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Alan D. Fiala (1942–2010)

Published onDec 01, 2011
Alan D. Fiala (1942–2010)

Dr. Alan Dale Fiala, astronomer and expert on solar eclipses, died on May 26, 2010 in Arlington, Virginia, of respiratory failure after a brief illness. He was 67. Fiala had been a staff astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., for his entire professional career, where he rose from a position as a summer intern to become the Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office, responsible for annual publications for astronomy and navigation that are used the world over. He retired from the observatory in 2000. Although a childhood case of polio affected his mobility for the rest of his life, he seldom let his physical constraints limit his activities, which were many and varied.

Alan Fiala was born in Beatrice, Nebraska on November 9, 1942, the middle son of Emil A. (“John”) and Lora Marie Fiala. Fiala’s father was a postal clerk and Civil Service examiner. Fiala expressed interest in astronomy at a very young age. He contracted polio when he was 9. He graduated from Beatrice High School in 1960 with a straight-A average and went on to study at Carleton College. He received his B.A. summa cum laude after three years, in 1963, with a major in astronomy and minors in physics and mathematics. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, and Pi Mu Epsilon (mathematics).

In 1962, Alan Fiala obtained a job as a summer intern at the Naval Observatory in Washington, working in the Nautical Almanac Office (NAO). He entered the graduate program at Yale University and continued to work summers at the observatory. He received his Ph.D. in 1968, under Gerald Clemence. His dissertation was titled “Determination of the Mass of Jupiter from a Study of the Motion of 57 Mnemosyne”.

After receiving his doctorate, Fiala became a permanent member of the Naval Observatory staff. Computers were just being introduced there and he participated in the automation of many procedures used to prepare the annual publications of the Nautical Almanac Office. One of his first assignments was to prepare a visual identification chart of the navigational stars to be used for backup navigation on Apollo 8 and several subsequent space missions.

In 1973, Alan Fiala was assigned to take over and modernize the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses. He developed software for calculating eclipse phenomena and generating eclipse maps that is still the basis of the computations at the observatory almost four decades later. As one of the world’s experts on eclipse calculations, he was the lead author of the chapter on eclipse calculations in the 1992 Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac, and was also the co-author of Canon of Lunar Eclipses 1500 B.C–A.D. 3000 with Bao-Lin Liu, the foremost Chinese expert.

In 1979, Alan Fiala began a collaborative effort with two other colleagues, supported by NSF and NASA, to observe solar eclipses in order to detect possible long-term variations in the solar diameter. Fiala pioneered the use of portable video cameras to record the disappearance and reappearance of the Sun from behind the Moon’s limb during an eclipse, as viewed from the edges of the central eclipse paths. He was the leader or co-organizer of expeditions to ten solar eclipses around the world and was the co-author of several articles on this project.

In 1996, Alan Fiala was appointed Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office. The office, which dates from 1849, is responsible for four annual publications that set the international standard for accuracy for positional astronomy and celestial navigation. Fiala made great progress in modernizing and standardizing the production process for the publications. He also began revision of the scientific basis of the books while adding complementary information on the Internet. Fiala was Chief of NAO during its sesquicentennial and, with Steven J. Dick, co-edited the Proceedings of the Nautical Almanac Office Sesquicentennial Symposium.

Alan Fiala received numerous awards during his career at the Observatory, including the Captain James Melville Gilliss Award for service. Minor planet 3695 Fiala was named in his honor on the occasion of his retirement in 2000.

Alan Fiala was elected to the International Astronomical Union in 1976. He was also a member of the American Astronomical Society, Institute of Navigation, and several other professional societies. He served as the chair of the AAS Division on Dynamical Astronomy during its 25th year.

Alan Fiala had many interests outside of astronomy, including sports car racing. He started as a member of a racing team and continued as a volunteer official in technical inspection for the Sports Car Club of America. He was generous with his time, serving as a leader of citizens groups in Northern Virginia and a national organization for people with post-polio syndrome. Other interests included genealogy, gardening, photography, cooking, travel, languages, literature, and the arts. He was also a master beekeeper.

Fiala is survived by his two brothers, John and Kent. He was buried in Odell, Nebraska, not far from his childhood home. Fiala will be remembered fondly by his many friends and colleagues, who will miss his good humor and his meticulous approach to any subject he wished to master. Fiala’s life was an inspiration to many, and he left behind a valuable legacy of work not just for astronomy, but also for the many organizations to which he donated his time.

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