what was happening in the world, we all looked up to the sky during that period in 1986. Halley’s Comet gave us that moment to pause and simply gaze upward. It was that reminder to take a second and not be distracted by everything here that was vying for our attention down here. Halley’s Comet gave us that brief moment of wonder; something that is easily lost as we grow up, but is more prominent in kids.

Maybe that’s why Halley’s Comet captivated so many kids of the 1980s. We were at that age where everything still seemed new and miraculous. The 1980s seem much simpler to us now, but it was still a time of amazing progress and innovation when there were more things able to cause distraction. Halley’s Comet was that reminder to look up from everything going on down on Earth.

Here’s a fun fact: over the last 2000 years of our awareness of Halley’s Comet, 1986 was considered the very worst year for viewing ability. Halley’s Comet and the Earth were on opposite sides of the sun, which hadn’t really happened before.

And here’s something interesting that had never happened in the comet’s existence, and speaks to our development as a species: There was now more light pollution than at any other stage in human history. This made it much more difficult to see it, and many people missed out. There’s a bit of an interesting juxtaposition of how the advancements in human technology that allowed us to track and understand this comet were also responsible for preventing us from seeing it clearly. 

In 1910, you could pretty much stand outside at night, anywhere, and catch a good glimpse. In 1986, this wasn’t exactly possible, especially if you lived in a city or in a highly developed area. You would have to head to areas outside of the city to get the best glimpse. That’s not to say you wouldn’t be able to see it at all, but for the best viewing, you needed to get away from all our artificial light. Those who lived in the Southern Hemisphere would get the best views. But if you got the chance to see Halley’s Comet, you may remember heading out to darker parks and fields, or outside your city to catch a glimpse. 

Regardless of visibility issues, Halley’s Comet was still a big event. Each night, major networks and programs like Nightline began their broadcast with updates and info on Halley’s Comet. NIGHTLINE CLIP

The legendary Carl Sagan was working overtime, appearing on many shows to discuss the comet and give us a better understanding of it. Ted Koppel and his terrible comb-over made sure to tell us ‌it should actually be pronounced “Holly’s Comet,” but by that point, calling it Halley’s Comet had already stuck. 

News reports would transition between stories of those who were still alive back in 1910 to get their experiences of it combined with the opinions of current-day kids. Halley’s Comet is unique because, despite the time between appearances, it’s just short enough to connect multiple generations. Back in 86, Grandparents could tell their children, grandkids, and even great-grandkids about their experience of seeing it. 

Halley’s Comet was something the older generations could share with us, the same way we will when it comes back around in 2061. But it was a remarkable thing to hear the impression it had on those people who had seen it back in 1910.

The kids of 1986 would experience Halley’s Comet in a much different way compared to those who were alive the last time it came by. We had grown up with Star Wars, Star Trek, Aliens, and so much space-related content that Halley’s Comet seemed familiar in a way that wasn’t possible for a kid back in 1910. But that’s not to say it wasn’t still astounding and amazed people of all ages. For school-age kids, Halley’s Comet was the chance to get them interested in space and science. There was even a lot of kid-related content leading up to the event.

Halley’s Comet revealed a startling change in the generations. Kids in 1910 didn’t know what to think of it; kids in 1986 knew everything about it and were learning more on a daily basis. 

Every generation–including up to 1910 were often terrified of Halley’s Comet. They weren’t able to explain what they were seeing, and why they were seeing it. In 1986, we knew better. In previous eras, they wondered if what they saw in the sky was the harbinger of doom. Why did it stay there for weeks at a time? Was it signaling the end of the world? A lot of that Comic Panic still remained in 1910. it was thought that Earth would pass through the tail of Halley’s Comet. And the fear was the gas in the tail was poisonous and could wipe out the entire human population. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.

In 1986, even small children knew Halley’s Comet was basically a gigantic dirty snowball that orbited our sun. Our understanding of this comet had grown so much as had our ability to communicate that information. In 1986, we were all able to learn about Halley’s comet from moving pictures on a box in our living room. We could watch Carl Sagan explain–via satellite–all the details to Ted Koppel and his ridiculous comb-over from the comfort of our own homes. 

 But eventually, like my love life, Halley’s Comet faded away. It would travel deeper into the solar system where it was n longer detectable by our telescopes. Now, we got to envision what the world would be like when Halley’s Comet would make its way back to us in 76 years. 

Final Thoughts

The story of Halley’s Comet is as much the story about our advancement as a species, and specifically, how much technology had improved going into 1986. Halley’s Comet allowed us to see what human beings are truly capable of. In that 76-year period from 1910 to 1986, we were indeed living in the future. But as vast as they will probably be, I honestly don’t think the technological advancements will be as profound in 2061 compared to how they were in 1986 compared to 1910. 

Even though it’s not yet 2061–and as advanced as our work in space has been–it doesn’t look drastically different from what we were doing in 1986. But that’s not to say people in 1986 wouldn’t be astounded at what we now have in 2022. We have helicopters flying on mars, we’ve landed on a comet, and have cars that can drive themselves. They’re not flying–but one step at a time.

And you may be reading this on a little computer you can carry around in your pocket. Even if you’re not, you no doubt own one of these little computers. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about anything that has ever existed can now be accessed by the little computer. I can video chat with someone from the other side of the world in real-time on this little computer. This was the sort of thing we dreamed about in the 80s. We have Star Trek technology. 

But I think the big difference is that in 1986; we were more likely to expect the advancements we now have. Maybe they don’t look exactly as we envisioned, but we knew things were heading in that direction. We were more aware of technology’s potential in 1986. In 1910, there was nothing that would indicate what would be possible the next time Halley’s Comet appeared. In 1986, we could now dream up the things we have today. Basically, we knew they were coming.

If you could transport someone from 1910 to 1986, I think they would be terrified and overwhelmed by the world they found themselves in. I’m just speculating, but I think that if‌ you were to make the jump from 86 to 2061–it would be somewhat recognizable and familiar. I just think the changes will be less drastic from 86 to 2061 compared to 1910 to 1986. Planes, rockets, TV, computers, sports cars, Space Shuttles, video games, satellites, space stations; this was all the stuff of science fiction in 1910–and many of those things were not even conceivable. But we had these things in the 80s; we still have them now; and there’s no doubt we’ll still have them in the future. This is what I mean when I say the future will probably be more recognizable. We often forget how far things had progressed in the 1980s. It’s easy to think of the 80s as just leg warmers and acid-washed jeans, but it really was a period of astonishing technological advancement. 

But it’s still amazing to think about where we might be in 2061 and how much more technology will advance and progress. 

In 1986, it’s like the comet came by at the perfect time for us to show off the advancements we had made. If there was anything alive on the comet with the capability of observing the earth, they wouldn’t even be able to recognize what our world was like in 1986 compared to the last time they swung by. 

Halley’s Comet allowed us to take a look at ourselves and recognize the astonishing progress we had made in less than a century. It allowed us to take stock of where we were and, hopefully, where we were heading. 1986 was a pretty good year. We were able to acknowledge all the progress we had made and there was a lot of hope for things to come. We can only hope that the next time Halley’s Comet comes around, we will find ourselves in a better place. 

And if Elon Musk is listening: It’s time to get to work on a flying Tesla. Young me from 1986 will appreciate it…


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