The NASA Infrared Telescope

The first I heard of a possible NASA infrared telescope was at a meeting at JPL in 1969 which Bill Brunk called to consider its desirability and, given that, how one might define the desirable site qualities, and seek the best place to build it. A primary outcome of that meeting (at which about 30 people were present) was that a site-evaluation scheme was to be designed and used at a number of candidate sites. This was supposed to be done expeditiously but after a year had passed without any progress by the individual who had eagerly volunteered to undertake the survey, Brunk turned it over to Jim Westphal. Jim quickly established a survey covering sites in California (White Mountain), Arizona, Chile, Mexico’s Baja California, and Mauna Kea – perhaps there were one or two others. It was all done circumspectly with the data being reduced at an independent site and close attention given to preventing bias. The result was that Mauna Kea showed the best inherent qualities. However some questions arose about Westphal’s testing approach and it was suggested that the recommendation for Mauna Kea be reconsidered. The issue was finally resolved by a committee chaired by Jesse Greenstein which reviewed the two remaining proposals (from Arizona and Hawaii) and handed down a decision in Hawaii’s favor.

The subsequent contractual agreement between NASA and the University of Hawaii to build the facility provided for a NASA-appointed outside group to oversee the design and generally advise the University of Hawaii. This was fine with me; I recognized our own shortcomings all too well and it was, after all, to be a nationally-available facility. The three people appointed by NASA to advise us were Frank Low, Gerry Neugebauer, and Fred Gillett. Of these Fred was the most actively involved and was, throughout, always a positive influence, invariably acting with the best interests of the science in mind and never hesitating to express his opposition to anything he felt was wrong, while freely suggesting alternatives.

One of the first decisions facing us was the selection of a telescope designer. There were few people experienced in this esoteric field and the large companies that might be possibilities were likely to be beyond the means of this tightly-budgeted project. By far the best for us would be to enlist the Kitt Peak engineering staff. They were experienced, they had no big projects underway, they had credibility with the community, they would be far less expensive, and we had good and close relations with them. So I went to Tucson to ask Leo Goldberg (the Kitt Peak Director) for his agreement to this plan. His engineering and senior scientific staff members were eager to participate but for some reason Leo turned us down – as I recall he pleaded the need for his staff to focus on large new telescopes. I urged him to reconsider but without success. Perhaps I could have been more persistent both directly and through his staff though I have no reason to think that I would have been successful. But Leo’s decision was fateful to the history of this project.

Having concluded that the Kitt Peak avenue was closed we advertised the design opportunity and received two responses. The selection procedure had been formalized in the decade since we had begun the 88-inch; basically it amounted to our naming a Selection Board and solemnly taking a vote. This we duly did – three voted for Charles Jones (the designer of many telescopes including our 88-inch) while I voted for the other bidder since I was concerned that Jones was in bad repute with influential members of the astronomical community and I feared opposition if we selected him – a fear that turned out to be well-founded..

The Advisory Committee had endorsed the concept of a yoke mounting as being stiffer than alternatives, such as a fork, and so allowing the telescope better to follow the extremely faint (sometimes invisible) infrared sources across the sky during the course of an observation. The yoke design came with the disadvantage that a part of the sky (near the north celestial pole) was blocked from view, though in fact there were few if any sources in that area that attracted much attention. A short time after Jones began work, Hans Boesgaard (who was the project engineer) told me that Jones had concluded that a fork mounting would in fact be just as stiff and had recommended that we go that way. I had some trouble seeing this but in the end I agreed to submit the suggestion to NASA. The Advisory Committee members were quite convinced that Jones was wrong in his assessment and I must say that their arguments were cogent. Neither Bill Brunk nor I was going to go against the beliefs of the community representatives without a very solid case, and Bill therefore asked JPL’s engineers to take a look at the question. This they did and Bill and I read their report as agreeing with Jones’ assessment and on that basis Bill said that we could go ahead with the changed mounting concept. Later the JPL engineers said that their report had not in fact constituted an endorsement of Jones’ recommendation but this miscommunication was unfortunate since there is no way that Bill Brunk or I would have agreed to the change without a clear understanding that the objectives of the project could still be met. Whatever the rights or wrongs of that matter, however, it was clearly a mistake to have gone ahead with the changed mounting concept since it put us at cross purposes with much of the infrared community and for little if any gain.

Bill had enlisted JPL’s engineers to oversee Jones’ design work. This did not sit well with Charlie and there was continuing friction between the two groups. Charlie was an old-time engineer, bred out of the 200-inch Palomar era and basically a slide-rule man. The JPL people were naturally of an entirely different and far more sophisticated generation. Meanwhile the Advisory Committee remained unconvinced that we were heading in the right direction. Fred Gillett regularly attended the design review meetings at JPL as the representative of the Advisory Committee, and I think was becoming reconciled to the change. At least as time went on he would tell me that he was ‘feeling a lot better about the telescope’.

And so the design progressed, with the JPL engineers complaining with some justice about Jones’ resistance to their requests and suggestions. However, because of the lingering concern in the community the NASA Space Science office decided to hold a meeting in Washington to review the status of the project. Present were the Advisory Committee members, UH representatives (Mel Dyck, Dale Cruikshank, the Project Manager, and me), and a large contingent from NASA. The meeting was decidedly confrontational; the main results were the appointment of a committee to review the major items of contention – the type of mounting, the performance of the designer and the continuation of our project manager over whom there was a lot of unhappiness.

The outcome of the meeting was the appointment of a committee to review the status and future of the program; our representatives were Hans Boesgaard and Mel Dyck. Hans came under strong pressure to deny the project while Mel resigned in protest to the whole affair. I guess that the committee made a report but the whole review process was conducted without any input invited from me. While this review was going on I was urged by an impeccable source in NASA Headquarters to go to Washington so that I could combat misrepresentations of our actions that were coming from a person who had been close to the project and who ‘was stabbing me in the back in the interest of advancing his own career’. But the atmosphere was so poisoned that Bill Brunk advised me against this and I did not go.
The deputy to the head of the Space Science Office at NASA (Tony Calio) had been given responsibility for the enquiry. He became upset with Bill and me over what he heard and indeed threatened draconian actions for what he had been persuaded, quite unjustly, was Bill’s lack of oversight. Finally I was summoned to NASA and informed of their decision to allow the project to proceed only if some basic changes were made – mainly that we transfer the design responsibility from Jones to JPL and select a new project manager acceptable to NASA. In fact I was happy to have a good project manager and JPL were well set up to design the telescope. Above all, the telescope was alive which outcome had been far from certain. I had been determined to see it built on Mauna Kea since it represented a vital component of the growth of astronomy on the mountain and was a central factor in the Institute’s future – to say nothing of its enormous importance to the national effort in infrared astronomy. For all these reasons I felt a responsibility to do all I could to see it through and if this meant some discomfort for me that was a price I was fully prepared to pay. I was offered a choice of two people from JPL for Project Manager – by this time it was late in the year 1976 – and I chose Gerry Smith who did a superb job.
There was, however, one more sting in the Project’s tail: soon after Gerry’s arrival the primary mirror cracked while in the Kitt Peak shop being figured. This disaster predictably set off a mad scramble to assign blame. Fortunately this could not be put on me since the mirror had been assigned to us by NASA. However those who opposed the project raised the question as to whether the whole thing should now just be scrapped. This was taken up at a meeting in Tucson convened by NASA. I was told that the mood was strongly for discontinuing the project but fortunately for American astronomy Leo Goldberg argued against this and it was decided to continue.

And continue we did – with Gerry leading a revitalized team working together we made excellent progress. I had in the meantime been able to hire Rich Capps who gave a restored credibility to the project as well as much-needed instrumentation expertise and with a successful conclusion nearing I was fortunate enough also to hire Eric Becklin as the first Director of the new facility. Eric’s arrival not only solidified the credibility of the project but gave powerful momentum to the infrared science program at the Institute – always a central goal for me. Through the high dedication of the group we were able to complete the facility in time to get 5 micron images of Jupiter and so to meet a basic goal on which the project had initially been justified –a goal that had seemed hopelessly remote in the Spring of 1977 when the new team was formed. Early results bearing out the promise of the IRTF on Mauna Kea included studies of the volcanoes on Io and infrared detection of lensing galaxies in a double QSO.

There is an entertaining postscript. Several years later, in the early 1980’s and well after the telescope had been commissioned, Tony Calio (by then no longer in NASA) visited Mauna Kea and made a point of coming to see me at the Institute afterward. He told me that he had been ‘blown away’ with what he saw on Mauna Kea, that he had never realized what an immense achievement it had been. He essentially apologized for the trouble he’d given me – I remember his actual words were ‘you must have felt like taking a tire iron to my head’