A Brilliant Opportunity

Oceanography was the flag that was nailed to the University of Hawaii masthead and while this was natural enough it rather placed our little effort in the shade. The University’s attitude was certainly reasonable – the national mood favored a period of exploration of “inner space” and a focus on the oceans was a key topic. Still, the inherent quality of the high Island peaks for nighttime, as well as daytime, observing was capturing national attention.

Dick Hansen had introduced me to Mauna Kea quite early in the piece, his interest having been sparked by the site survey that Arizona’s Gerard Kuiper was carrying out for NASA, which was considering a large telescope in the Islands to support their program of planetary exploration. As he viewed its nighttime summit from Haleakala (where he had begun his survey), Kuiper came to believe that Mauna Kea could well be an even better site and perhaps the matchless one that he had been seeking. To follow this up, he enlisted the support of the Hilo Chamber of Commerce – and particularly of its Secretary, Mitsuo Akiyama, to establish a presence in the city as a start of his pioneering study. At the same time, he used his ample powers of persuasion to convince Governor Burns to build a path to the summit so as to test its astronomical quality. This road, constructed in 1963, was nothing more than a rudimentary track, very rough and very steep, but one with which we were to become only too familiar! With access thus obtained, Kuiper, in early 1964, set up a small site-testing dome on Puu Poliahu and sent one of his staff to obtain observations of the seeing during a period of about six months in 1963/4.

I had known Kuiper slightly on the mainland and renewed my acquaintance with him in the fall of 1964 when he visited the HIG Director, George Woollard, to discuss a potential role for the University of Hawaii in the proposed NASA-funded telescope. I was invited to attend these talks, though having just arrived at the University I was not well-equipped to participate. Nor, for that matter, was I eager to do so since I had my hands full with the Mees instrumentation, to say nothing of my ongoing research projects both in Hawaii and in Boulder. I suppose I was included in the talks because I knew a few people at NASA (though none in the Planetary Office) and was the closest thing the University had to an astronomer. It was understood that the University of Arizona would build and operate the proposed telescope and that the State of Hawaii would provide the essential infrastructure, in particular a road and electric power supply. There was no evident and well-defined role for the University in all this: we had no astronomers on the faculty, and no plans to hire any. The State would clearly expect some recompense for the heavy expenditures it would incur in supporting the development of Mauna Kea, however, and some role for the University might be a way (though certainly not the only way) to satisfy this expectation if we could define something that made sense.

Being in the midst of these negotiations, we were somewhat puzzled when, in early November of 1964, Hiatt received a letter from Don Menzel, Director of the Harvard College Observatory, asking a number of questions about Mauna Kea as a possible site for a NASA-sponsored telescope. Hiatt wrote to NASA requesting some clarification and suggested that a meeting should be held among the interested parties. As a result a meeting was scheduled for early December 1964. A large contingent from NASA was present, led by Deputy Administrator Homer Newell, while Menzel, Hiatt, Woollard and I completed the group. The meeting had been called at short notice and Kuiper had been unable to reschedule his other commitments. NASA’s Urner Liddell explained that their approach had been based on the (surely reasonable) belief that it was essential to find a university with the managerial capability and professional staff to build and operate such a facility. With that in mind he had earlier discussed the project with people at Harvard, Arizona, and other prominent University observatories, but only Kuiper and Menzel had expressed interest. He fully understood that there could be no decision without Hawaii’s concurrence.

Menzel’s concept was that Harvard would be responsible for building an 84-inch telescope, and while the programmatic demands would dictate that its primary emphasis be for planetary studies it would nevertheless be configured to pursue work in extra-solar system astronomy as well. Menzel thought that the telescope could be built for a total of about $3 million, which was consistent with NASA thinking. At the meeting it became clear that, as we had all along assumed, NASA would only provide the money for the instrument itself and that the rest (buildings, roads, power and other utilities) would have to be found elsewhere. In addition, NASA made it clear that they would look to the University to indicate its preference for a partner for the project and Bob Hiatt in turn asked me to make a corresponding recommendation to him.

As fate would have it, after this meeting I stopped over at Sacramento Peak on my way back to Honolulu to talk to Dick Dunn about the ongoing reduction and analysis of our 1962 New Guinea eclipse data for which I was responsible. I also wanted to consult him about the coronagraphic instrumentation that he was helping us define for Mees as well as details on the upcoming (May 1965) solar eclipse that I was eager to observe. I took the opportunity to talk to Jack Evans (the SPO Director) about the decision I was facing on the NASA telescope and Jack suggested that Dick be brought in on our discussion. Dick, learning about the situation for the first time, asked simply, “Why don’t you do it yourself?”- a response as brilliant in its simplicity as it was outrageous in concept. Given the complete absence in my background of anything even remotely approaching this, I couldn’t see how I could write even a faintly credible proposal. But Dick assured me that it was just a matter of finding a good designer; there would be plenty of time to hire the necessary in-house expertise. He mentioned the name of a telescope designer in whom he had developed great confidence during the design and construction of the large solar tower at Sacramento Peak that now bears Dunn’s name. We called this person, Charles W. Jones, who mentioned that he was currently designing a large (108-inch) telescope for the University of Texas – a project that was also supported by NASA – but he thought the schedule that I had tentatively suggested would work out fine.

The simple remark that Dick had made opened a curtain on a landscape of unbelievable promise. Of course, to persuade the University (to say nothing of the State of Hawaii and NASA) to adopt such a hazardous course would not be easy, but I was exhilarated beyond measure as I flew back to Honolulu to share it all with my wife – whose response was enthusiastic and encouraging.

By the following morning I had cooled off noticeably, however. A successful proposal could have an immediate and negative impact on our solar program (as, unfortunately, proved to be the case), and the whole thing could become a monumental disaster, embarrassing to me but more significantly to the University and NASA itself. Still I had to make a recommendation and eventually decided to introduce Woollard and Hiatt to this idea of proposing on our own. They were understandably skeptical – even aghast – but I persuaded them that we should call NASA to sound them out. We did so and found them surprisingly receptive. This, of course, did not guarantee any particular outcome – it would have been difficult for NASA not to accept a proposal from us – but following this conversation Hiatt accepted the idea and suggested that, if I really wanted to go ahead with it, I should consider preparing a proposal.

I don’t suppose there was ever any question that I would go after this glittering opportunity, but in any case I did set about drafting a proposal in early January 1965 – taking advantage of the generosity and goodwill shown by a lot of people at mainland observatories with both solar and nighttime interests. Especially important was Dick Dunn’s conceptual design for the telescope mounting – a “bent fork” that was incorporated into the proposal and, in the event, was the basis for the final design.

With the input of these friends and colleagues the technical part of the proposal turned out to be relatively straightforward, but the organization of the effort within the University of Hawaii gave me more problems. In particular I wanted the University to commit to the formation of a separate Institute, parallel to the HIG, within which the project would fall and which, more broadly, would be a center for an academic program in astronomy within the University. The administration, however, demurred on this major step.

The proposal[1], as it finally went in to NASA, thus contained no mention of a new Institute, but it did commit the University to give attention to the “creation of a new administrative unit, to carry out the project and to create an astronomical teaching and research program”. It also promised that we would press the State to set aside enough land to ensure the integrity of the new facility, and accepted a State obligation to construct an adequate infrastructure – though the human stress and conflict that was, in the event, required to realize this could never have been dreamed of in those innocent days. Our draft proposal had envisaged two telescopes, the 84-inch and one smaller (36-inch) instrument to support it, but this latter was eliminated at NASA’s request. The contribution envisaged from the State of Hawaii included support buildings – at Hale Pohaku and at or near sea level – a road, and a power line. The State was also to provide “State government positions for astronomers and specialist engineers.”

For the times this was to be a major facility – there were very few larger. In retrospect it is remarkable how quickly the whole contracting process was brought to completion, how efficiently everyone worked, and with how little fuss. I remain astonished at how much had been decided in such a short time through the vigor, purpose, and excitement of all those involved. A bare nine months after arriving at the University I found myself responsible for building a major telescope – surely it was symptomatic of the times.

By June 1965 all the negotiations with NASA had been completed. The University administration was fully aware of what it was getting into and must have been concerned at the prospect of such a responsibility being in such untried hands. But on July 1, while I was vacationing on a pristine beach on Maui long since covered in condominiums, Hiatt called to tell me that it was all signed – that I had been given $3 million and the responsibility of building a telescope with it – quite probably on Mauna Kea whose high elevation and hostile environment made it a daunting prospect.

This was now no longer a paper exercise; an immediate task was to identify the skills needed to make it a reality – scientific, engineering, and administrative. We would then have to persuade people to take a gamble in joining us in a risky project far away from the national centers of astronomy. Nor did it help that the University was intimately tied to a State bureaucracy whose ways were of the 19th century. Not, on the whole, a promising environment for our new venture. Nevertheless the University and State administrations were enthusiastic – this was exactly the sort of thing the Governor had been working toward and hoping for.

1. A copy of this proposal – dated February 1965 – has survived. It is inconceivably modest by today’s standards, totaling 25 pages including the cover, signature, and budget pages as well as line drawings for the proposed telescope!