Astronomy’s History Trap

Last week, I wrote a blog post about the National Science Foundation’s plan to close several optical and radio telescopes as a cost-cutting measure. It clearly hit a nerve. Thanks largely to a reposting from Physics Today, more people – some 2200 – read this, more than any other I’ve written. (Only my chiding of Michio Kaku drew a similar number of readers). In response, several people wrote to me and noted the current plans in the United States to build a new optical telescope facility with light collecting area equivalent to a 30-meter mirror. Here’s my take on this…

There is quote typically attributed to Mark Twain that says, “History doesn’t repeat itself; but it does rhyme.” Regardless of whether Mr. Clemens actually said this, the fact is that astronomers today should be hearing all sorts of rhyming. But many aren’t and therein lies the problem.

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The more the merrier? Telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory (credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF)

There are two contenders for ground-based astronomy’s next big machine. The “Thirty Meter Telescope” project is spearheaded by scientists from Caltech and my own school, the University of California; institutions in India, Japan, China, and Canada also pledging funds to build it on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i. The heart of the telescope’s design is 492 mirror segments, each 1.45 meters in size, that would create a mosaic-like light collecting surface. Cost? Somewhere between $970 million and $1.2 billion. The Moore Foundation (started by Intel co-founder Gordin Moore) has so far pledged $250 million toward the TMT.

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Schematic of the Thirty Meter Telescope

Going head-to-head with the TMT is the Giant Magellan Telescope. Planned for a mountain site in Chile, the GMT’s cost is about the same as low-end estimates for the TMT. But the GMT’s design is radically different. It will instead use seven massive 8.4-meter mirrors to create the equivalent of a 30-meter telescope.1 The GMT consortium includes the Carnegie Institution of Science, Harvard, the Smithsonian, the University of Arizona, and several more.

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Artist’s rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope

It’s at this point that we should start to hear the rhyming sounds of history. Because thirty years ago, American astronomers were in exactly the same spot. And, from what I can tell, they didn’t learn as much as they could have from the experience. 

To wit: In the mis-1970s, the American astronomy community was in crisis. The traditional design model for large telescopes, based on the 200-inch Hale telescope on California’s Palomar Mountain, could no longer satisfy the financial constraints on and research expectations of the U.S. astronomy community. At the same time, the nation’s large telescopes were increasingly over-subscribed; simply observing faint objects for longer times was not feasible logistically.

Several ways forward were proposed. Kitt Peak National Observatory even developed initial designs for a 25-meter Next Generation Telescope.

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Credit: Rick Showalter/NOAO/AURA/NSF

When the 25-meter proved too ambitious, the national observatory scaled plans back to 15 meters. The problem? There were two competing designs for what was then called the National New Technology Telescope…is this starting to sound familiar?

Plan #1 – Build a telescope with a 15-meter light collecting area using 60 individual hexagonal glass segments to form the light collecting area. This design was championed by, yes, astronomers from Caltech and the University of California.

Plan #2 – Or…put four 7.5 meter mirrors on a common mount to create a total light gathering ability of a 15-meter telescope. This effort was pushed by researchers at – wait for it – the University of Arizona.

Are you hearing those echoes of the past yet?

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Segmented-mirror and multiple-mirror designs for the NNTT with a scale
model of the Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope.

So, what happened to the NNTT? At a meeting in July 1984, a blue ribbon panel of astronomers and engineers picked Arizona’s multiple-mirror design. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Less than a year later, the W.M. Keck Foundation gave Caltech $70 million to build a 10-meter telescopes in Hawai’i; funding to build a second followed.2

Meanwhile, NSF funding for the “victorious” NNTT was nowhere near as generous and, in 1987, the 15-meter national telescope project was killed. What arose from the ashes of the national 15-meter project was an international partnership to build two 8-meter telescopes. The first Gemini telescope in Hawai’i saw first light in 1999; its twin in Chile reached the same milestone in 2000. The result of all this astro-politicking: two privately operated 10-meter telescopes and two publicly accessible 8-meter telescopes. ((The whole story is way more complicated that I’ve summarized here. For example, Arizona’s mirror technology wasn’t used in either Keck or Gemini. Rather, it was used for the twin Magellan telescopes in Chile and the NNTT design was used, sort of, to build the Large Binocular Telescope in southern Arizona. Meanwhile, the Gemini telescopes were built using what are called “thin meniscus mirrors,” a third technological path that emerged in the 1980s.))

Today’s impasse over whether to build the TMT, the GMT, both, et cetera closely resembles the debates in the early 1980s about the National New Technology Telescope. To be sure, the past isn’t exactly repeating. Neither TMT nor GMT is envisioned as a publicly accessible facility. But the history does rhyme. Many of the actors (individuals  as well as institutions) that were so embroiled in that controversy/competition over how to best build today’s giant telescopes are implicated in today’s debates about which design and which partnership model is best for tomorrow’s bigger (gianter?) telescopes. (One quickly runs out of superlatives…large, overwhelmingly large, monster, etc…meanwhile, the European Southern Observatory’s its 40-meter mega-project with the anodyne name of the Extremely Large Telescope.)

Why should this ancient history – water under the bridge, one might say – matter to astronomers today? I can think of at least three reasons:

#1 – A billion dollars to build a new telescope – whether it comes from private donors or governments – is obviously a lot of money. This is thrice true when we’re talking about possibly building three 30-meter class facilities. If this means shuttering smaller ‘scopes, as the NSF is planning, than one has to consider the impact this could have on astronomy’s “have-nots” i.e. those people without access to privately-operated facilities.3 Will ever-larger research facilities affect how science is done? How many grad students or postdocs will have access to a 30-meter facility? Would they simply become folded into a much larger research program? The current generation of 8/10-meter class facilities clearly changed the practice of doing science…there’s every reason to expect 30-meter telescopes will do likewise.

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#2History seems to be poised to repeat itself…In the 1980s, while the U.S. community bickered over which design was best (and tried to raise the capital necessary to start building), the European science community slowly and methodically built an innovative series of telescopes. The culmination of this was the Very Large Telescope (again, the names…). This suite of four 8-meter telescopes in Chile helped put European astronomy on equal (some would say better) footing than their U.S. counterparts. Now, I’m not trying to make some nationalistic argument here. Astronomical research in the 21st century is certainly more international than it was three decades ago while new players (China, India, et al.) have entered the telescope game. But astronomers with whom I have spoken warn of a similar dynamic at work now…while the U.S. community dithers over whether to build TMT, GMT, whatever, the European community is gradually making progress towards its 40-meter goal. Americans’ fear is that their European competitors will be able to pick the low-hanging “astronomy fruit” that a new giant facility will put in reach.

#3 – Perhaps the most critical reason for thinking about all of this “history” is how today’s debates over which telescope to build affect the morale and spirit of the American astronomy community. How does this infighting reflect the community’s moral economy i.e. those unstated yet accepted rules that define and structure community interactions? The principal actors driving the TMT and GMT projects forward are leaders in the astrophysics community. How much energy and effort is being spent in sparring with one another and touting the benefits of one’s own design (and disparaging the neighbor’s). To a naif, this battling can seem downright ridiculous. Caltech and Carnegie are a few miles apart yet there might as well be a shark-filled canyon between them given the vitriolic statements I’ve heard from the two camps. The only point of agreement seems to be how the NSF has failed to provide necessary and adequate leadership in helping the U.S. get its act together.

Now, one could, of course, argue that a lesson to take away from all of this history is that it all turned out fine in the end. Keck was built, Gemini was built, et cetera…maybe the “market” for telescopes worked and things just naturally sorted themselves out. Maybe competition was a good thing…

But I am inclined to think it all worked in spite of things. More to the point, I think astronomers need to recognize how their history is rhyming and consider how not to repeat past mistakes. As I wrote this blog post, I kept thinking of how much of today’s circumstances resemble the situations I described in my book which is now already a decade old…but, as André Gide noted, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

  1. Three of these have so far been cast at the Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona. []
  2. All of this history is detailed in my 2004 book Giant Telescopessome of it is captured in this article. []
  3. Obviously, my splitting an entire scientific community into two camps is an oversimplification. There are researchers from Caltech who use the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s ‘scopes just as “have-nots” can sometimes compete for time at privately-operated Keck telescopes. The NSF even operated the “Telescope System Instrumentation Program” which would help fund “the development of instruments…for the private observatories, in exchange for which telescope time on those facilities will be made available to the community.” It’s unclear to me whether TSIP is still operating…The National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s page for the program doesn’t seem to have been updated recently…another NOAO page suggests that time is available in 2014 though. This page, however, has some interesting stats on the number of nights made available and the estimated costs. []

Apprehending the Artifact

MW patch

If you were a member of the Albuquerque Moonwatch team, you might have worn one of these.

Back in 2008, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center invited me to give a talk. Being somewhat of a space geek, this was pretty exciting. The occasion was the recent publication of my book Keep Watching the Skies: The Story of Operation Moonwatch & the Dawn of the Space Age (to keep it simple, “KWTS”).

Moonwatch was a program for amateur/citizen scientists that Fred L. Whipple, the director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, first organized in 1956 as part of the International Geophysical Year.

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Whipple in his Cambridge, MA office…note drawing of him in background on his bike (done by Don Menzel)

Whipple’s initial goal was to enlist the aid of amateur astronomers and other citizens who would help “real” scientists spot satellites. Whipple first imagined Moonwatch as a way for citizens to participate in science and as a supplement to professionally-manned optical and radio tracking stations. But when Sputnik I and II appeared suddenly in late 1957, Moonwatchers around the world found themselves an essential component of the professional scientists’ global tracking network. After the IGY ended, the Smithsonian maintained Operation Moonwatch (with some NASA funding) until 1975.

In the United States, enthusiasm for Moonwatch reflected was a thriving culture of amateur scientists (writer Jack Hitt has a new book on this called Bunch of Amateurs that I’ll review in a later post). During the Cold War, the United States also encouraged thousands of citizens to take part in the Ground Observer Corps, a nationwide program to spot Soviet bombers.

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Cover of The Aircraft Flash, the official ‘zine of the Ground Observer Corps during the early years of the Cold War

Finally, the enthusiasm and interest that teenagers and young adults had in science and technology – think Mr. Wizard – helped Moonwatch become a success. KWTS describes how Moonwatch brought together and combined these different facets of “Cold War culture” into a thriving activity for amateur scientists.1

Coming back to that NASA talk: one of the people who heard me speak was George Gliba, a NASA employee and amateur astronomer. George really liked hearing about Moonwatch and we exchanged some emails after my talk. A few years went by and then an email popped up in my in-box. George had found a highly desirable piece of evidence which had eluded me during the two years I was researching the book: an actual Moonwatch telescope. And he was offering it to me.

Now, one of the cool things about Moonwatch was the specially designed telescopes that team members used. Look at this drawing of one team:

MW team in action

Drawing of a Moonwatch team in action; taken from E. Nelson Hayes, Trackers of the Skies (Cambridge, MA: Howard A. Doyle Publishing Co., 1968).

Because using the telescope to look up for extended periods of time could give many satellite spotters neck pains, Moonwatch telescopes were designed so that users actually looked down and aimed their telescope at a fixed mirror.


To see up, you looked down.

This mirror reflected what was visible in the sky above and presented it to the observer. Arranging a group of properly outfitted observers in a line and overlapping their telescopes’ fields of view created, in effect, a virtual picket line across which a transiting satellite would have to cross.

At least two companies made telescopes that Moonwatchers could buy. For $49.50, one could buy a Satellite Scope, complete with mounting, directly from the Edmund Scientific Corporation. Edmund’s instrument featured a special eyepiece that gave a wide field of view. Meanwhile, its objective lens magnified the view at about five and half times. While many teams purchased commercially available instruments for satellite spotting, quite a few teams used telescopes their members assembled themselves. The Smithsonian encouraged, in fact, a simple design that a person already familiar with building tools to do amateur science could make. The parts for a homemade ‘scope cost around $30 and mainstream publications like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science published detailed instructions to build one.

While browsing on eBay, George had found a Moonwatch telescope made by a Japanese company called Micronta. These were made, as close as I can tell, starting around 1957. The Google-lator tells me that this company also made other inexpensive scientific instruments as well as clocks, slide rules and cameras. What was especially exciting to George (and me) is that a similar instrument is in the collection at Harvard’s History of Science Department. The “Harvard telescope” was none other than the one that Fred Whipple had owned for years – George was kindly offering me its sibling.

As I unpacked my “new” Moonwatch telescope, I thought of an essay that the late Princeton historian Michael Mahoney wrote in 2003. In “Reading a Machine,” Mahoney encouraged historians to think more seriously about material culture and to think about “things” as a complement to more familiar textual sources. As he put it, to think about “things is to think about society and the humans who constitute it. Disdain for visual and tactile modes of thinking can mean ignorance of ideas that vitally affect the human condition.” So – what did this particular object say?

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My Moonwatch telescope in its new home

My Moonwatch telescope arrived at my office looking both well-used and well-maintained. While the body of the ‘scope is metal, it’s attached to a sturdy wooden base that has received at least one coat of varnish. Its optics are similar to the ‘scopes that Edmund Scientific made – mine has a 6X magnification and a 12 degree field of view. The thick gnurled knobs would have made it easier for a person with gloves (or cold hands) to adjust and focus it. Meanwhile, the fixed mirror and achromatic lens at its end was protected with a hinged metal flap. The ideal telescope for satellite spotting was lightweight, small, and rugged with few moving parts. An average person could afford one. Loosening a knob on the right side of the Micronata ‘scope allows the thing to be collapsed and folded for easy transport. I can easily imagine someone packing it up and slipping it into their book bag or briefcase after spending a few hours on the Moonwatch front lines at dusk or dawn. Because not all Moonwatchers were amateur astronomers – many were initially recruited from the ranks of enthusiastic citizens but had little familiarity with telescopes – a Moonwatch telescope needed to be fairly simple and easy to repair.

Individual telescopes, however, were just one part of a much larger ensemble of people and gear. Consider this photograph which shows the Terre Haute Moonwatch team sometime in 1957:

Terre Haute team

Terre Haute Moonwatch team, summer 1957

40 men and women sit on benches or stand around them with their telescopes arrayed nearby. The photograph’s back label attests to the diverse backgrounds that Moonwatchers came from – secretary, accountant, heavy equipment operator, plant foreman. This group started out observing on folding chairs and temporarily mounted their telescopes on cheap tables. Eventually they had the luxury of satellite spotting from one of the best equipped and most comfortable Moonwatch stations in the world. Besides the satellite observing room, the station had a small room which housed timing gear and shortwave radio equipment.

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Inside the Terre Haute station; I’m assuming this is a publicity photo given the formal dress code.

Telescopes, like the one that George gave me, have stories. In Fort Worth, Texas, Charlie Mary Noble organized a Moonwatch team composed mostly of kids and young teens. From out of her house, she operated a unique lending library – instead of books, kids could check out telescopes. For fifty cents a week allowed a child to rent a good-quality reflecting telescope with a 4-inch mirror – large enough to start doing some serious amateur astronomy. She also loaned Moonwatch telescopes. One of these – identified only as #8 in correspondence with the Smithsonian – was believed lost after floods hit the Fort Worth area in the late spring of 1957. It had been loaned to a young boy who, when told to evacuate his home due to a levee breech nearby, placed it on high shelf in his room. The telescope floated out his window and bobbed along in its wooden case until someone fished it out and returned it, none too worse for wear, to Noble’s telescope library.2

“Reading a machine” means being aware of what an artifact might say about the person who designed it and the expectations of its users. I keep my Moonwatch telescope on a table next to my desk. I enjoy seeing it there when I come to the office in the morning. I don’t know what new stories this particular artifact might be able tell me. But I’m listening.

  1. Marcel LaFollette’s new book Science on American Television covers this topic nicely []
  2. The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History later named its planetarium after Noble []