Walter H. Haas (1917–2015)

Amateur astronomy has lost a true pioneer, a keen observer who founded the worldwide Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers.

Sometimes astronomy advances thanks to group efforts and sometimes due to the perseverance of a single individual. In the passing of Walter Haas on April 6th, we have lost someone who excelled at both. He died at age 97 of natural causes in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he had lived for decades.

Walter Haas in 1966

Walter Haas gets a turn at the eyepiece of Steward Observatory's 61-inch reflector on Mount Bigelow in Arizona. The occasion was the 1966 meeting of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, which he founded.
Steven Larson (courtesy Trudy E. Bell)

Haas devoted his entire life to the study of the Moon and planets. Growing up in tiny New Waterford, Ohio, Haas showed an early interest in astronomy that blossomed after spending a summer in Jamaica assisting the renowned planetary observer William H. Pickering. "Pickering, an advocate of a geologically active Moon, had a profound influence on Walter's early thinking," notes S&T Contributing Editor Tom Dobbins. Only 17 at the time, Haas returned to earn an undergraduate degree at Mount Union College in Ohio, where he spent countless nights observing with the school's 10-inch Saegmuller refractor.

At a time when professional astronomers held little regard for amateur observers beyond their meteor and variable-star reports, Haas changed the paradigm. First, he published (in 1938, at age 21) his in-depth observations of brightness changes around major lunar craters. Then, four years later, he followed with a four-part, 76-page opus titled "Does Anything Ever Happen on the Moon?" that appeared in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. These became the opening salvo in a lifelong quest "to arouse interest in a neglected branch of astronomy."

After World War II, Haas taught mathematics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and crunched the numbers at White Sands Missile range before ending up at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. He remained there from 1954 until his retirement in 1983.

S&T announces "The Strolling Astronomer"

The May 1947 issue of Sky & Telescope carried this announcement about the first publication of The Strolling Astronomer, soon to become the Journal of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers.
Sky & Telescope archives

His passion for solar-system observing never waned, and he typically devoted 500 hours per year to observing the Moon. On March 1, 1947, while still at UNM, he dispatched a self-produced 6-page newsletter titled The Strolling Astronomer. Haas already envisioned this simple missive becoming something bigger: it was subtitled "Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers" and branded with "Volume 1, Number 1." By the second issue, a month later, the budding ALPO had grown to 41 members. Within six years, the association boasted 350 members from all around the world.

Kind, gentle, and patient, Haas was nonetheless unfailingly meticulous and objective when observing — and he expected the same rigor of others, especially those who hoped to have their observations published in The Strolling Astronomer. Some of these contributors went on to careers in astronomy and planetary science in particular. "Walter Haas influenced generations of observers," notes longtime friend and science writer Trudy E. Bell, who proudly notes that her first article (aside from those in campus newspapers) appeared in the ALPO journal's June 1970 issue.

Meanwhile, the breadth and influence of ALPO itself flourished under Haas's leadership. More critically, the heightened visibility of amateur lunar and planetary observations paved the way for enduring professional-amateur collaborations (particularly in planetary studies) that continue today.

So does The Strolling Astronomer (now better known as the Journal of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers), the most recent issue of which includes articles on observing comets with giant binoculars and a review of claims for a dense atmosphere around Jupiter's moon Io.

Walter Haas in 2000

Walter Haas retired as ALPO's executive director in 1985 but continued to observe for two decades. Here he's seen relaxing at a gathering of amateur observers in 2000.
S&T: Dennis di Cicco

Haas retired as ALPO's Executive Director in 1985 but continued to serve on its Board of Directors. In fact, notes ALPO's Matthew Will, Haas continued to assist his successor, Ken Poshedly, in the proofing and fact checking papers submitted to the journal until about seven or eight years ago. And he kept observing with his trusty 12½-inch Newtonian reflector, typically a couple of times per week, until being sidelined by a broken hip in 2004 (suffered after observing that year's transit of Venus).

Although in failing health recently, Haas remained mentally sharp. "Many of us owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Walter for shaping lunar and planetary astronomy for what it has evolved into today," reads the notice on ALPO's website.

Let's hope that, in the not-too-distant future, the current generation of planetary scientists finds a suitable crater on the Moon to bear the name Haas.

3 thoughts on “Walter H. Haas (1917–2015)

  1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    Thanks for this warm and informative memorial. Wikipedia says Haas was born July 3, 1917, which would make him 97 years old (not 85) at the time of his death.

    1. Matthew_Will

      Thanks Kelly, for a wonderful biographical article about Walter H. Haas. Walter was a great guiding force for a lot of us of the post World War II era. His contributions to the astronomical community will be historic.

      Incidentally, I believe H. P. Wilkens tried unsuccessfully to name a crater after Walter Haas long ago. Wilkens’ 300 inch Map of the Moon produced in 1951 has crater “E” south of Mons Pico labeled “Haas”. I believe his naming of the crater was rejected shortly thereafter by the IAU.

      Best regards,
      Matthew Will, Secretary ALPO

    2. jthansen

      In 1972 I attended a joint meeting of the WAA (Western Amateur Astronomers) and the ALPO in Riverside California. I was only 17 at the time. There was a separate meeting of the ALPO conducted by Charles (Chick) Capen for all attending ALPO members of which I was one.
      Setting in the front row I saw Tom Cave, of Cave Telescope , enter the room and approach Chick Capen. Overheard him ask Chick, “I thought Walter ( Haas) was suppose to be here?”
      Chick Capen replied, “Walter’s been very ill this year, I’m afraid he’s not going to be with us much longer”.

      Like Mark Twain saying “News of his death was highly exaggerated”, I finally met Walter Haas in 1987 (a year after Chick Capen passed away) at another meeting of the ALPO in Pomona California. I found him to be a very
      friendly and genial man. He also out lived Tom Cave who passed in 2003.

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